Belfast Telegraph

John Laverty: Alex too driven to quit now

My first meeting with Alex Ferguson was a rather surreal experience. It took place nearly 20 years ago at the Brandywell, following a friendly between Derry City and Manchester United that ended in a 1-1 draw.

I'd been up in the press box and, after phoning over the match report, made my way down to the dressing rooms.

Reached the United one first and it was empty, save for a couple of players — and the ManYoo boss himself.

Sheepishly, I said: "Sorry, Mr Ferguson, the press conference is obviously over and I've missed it."

He replied: "You're wrong, sonny. There's been no press here — only you. "

Typical Derry, I thought. Their press corps had gone en masse to Candystripes boss Jim McLaughlin — a man they spoke to every day of the week — and left the manager of one of the world's greatest football clubs kicking his heels in the other dressing room.

I didn't care. I got 15 minutes with Fergie all to myself.

It would be four or five years before I'd meet up with him again — when it was he who recalled that bizarre encounter at the Brandywell, not me.

In fact, every time I've met Sir Alex, as he's now known, he's remembered the last time we met — yet who the hell am I?

Mind you, that was always one of the man's greatest gifts. His recall of matches is encyclopedic — and, frankly, astonishing.

He'll remember what XI he sent out, who came on as substitute and when, who scored and — perhaps more tellingly — who should have and didn't.

Even if you're not a United fan, you'd never tire of talking to him.

But he's not a football drone; try taking him on in a general knowledge quiz and see how far you get.

The fitba, as they say in his native Glasgow, is still his driving force, however, and he celebrated United's 10th Premier League title on Sunday as if it was the first, back in 1993.

In many ways it's hard to believe that Ferguson's Red Devils are champions again.

After all, weren't we told when billionaire Roman Abramovich took control of Chelsea that the Mancs' days of domination were gone forever?

And weren't fellow Londoners Arsenal, with their silky-skilled players and new stadium, meant to be the perennial runners-up to the invincible Chelsea while everyone else floundered?

Yet the history books will show that although the Blues won the title twice after Abramovich's arrival, it's United who have been crowned champions for the last two seasons.

And to achieve that, despite Chelsea's undoubted financial muscle, may well rank as the finest achievement of 66-year-old Ferguson's long career.

Remember, the doubters didn't all hail from outside Old Trafford; you don't need a long memory to recall the people who firmly believed that the acquisition of the club by American tycoon Malcolm Glazer would be its death-knell.

Yet there they are — champions again, and entertaining with it.

And, of course, preparing for a Champions League final against you-know-who in Moscow next week.

Ferguson gets most of the credit, and over the past two days there has been a lot of gushing about his achievements.

He has made mistakes, though. For instance, the man has wasted countless millions on players — Veron, Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, Bosnich, Bellion, etc, etc — who simply weren't worthy of the United shirt.

He has made catastrophic team selections — leaving out Peter Schmeichel in a Champions League tie against Barcelona, and Mark Hughes in the 1995 Premiership climax against West Ham spring to mind — that have cost the club dearly.

He got rid of brilliant defender Jaap Stam in a fit of pique, and may well have lost two championships because of it, and persisted with the erratic Roy Carroll in goal when even Northern Ireland wouldn't risk using him.

But who's perfect and who doesn't make similar mistakes? The secret of Ferguson's sustained success is that he makes fewer than most.

And he can now boast of building, over the past 20 years, four different United teams capable of winning, and then retaining, the Premier League crown.

Some media sages have said that, if United go on to beat Chelsea in the Russian capital next week, it would be a good time for Ferguson to bow out.

Personally, I can't see that happening. Anyone who watched him on the rain-sodden bench at Wigan on Sunday wasn't watching someone who's about to announce his retirement.

Sure, a second Champions League triumph would round things off nicely — but who wants to give up control of a team that boasts not one, but two of the best young players in the world, as well as (now that Rio's finally woken up) potentially the best defensive unit the club has ever had?

Another thing to note is that, although Ferguson is now at the age when he qualifies for a bus-pass, he's still two years younger than his Italian pal Giovanni Trappatoni - who, at 68, has just agreed to become the new boss of the Republic of Ireland.

No, I think we'll have to wait a bit longer before a new man is sworn in with the daunting task of filling Sir Alex Ferguson shoes.

As Martin O'Neill once eloquently put it, whoever becomes the United manager AFTER the one who succeeds the boul' Ferguson will have landed himself a fabulous job.

Belfast Telegraph


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