James Lawton: 'You never stop fighting Fergie – or respecting him'
The world of football hailed Sir Alex Ferguson's 2,000th game as a manager yesterday. Our writer was there to hear the tributes to Manchester United's indefatigable leader
Almost all of them were there, the great and the good and the unemployed of English football, in the big old hotel on London's Park Lane yesterday and for one day at least there was not a single eddy of dissension or grief.
Fabio Capello, Carlo Ancelotti, who was sitting with his former English "Man Friday" Ray Wilkins, Martin O'Neill, Avram Grant, Sam Allardyce, Alex McLeish and Alan Pardew, and some gnarled old figures of the past who were lightly described by the guest of honour as the "coffin dodgers", all raised their glasses to the life and the continuing times of Sir Alex Ferguson.
The tribute cut through all the often acrid divisions of the game and if it was ostensibly to celebrate Ferguson's latest milestone – the managing of more than 2,000 professional games – there was a rock-hard consensus about the real meaning of the event staged by a League Managers Association, currently campaigning to improve and dignify the status of the men who operate in the trenches of a game which, at its highest level, has never been richer – or more desperate to eke out a little success.
It was that English football has never known a manager so relentless in his ambition and so driven in his passion for competition as the one who, in his 70th year now, has something in hand as his team edge closer to a stunning 12th Premier League title and, who knows, another winning foray in Europe.
Of course, Ferguson knows, as his rivals do, that that there is so much football to play, so many hurdles still to pass, but it was as though another measurement was being made on this day when so many rivals, for one day at least, were laying down their arms.
Arsène Wenger, Ferguson's most obdurate and brilliant rival in the years of United's dominance and the only other leading Premier manager to pass on the lure of the transfer window, was absent but this didn't mean that Ferguson went without recognition from the rival empire of Arsenal.
George Graham, who many feel provided the foundation of Wenger's brilliant work with his relentless attention to the need for the sternest defence in his own title-winning days, recalled the time 25 years ago when he emerged with Ferguson as one of the leading new players in the management of English football.
"He came down from Aberdeen with his great success and reputation and I had done well at Millwall, a difficult job, and was appointed at Arsenal, and I thought: 'I can't wait to compete with this man. I can learn so much from him.' Then we went to Old Trafford on a great run and the moment had come. What happened? We had a fight in the tunnel.
"You never stop fighting with Alex Ferguson but nor can you stop respecting him. You look at his achievements, you look at his hunger to go on winning, and you have to say that there is no one like him in the game."
The LMA chairman, Howard Wilkinson, who as manager of Leeds United stole a title from under Ferguson's nose before the new Old Trafford empire was truly set in place, said that it was maybe true that Ferguson was not the greatest coach in the game, "but he knows who is". Wilkinson said that perhaps he wasn't the best spotter of players, "but he knows who is".
It left the notably unsentimental Yorkshireman with the strong suspicion that Alex Ferguson was probably the best manager in the world – because of the competitive values he instilled, the example he set. How else, wondered Wilkinson, could you explain the careers of men like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and the newly retired Gary Neville? They were not just players of phenomenal consistency and longevity; in the new football they were "extinct" animals given extended life by the extraordinary leadership of the man who had shaped their careers.
Ferguson's great chronicler, the sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney, referred witheringly to the early scepticism over Ferguson's ability to carry his success with Aberdeen on to the Old Trafford stage, citing the critic who reminded us that success off-Broadway was no guarantee of reviews when the show came to the big and toughest street.
McIlvanney talked about the influence of Glasgow, the values Ferguson acquired as he trained to be a toolmaker – and the huge influence of Big Jock Stein. Ferguson inherited, most significantly, the great Celtic manager's belief in the importance of character in the dressing room, how you knew you had a team when one of your players could sit between two team-mates happy in the knowledge that they were meeting a great challenge in each other's company.
Then Ferguson spoke of his life and his passions – and his gratitude to the "coffin dodgers" still around the game, who have survived all the chairmen and the "TV guys" because football was at the centre of their lives, as it would always be for him.
He talked of his chairman at East Stirling in the desperate early days, who was so grateful for a revenue-eking Cup victory over Forfar he kissed him in the urinals in the back of the stand – the same chairman who eventually confessed to the new manager preparing for a new season that he had just eight players signed – and no goalkeeper.
Ferguson told him that it was a good start to have a goalkeeper.
The manager talked of his father's insistence that he and his brother Martin were never late for school or work and how that call in his ear remains as strong as ever each day he wakes up.
It is something he preaches to the players of today, "the players who are given everything, who are cocooned," and who have to be taught about their good fortune and that if they do not come to training with eagerness and pleasure they are really heading nowhere.
When Ferguson's teacher took him aside and pointed out that his schoolwork would not carry him to university, that he had to get a job, he said to himself that he would have to make the best of anything that came to him.
He would have to fight to be something, whatever it was. There was a need to hold your head up.
Wilkinson recalled a late night discussion among some of the "coffin dodgers," when the good red wine was flowing and the cigars were lit. It came to centre on who was the most hated man in football. Jim Smith, the fine old football man who was a legend of his times for getting the best out of limited resources, held his counsel for a little while. Others, including Ferguson, made their nominations.
Then Smith turned to the manager of Manchester United and said: "Didn't you know? You're the fucking one. You keep on winning."
Smith was in the big room yesterday, as wry and knowing as he always was. He was also on his feet with the rest when the toast was made. Hate, in football as in any field of conflict, is a relative term. Ferguson had plainly outrun most of it – at least for a day.