Belfast Telegraph

Why Sir Alex Ferguson devoted so much towards building on Manchester United's special bond with Northern Ireland

Legendary boss always gave province leading role during his glittering reign at Old Trafford

Good connections: Sir Alex Ferguson with famous Northern Ireland born Man United fans James Nesbitt and Rory McIlroy
Good connections: Sir Alex Ferguson with famous Northern Ireland born Man United fans James Nesbitt and Rory McIlroy
Caring: Sir Alex Ferguson has a chat with Claire Gallagher, who lost her sight in the Omagh bomb, before the fundraising game between United and Omagh Town
Top class: Sir Alex Ferguson receives his honorary degree from the University of Ulster
Family guy: Sir Alex Ferguson (second right) with mum Elizabeth, who was from NI, brother Martin and dad Alexander

By John White

Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates his 78th birthday on New Year's Eve, born in the Govan area of Glasgow on December 1941.

Football fans around the world will know all about the dynasty he built at Manchester United, winning 38 trophies in his 26 and a half years in charge of the world's most famous football club.

But what a lot of Manchester United fans may not be aware of is his very close connection with Northern Ireland through his mother, who was born here, to his dad playing for Glentoran, his Milk Cup sides and the many Irish players who played under him.

On a personal basis, I got to know Sir Alex very well and he was a welcome visitor to my home in Carryduff on several occasions. Today, I explain his Irish connection and also share with you some personal stories about my own unique relationship with the man I still call 'Boss'.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been variously portrayed as a dictator, an ogre, a bully, aggressive, abrasive and a confrontational man who could fly off the handle in an instant with a player or a journalist.

But these were mostly the perceptions of people in the media who don't really know the man I came to admire so much.

In 1997, I was absolutely honoured when the then Manchester United manager asked my good friend John Dempsey and I to become the Northern Ireland co-ordinators and fundraisers of a charity he had just established in memory of his late mother, Elizabeth Ferguson (née Hardie).

The purpose of The Elizabeth Hardie Ferguson Charitable Trust Fund (1997-2013) was to bring young people all over the UK together through sport and the crest embodied a Scottish thistle, English rose, Welsh daffodil and Irish shamrock.

Sir Alex may have been born in Scotland but his mother came from Northern Ireland and because of her roots he had a close affinity with the people of the province. His father, Alexander Beaton Ferguson, worked for a brief period in the Harland & Wolff Shipyard as a plater's helper. When he was living in Belfast, he played for Glentoran under the pseudonym Alex Miller, as he was already signed to a club in Scotland and it was here that he met his future wife.

Family guy: Sir Alex Ferguson (second right) with mum Elizabeth, who was from NI, brother Martin and dad Alexander

I found the man the press loved to berate a warm, fun loving, charming and down-to-earth character whose biggest attribute in my eyes was his generosity.

No matter how many functions I attended with him, he always made time for the fans and I never once saw him refuse to sign an autograph or pose for a photograph. For me, his unselfish acts of generosity and numerous acts of personal kindness are legion, but very few people know of them.

I recall a number of such moments where he placed the interests of others before those of himself, including speaking to the families of the victims of the Omagh bomb when he brought his treble-winning side over to the province on August 3, 1999 to play Omagh Town in a friendly in aid of the Omagh Bomb Fund.

Caring: Sir Alex Ferguson has a chat with Claire Gallagher, who lost her sight in the Omagh bomb, before the fundraising game between United and Omagh Town

When Alex Ferguson succeeded Ron Atkinson as manager of Manchester United on November 6, 1986, he had four players from north and south at his disposal who are all Irish football legends in their own right - Kevin Moran, Norman Whiteside, Frank Stapleton and Paul McGrath.

He arrived fully aware of United's long association with Ireland as the club included an Irish player in their squad every season going back to Belfast-born Walter McMillen's debut versus Brentford away in an English Second Division fixture on September 16, 1933.

Fergie continued this history during his reign and in October 1988, he bought his first Irish player when he paid Luton Town £650,000 for Belfast-born Mal Donaghy, now a coach at the Irish FA.

He also handed the following internationals their debut for Manchester United: Pat McGibbon, Keith Gillespie, Phil Mulryne, Roy Carroll, David Healy, and Jonny Evans of Northern Ireland; Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, John O'Shea, the late Liam Miller, Darron Gibson and Robbie Brady of the Republic.

It was during Sir Alex's time in charge of United that the club first sent teams over to Northern Ireland to participate in the Milk Cup with his first set of juniors competing in the 1989 tournament.

Future United stars including Ryan Giggs, Wes Brown, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Evans, Danny Welbeck, Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira (Player of the Tournament in 2013) and Marcus Rashford all experienced their first taste of tournament football on our north coast at the Milk Cup. Beckham, Butt, Neville and Gillespie all played in United's 1991 Under-16 winning team.

I recall sitting in his office at Carrington training ground one afternoon when I was researching my book, 'Irish Devils: The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish'. I asked him why the club was so successful recruiting young players, particularly young Irish players.

