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Northern Ireland audience captivated as Sir Alex Ferguson reveals his life skills

By Steven Beacom

You could have heard a pin drop. Sir Alex Ferguson was speaking inside Craigavon Civic Centre and the hundreds of people in attendance were sitting silently in awe.

Such is the esteem in which he is held, the iconic Scot could have been reciting names from the phonebook and there would have been a stillness in the room.

As it was, the former Manchester United boss, who won two European Cups, 13 Premier League titles and a host of other trophies in a glittering 27-year spell at Old Trafford, was speaking about the great influences in his life, some of the great players he had managed and what made him one of the greatest leaders in sport.

It was a fascinating insight delivered by one of football's most engaging and celebrated characters.

The 75-year-old was in Northern Ireland as the keynote speaker for an event staged to increase mental health awareness and organised by ex-United defender Pat McGibbon.

Four years ago in a bid to promote positive mental health through sport, Lurgan-born McGibbon founded the local charity Train to be Smart (TTBS) in tribute to his brother Phillip, who took his own life when Pat was a player under Ferguson at Old Trafford.

Yesterday, Ferguson commended McGibbon on the outstanding work he is doing. Also speaking in Craigavon was former Manchester City star Paul Lake, who has an important player welfare role in the English Premier League.

Lake plus other special guests including Linfield boss David Healy, Blues goalkeeper Roy Carroll, Derry GAA great Anthony Tohill and everyone else were all ears as ex-Aberdeen supremo Ferguson addressed the audience.

He spoke about those who influenced his early years including a primary school teacher and Boys Brigade Officer, before talking with enthusiasm and pride about his first big footballing mentor - Celtic legend Jock Stein, who led the Hoops to European Cup glory 50 years ago.

Outlining his relationship with Stein, Ferguson, who first became a manager at 32 with East Stirling, said: "I was fortunate that I became assistant manager to Jock Stein (with Scotland) and he was fantastic. I looked upon him as a man who I learnt so much from. His humility was so impressive, as was his intelligence and his networking. It stood with me all my life.

"We would go to the hotel on a Saturday night and he never drank, he never smoked and he never slept. He was incredible. You would be talking to him about football into the early hours of the morning.

"I would be sitting with him and ask him about the tactics he used to beat Inter Milan in the 1967 European Cup final and the thing that impressed me most about him was that he never took any praise for himself. He would always say, 'Och we had great players, people like Bobby Murdoch, Jimmy Johnstone and others'. He never took praise himself. It was all about the players and that was a great lesson about keeping your feet on the ground."

Ferguson sees his fellow United director and 1966 World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton in the same mould.

He said: "Bobby Charlton is another great man with great humility. He is a role model and a good friend. What a career he had - the best English player of all time, the best Manchester United player although people would argue that was George Best of course. Bobby is a fantastic person and it's great to be inspired by people like that. We should look at them as people we learn from and guide us."

Ferguson chose to highlight the work ethic of two of his former stars during his speech - French striker Eric Cantona, an inspirational figure in Sir Alex's first title success at Old Trafford in 1993, and Cristiano Ronaldo, now at Real Madrid and considered one of the best footballers ever.

"I had great fortune as a manager to work with some great players and there is one thing that always stood out about the great players - they work harder than anyone else," said Ferguson.

"Eric Cantona came to the club and on his first day he said to me, 'can I have two players, a goalkeeper and some balls?' and I asked him, 'What for?' and he said to practice. I said, 'of course'.

"All the players had to follow Cantona and it was a great example for the youngsters. It became part of the practice ethic of United.

"Later on I had this incredible guy called Ronaldo. He was unbelievable. There was one day it was pouring rain, the ground was soft and we were playing Arsenal the next day and I said to him, 'right in you go' and he said, 'okay boss'.

"I was in my office and he was out there practicing on the AstroTurf. That's why he is one of the best in the world. He's the fittest player, the strongest player, he really is incredible."

If Ferguson loved players who went that extra mile, it was because he was more than willing to do it himself.

"You set standards in life and what I always tried to do was set the best standards and at United the consistency was always there. Consistency removes confusion," he said.

"Working hard is probably the best talent you can have in your life and when you work hard you have a chance.

"You have to sacrifice. I did. It had to be that way to be the best. I never changed, I never got carried away with success. Always the next trophy was the best one."

Following his inspiring speech, Ferguson met boys and girls from the TTBS football teams during participation games at the Lurgan Town Arena. What a thrill that must have been for them - and their parents.

And what a testament to the efforts of Pat McGibbon that Ferguson spared the time to visit Northern Ireland to help a cause which means so much to one of his old players.

All proceeds from the day went to the TTBS as part of a fundraising drive to establish a health and wellbeing facility in the Craigavon area.

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