Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Down Memory Lane: Govan grit is Fergie's secret

If Sir Alex Ferguson didn't realise the esteem in which he is held he certainly does now after thousands of good luck messages poured in to celebrate 20 years as Manchester United manager - the undisputed King of Old Trafford.

If Sir Alex Ferguson didn't realise the esteem in which he is held he certainly does now after thousands of good luck messages poured in to celebrate 20 years as Manchester United manager - the undisputed King of Old Trafford.

The climax came yesterday when almost 30 managers - among them Martin O'Neill, Kenny Dalglish and Bobby Robson - toasted this legendary football icon in champagne at Manchester's Hilton Hotel.

It was quite a party.

Twenty years - a phenomenal record of longevity in the ruthless commercial-driven world that is top-level football. Fergie is of course a phenomenal character, and, on a personal note a genuine friend.

When I first met him almost 40 years ago he was the lean, hard, rumbustious Rangers centre-forward known as "Elbows" for he moved about the pitch with his arms flailing.

As a boy he was Rangers "daft" yet despite a brilliant career in Scottish youth football, he only arrived at Ibrox after an apprenticeship with Queen's Park, St Johnstone and Dunfermline who transferred him in July 1967 for £60,000 to Rangers.

Two years later he left after a fall-out with manager Davie White following the 4-0 Scottish Cup defeat by Celtic, White claiming he failed to mark Billy McNeill for the first goal.

He had a spell at Falkirk, then managed by Willie Cunningham, the Northern Ireland defender, and his managerial route took him via East Stirling, St Mirren and Aberdeen where he made a decisive impact ending the invincibility of Rangers and Celtic winning the Scottish League Championship, four Scottish Cups and the European Cup Winners Cup.

The route led him to the Theatre of Dreams.

What sort of person is this giant who struggled for the first four years and, thanks to the support of former chairman Martin Edwards he was retained and of course the rest is history climaxed by that fabulous European Cup, League and FA Cup treble?

Nobody is more proud of being Scottish than Fergie, frequently taunting the English media who have a love-hate relationship with him by describing the Scots as "The Master Race".

He wears full Highland dress on special occasions particularly at the prestigious Caledonian Club in London and when his mobile phone rings you are greeted by the first few bars of Scotland The Brave. In his office there is a plaque with the words "Ah Cum Fae Govan!"

He has never forgotten his roots either. Brought up in a tenement amidst the shipyards of the Clyde where his father worked, he always remembers those difficult days. His parents certainly influenced his life.

He possesses many of their characteristics including an obsession with punctuality - in five years as a toolmaker at a Glasgow typewriter factory he was never late.

He is first to report at the training headquarters and for me an early morning wake-up call could be from Alec inquiring how things are going in Ireland or asking if I'd come across any new books on the history of old Glasgow. As Glaswegians nostalgia grips us about the city of our birth.

Fergie like the late Jock Stein "the Big Man" as he called him doesn't stand fools gladly - fools are not welcome and if drivel is talked he will say so.

Yet beneath that steel cushion there is a man of deep principle, genuine sincerity and with a humanitarian touch. Rarely as he refused an invitation to attend functions in Northern Ireland but which he has an especially warm feeling.

Another example of his thoughtfulness is a letter sent to Newcastle United manager Glen Roeder when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. "It was handwritten and his sentiments gave me great courage at a dark moment," said Roeder.

He is single-minded, can be forthright and brusque although the famous hairdryer treatment, a description first given by Mark Hughes and to which many superstars have been subjected has virtually vanished. The constant gum-chewing at matches continues.

Fergie, 65 on New Year's Eve in 2002 hinted at retirement but changed his mind after a talk with Sir Bobby Robson who revealed: "I told him 'you've built this dynasty at Old Trafford. Why give it up for somebody else? Keep on going.' " And that's what he'll do while ahead of the game.

I've been fortunate to have known the other top managers of the post-war era - Bill Shankly, Brian Clough, Bill Nicholson, Bob Paisley, Sir Alf Ramsey, Matt Busby, Jock Stein. The greatest? It's impossible to make comparisons although on statistics alone Paisley with the European Cup triumphs must lead the field.

Three European Cups! I wonder is that a record which Sir Alex, always wanting to be a winner hopes to emulate in the twilight of his career. Then there would be no disputing who is the top man!

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