He told me: "Since the club's inception in 1878 as Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Club, many players have crossed the Irish Sea to play for Manchester United and a great many of them have served the club with distinction. A truly special bond exists between the Irish and Manchester United, a strong bond built on family ties over generations of support for Manchester United, and in many ways it is a quite unique bond.

"The Irish are, and always will be, part of the lifeblood of Manchester United and I thank them for their eternal and unwavering loyalty to me and my team.

"Manchester United understands the family connections between the Irish people and the club.

"From time to time, I get an Irish boy over on trial and invariably the young boy will get quite homesick at the beginning. But my staff and I fully understand what Irish people are like, and we know that the family is a key part of life in Ireland.

Top class: Sir Alex Ferguson receives his honorary degree from the University of Ulster

"The Irish enjoy a great family unity, and many children grow up with their mother as the matriarch and we at Manchester United know this. Just as Sir Matt Busby did with George Best, then we too take the boy's feelings into consideration and let the boy have his own time to decide what he wants to do with his life. Manchester United will always fully support the boy's decision."

I first invited Sir Alex over in May 1997 as Carryduff Manchester United Supporters' Club was organising a fundraiser for one of our members who needed a new motorised wheelchair.

In February 1999, he paid his second visit to Carryduff and this time it was a first trip over to raise monies for his charity. The only request he made was that we use the proceeds from the event to help cross-community groups and therefore try to bring young Roman Catholic and Protestant children together through sporting activities.

On the afternoon of the dinner, John Dempsey and I drove to Belfast City Airport where Sir Alex flew in with Barry Moorhouse, who was the man responsible for all of Manchester United's Official Supporters' Clubs at the time including Carryduff MUSC, and the former United player and manager Wilf McGuinness, who was going to act as Master of Ceremonies at the event.

As soon as he stepped off the plane, Sir Alex asked to be taken to the nearest bookmakers shop.

I said there was one in the Short Strand in east Belfast, where I grew up, which was five minutes away.

He said: "Take me there. One of my horses, Queensland Star, is running this afternoon at Newmarket and I want to try and catch the race."

As we drove into my old area, Sir Alex couldn't help noticing the Irish tricolour flags that were flying and the Republican murals on the gable walls and said: "Here, White, do you not know I used to play for Rangers? Where are you taking us?"

I replied: "You asked to go to the bookies, Boss, so that is where I am taking you. Don't worry, they are all Man United daft here in the Strand."

You could have heard a pin drop when the punters first saw the manager of Manchester United walk in. I spotted my dad, who was in a corner studying form, and introduced him to Sir Alex who then went and put a wager on his horse which he had named after one of the ships his dad helped to build in the Clyde Shipyard.

By this time the place was crammed with people and even a number of women, who would never normally have set foot in such an establishment.

One guy asked: "Which horse in the race is yours, Fergie?" When Sir Alex told him, this same guy took a wad of bank notes out of his shirt pocket and stuck the lot on Queensland Star.

Alas, the horse came in second and as soon as the race was over Sir Alex was besieged by autograph hunters. But none of them had anything for him to sign except a betting slip and so he signed dozens of them, including the beaten docket of the punter who had backed Queensland Star.

The event that evening was a huge success with lots of money raised and again, Sir Alex posed for hundreds of photos and autographs.

When I later wrote to him and asked him to bring Manchester United over to Belfast to play an Irish League Select XI as a Testimonial for Harry Gregg, he immediately agreed and what a night that was at Windsor Park on May 15, 2012.

Portstewart man Gregg was, of course, the hero of the Munich air crash in 1958 which killed 23 people including eight of Gregg's United team-mates, the Busby Babes. Given his role in United's history, that Gregg had never had a testimonial shocked many. Sir Alex felt compelled to put that right, leading out a star-studded team who put behind them the disappointment of losing the Premier League title to rivals City with the last kick of the last day of the 2012 season to honour a United legend.

Gregg's heroism alone merited Sir Alex's lengthy, passionate appreciation in the programme where he described Gregg as "beyond legendary" but also as "a most reluctant hero".

Perhaps Sir Alex's humble working-class roots growing up in the tenements of Govan, the son of a shipbuilder at the once vibrant but now silent Clyde Shipyards, gave him his unquenchable thirst for success. Whatever it was, the boy from Govan never forgot his roots.

The motto of the Ferguson clan in Scotland is 'Dulcius ex asperis', meaning 'Sweeter after difficulties'.

Of his father, he once said: "The Clyde made the man and that man made me."

Looking back to that interview in his office at Carrington, I noticed a sign on a wall which simply read: "AHCUMFIGOVIN" (I come from Govan).

He was and remains a proud and passionate Glaswegian, with Northern Ireland in his DNA.

John White is the Branch Secretary of Carryduff Manchester United Supporters' Club and the author of 17 books about Manchester United.

Belfast Telegraph


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