Belfast Telegraph

Why, despite the brusque exterior, we're entranced by the love of life displayed by Sir Alex Ferguson

Affection for the former Manchester United boss as he recovers in hospital transcends footballing loyalties

By Gail Walker

It was Andy Warhol way back in 1968 who coined the term about everyone in the future getting their "15 minutes of fame", but even he couldn't have foreseen the proliferation of celebrities over the last two decades.

Big Brother, X Factor, Pop Idol, TOWIE, BGT... Throw in social media, bloggers, vloggers, YouTube, all generating faces more or less familiar, more or less notorious, and it has become hard to distinguish what being famous is, or what separates just being visible from being genuinely important to our national and cultural life.

Hard, that is, until something happens which suddenly helps us all define that importance in a moment.

Such a moment occurred on Saturday evening. Sir Alex Ferguson is a former football manager who achieved unprecedented success in his chosen career and, over an astonishing 26 years at the helm, made Manchester United one of the world's most popular clubs, into one of its richest brands and a major force in European football.

But none of that explains the outpouring of concern with which the news of his brain haemorrhage and subsequent operation was met.

Of course, there were many very touching and deeply-felt wishes from former players - some, like Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, among the most famous ever to lace boots - who had looked on the bristly Scot as a father figure.

Also, too, gratifying salutes were extended by former professional rivals, such as Arsene Wenger of Arsenal, Sam Allardyce (at Everton at time of printing), Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, a club once dubbed "noisy neighbours" by the Old Trafford boss.

Petty rivalries put aside with an ease both admirable and unexpected, loyal and kind thoughts from former proteges now plying their trade in other countries, or in other parts of the business world - all warm and heartfelt responses to this dreadful personal calamity which has befallen not only the great man himself, but also his loved ones, in particular his wife, Cathy, to whom has been married for 52 years.

She is a silent, but strong partner in the relationship, as he has made clear: "My wife, Cathy, has been the key figure throughout my career, providing a bedrock of both stability and encouragement. Words are not enough to express what this has meant to me."

The silent partner helped to remind him that there was more to life than football: "You'll not find a thing about my career in the house at all. My wife, Cathy, is fed up with the whole thing. She's unbelievable. I can't even take a football book home or she will say, 'What are you doing with that?'"

As a manager, Ferguson filled a perfectly shaped hole, an old-fashioned, working-class boss with all the gravitas of Busby, Shankly and Stein, but with subtle psychological skills and a strategic insight into motivation and performance which had made him a celebrated worldwide business guru in the years since his retirement. A tough-talking Scot, who would give "the hairdryer treatment" - an up-close-and-personal thundering tirade into the faces of those he felt had let him or the club down.

An almost-paranoid manager bringing his own stopwatch to the games and seemingly able to pressurise match officials to add on interminable minutes of injury time long enough for United to score. In the age when football stopped being the working man's game and became the sport of the affluent classes - the "prawn sandwich brigade", in the words of Ferguson's one-time captain, Roy Keane - Sir Alex was the final link with British football tradition.

He started at tiny Scottish clubs like Queen's Park, St Johnstone and Dunfermline before signing for Rangers. After his playing career, he started his managerial life at East Stirlingshire and St Mirren before moving to Aberdeen, where he broke the Celtic-Rangers duopoly for the first time in 15 years in 1979-80 and won the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1983, beating Real Madrid in the final and winning the Super Cup.

It was such achievements that brought the Manchester giants knocking in 1986. The rest is history.

But it's not the whole story.

This is a man who knows his wines, loves racehorses and has a keen interest in politics. A former Rangers player, he was the product of a mixed marriage - not just because his father was a staunch Govan Protestant and a Celtic supporter to boot, but his mother was a Catholic.

Ferguson's grandfather had also been a Catholic. Already, the twisty-turny ironies of family and allegiance that we know so well in Ulster are clear in Ferguson's background.

When he married Cathy - a Glasgow Catholic he met during at strike at the typewriter factory where they both worked - he was cold-shouldered by some colleagues at Rangers, a matter which to this day is a matter of deep hurt.

While the surface speaks of a grim, dead-eyed calculator, the truth speaks of a man capable of sorrow and regret, of ambiguity and complexity, loyalty and - in, say, his support for United's widely-disliked owners, the US-based Glazer family - a peculiar sense of honour.

It would have been easy for him to play to the gallery when times got tough and criticise the Glazers, but he didn't find any fault in them and said so.

Then there is also his formidable charity work. Sir Alex has never been too busy not to lend his support to a raft of good causes, including Unicef, literacy, breast cancer and children from disadvantaged backgrounds. I remember being in his company at Belfast City Hall when, had he transformed into a smiling unicorn, he could not have had a more magical effect upon some seriously ill young people.

He was so generous with his time.

In other words, he is a man, not a mere caricature - not a hero from central casting or a pantomime villain. Sometimes right, not often wrong, but with the force of character never to allow himself to become suckered into being little more than his own public image.

In many ways, it's only in adversity when the scale of a personality is truly appreciated, not only in how one responds oneself to that setback, but in how others respond. That is what is happening right now with Alex Ferguson.

The sporting hero or villain, the subject of pantomime booing and hissing for decades, has, in his time of greatest need, become the destination of hundreds of thousands of good wishes and prayers and of vast affection and deep concern.

Those gifts don't arrive from nowhere. They come from the simple fact that, through all the bluff and garbage and razzmatazz and bluster and fraud of the modern world and its polystyrene icons and mass-produced dolls, the whole population managed to glimpse something very real and very human and very familiar and very endearing in this prickly, brusque, windbaggy, earthy Glaswegian genius.

The world of football knows that truth - that behind the famous scowl, there is a man with a great sense of humour and an unquenchable joie de vivre. It's that - as much as the dozens of trophies and countless honours - that has moved one and all to wish him back among us in his full force as soon as possible.

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