Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Sir Alex Ferguson finally opens up to a journalist about time at Manchester United – surely there’s a book in that?

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson salutes the fans prior to kick-off during the Barclays Premier League match at the Hawthorns, West Bromwich.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson salutes the fans prior to kick-off during the Barclays Premier League match at the Hawthorns, West Bromwich.

Thrilled to read an interview with Sir Alex Ferguson in an English newspaper at the weekend. Maybe the new hip has increased mobility in a media setting.

Or maybe he has a book to publicise. Oh yes, that will be it. Out this week in fact. Funny how business has a way of changing attitudes towards a body of men and women to whom Fergie would gladly have sold a virus.

This mighty tome covers the last great period of his time as manager of Manchester United, and endlessly fascinating it promises to be. A lot of it will be fresh since for the most part he could not be dragged to a post-match conference at gunpoint to account for his thinking when he was cracking the Old Trafford whip. Snippets for MUTV and a weekly pre-match briefing, which he gave reluctantly, do not balance the scales. Moreover the anti-media position corrupted the entire staff so that after a defeat at Fulham or a draw at Birmingham, for example, there would be zip from any United employee.

In this period of uncritical love for Ferguson it is odd how little commentary there is among members of the fourth estate on past disdain. I wonder if media management forms any part of his brainstorming sessions at Harvard Business School, one of the more interesting relationships being cultivated in retirement. So, Sir Alex, what would you advise we do in delivering a media strategy for our business? Cultivate personal relationships? Ensure an open line of communication with relevant figures? Take individuals out to dinner? Smile more? Sir Alex? Are you still there, Sir Alex? Come back!

The power was and clearly still is with the guv’nor from Govan. It was his understanding of power that served him so well at United, underpinning his authority and longevity. Ferguson managed in a period that saw the most radical change in communications since the invention of the Caxton press. If he understood the 24/7 demand of the digital age, he refused to accept it. He didn’t have to. So huge is the United brand, so great the demand for all things red, the deportment of the manager is irrelevant as long as the team is winning. And Fergie was brilliant at that. There is no need to project, on behalf of sponsors and “partners” who pour money into the United vault for the privilege of association, when the goals are going in.  

I know many of you will be choking on your muesli at the thought of an indignant press in the matter of relations with football managers after the “monkeygate” episode that engulfed Roy Hodgson last week. Personally, if I were Roy, I would have been more upset at the cartoon depiction of myself as an airline pilot taking the nation on a summer carnival to Brazil via “Royanair”. This kind of soft lampooning is tongue-in-cheek, of course, and clever, drawing on Hodgson’s revelations that he might have been a travel agent in another life, but it is lampooning nonetheless and in poor taste, given past indiscretions involving speech impediments.

However late Ferguson’s sympathy for the devil was to develop, we should be thankful that he has at last seen the light, and that he wants to enlighten us with a deeper insight into his indubitably brilliant management of one of the world’s marquee football clubs. If only he had come to understand earlier that there is nothing to fear in open dialogue. The iron control that he imposed by not engaging during the period that we are about to consume in his second autobiography is for the old Soviet Union.

I have to be careful here. Only twice in more than 20 years in newspapers have I received letters from a subject in sport, both from Fergie. The second balanced the other in that its tone was one of support for a position taken about Rafa Benitez over an incident during his time at Liverpool. It follows that the first was of the damning variety, the equivalent of the Beckham boot. He took exception to a number of observations, most vehemently against the suggestion that he had Soviet or, more precisely, Stalinist tendencies.

It was a purple riff too far and he was right to be offended. Stalin was a monster responsible for the deaths of millions and the corruption of a philosophical position ascribed to Karl Marx that still has resonance in today’s political arena thanks to the editor of one Fleet Street title. Fergie was just a controlling bastard to members of the press, whose job it was to report on the institution he governed. Yet here he is using the very same media platform he found so distasteful to promote a book that hardly needs the hard sell.

I feel the hat-trick letter coming on...

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