There is a light that never goes out

This interview with Sir Alex Ferguson was conducted by Patrick Barclay exclusively for the Manchester United Opus in 2006.

It is the middle of one of those mornings which give Manchester a bad name. Rain pours from a slate sky, mocking the facts that spring has turned to early summer and a World Cup is little more than two weeks away (today’s papers contain feverish speculation about Wayne Rooney’s fitness for the trip to Germany). Even the family of ducks who plod across the lawn at Manchester United’s training ground on Carrington Moss seem to think it’s too wet for the time of year.

But the weather doesn’t bother Sir Alex Ferguson. He beams. He is a man happy in his work, basking in the microclimate of a job that has absorbed him for nearly two decades and is far from finished. The infrequent visitor smiles inwardly at the sight of this 64-year-old, in trademark training gear of shirt and shorts yet surrounded by the trappings of a captain of industry, as he forsakes the laptop computer on his large desk to gaze at the groups of players striding out from the dressing rooms to the pitches on which United’s future will be safeguarded. Most of the big names have gone to join their national squads for the World Cup, but there is always plenty to observe at the modern Manchester United. As Ferguson said when he joined in 1986, he had come to build not just a team, but a football club.

Inevitably, memories are stirred and silent comparisons drawn between the splendour of his state-of-the-art surroundings and the relative homeliness of The Cliff, across whose fields Ferguson would look from his old office during the first few years after he came down from Aberdeen. There were no laptops then, the players hailed almost entirely from the British Isles – the Danes Jesper Olsen and John Sivebaek were exceptions – and, perhaps most oddly of all to recollect, crowds at Old Trafford often fell 20,000 below the ground’s 56,000 capacity. The diehard fans looked enviously at Merseyside, where Everton were briefly interrupting Liverpool’s dominance of the English game. For the most terrible of reasons – the Heysel disaster of 1985, when 39 Juventus supporters were killed in riots involving Liverpool followers before the European Cup final – there was no European football for English clubs, but Liverpool soon took the title back and continued to hold sway domestically, as they had done for many of the years since Sir Matt Busby had led United to the pinnacle of Europe in 1968.

That was the task Ferguson faced: he had to dislodge the most consistently successful institution in the history of English football. In time, of course, he would do more than that. He would put United in Liverpool’s place as serial title-winners, the club all England feared. But it is instructive to hear from Ferguson how daunting a task he found it, even after all his experience in Scotland, where he had supervised Aberdeen’s rise above not only Rangers and Celtic, but much of Europe’s aristocracy too; they had beaten Real Madrid to claim the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983.

“I remember my first game against the Old Firm,” he says. “Rangers at Ibrox. We scrambled a 1-1 draw. Somebody on their side got injured and I gambled on putting big Doug Rougvie wide left in the last five minutes. In the dressing room afterwards, all the Aberdeen players were jumping on top of each other. Celebrating a 1-1 draw! But that was the culture at the time. I decided it was going to change.” And it did. But nothing in all his years of achievement north of the border, he confesses, impressed him more than the Liverpool machine that Bob Paisley took over from Bill Shankly. Nor does Ferguson mind admitting it. He can even laugh about it – now, at any rate; he found it less amusing when Aberdeen were being thrashed at Anfield one unforgettable night in the autumn of 1980.

“We’d just won the Scottish league for the first time [they were to do it again in 1984 and 1985],” Ferguson recalls, “and, after beating Austria Vienna, we got drawn against Liverpool. They beat us 1-0 in the first leg at Pittodrie and then absolutely annihilated us 4-0 at Anfield, where they’d not lost a league game for the best part of three seasons. When we came in 2-0 down at half-time, my players sat down and one of them, Drew Jarvie, suddenly tried to rally the rest. ‘Come on, lads!’ he said. ‘Three quick goals and we’re back in it!’

“I looked at him and thought to myself: God bless you, son. Three quick goals and we’re back in it? Liverpool had lost just eight goals at Anfield in the whole of the previous English league season and four goals the season before that. That’s 12 goals in two seasons. And one of our most experienced players thought we could score three in a few minutes. Brilliant! So I must admit that I had a degree of fear of Liverpool when I came to United. I’d been down to watch them train for a week a couple of times and they were a very powerful outfit. But I had my ideas and they began to take root. Although it was Arsenal and not us who beat Liverpool to the title in 1989, I don’t think I’ve ever been more delighted in my life to see anyone score a goal than I was when Michael Thomas struck at Anfield in the last minute. The monopoly was broken that night – and I knew it could only help Manchester United.”

United finished 11th that season and for Ferguson, things were to get more uncomfortable before they got better; a proportion of the support was to turn against him the following winter. But he insists: “I felt we were getting closer.” Closer to his idea of a football club. The promotion of youth had always been fundamental to his philosophy – at St Mirren as well as Aberdeen – and already he had introduced a wave of youngsters, including Mark Robins, Russell Beardsmore, Tony Gill, David Wilson and Lee Sharpe. It was a sign of change, an example of the methods Ferguson would use. This pertained to motivation. “I’ve always believed in it,” Ferguson says. “The worst thing for a footballer is to lose his place to a younger player.”

Worse than to lose it to an expensive signing, because he could then ascribe the change to the manager’s whim, thereby seizing an excuse? “Yes. So to have young players challenging is the best form of competition within a football club. Hence, when we had an FA Cup replay against Queens Park Rangers in London and I decided to play several of the young ones, it was interesting that Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside and Gordon Strachan all wanted to come and watch the game with us. I asked Archie Knox [his assistant] what he thought and he said: ‘They’re obviously a bit worried. They’re starting to wonder what’s going on.’ So I decided to take them to Loftus Road. All the injured first-team players travelled and they saw a fantastic performance in a 2-2 draw. [United won the third match at Old Trafford.] There is nothing more healthy in a football club than that competitive relationship between the younger and older players.”

The next wave of youth was to carry United to new heights, for it featured players of true class: Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Gary and Phil Neville, who followed Ryan Giggs into a team good enough to rule both England and Europe – and collect the FA Cup – in the same unforgettable season. But first Ferguson had to build for the here and now. When he came to the club, he quickly realised that a team short of height, power and pace would always be at a disadvantage in the English First Division. One of his first away matches was at Wimbledon and he grins at the recollection. “Our back four included John Sivebaek, who wasn’t a great header of the ball, and Arthur Albiston. In midfield we had Gordon Strachan and Jesper Olsen outside Remi Moses and Clayton Blackmore, who weren’t big lads either. We were battered. We hardly got out of our penalty box. Every free kick and long throw put us under pressure. We lost 1-0, and it could have been 10. We were just physically incapable of winning the English league. But when we started adding pace and power, you could see the change.”

One by one they came: Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Brian McClair, Paul Ince, Lee Sharpe, the ill-starred Neil Webb and Danny Wallace, and – back from Barcelona – Mark Hughes. In 1990 the FA Cup was won. A year later, with the addition of Denis Irwin, the European Cup Winners’ Cup was lifted. Ferguson’s United were on their way. Their acceleration could scarcely have been better symbolised than by the subsequent arrival of the Ukrainian flier Andrei Kanchelskis. Then Peter Schmeichel joined, and Paul Parker, and Eric Cantona, the last piece in a jigsaw that ensured the generation of Scholes, Beckham, Butt and the Nevilles would succeed to an obligation not just to take United back to the peak of the English game – but to keep them there.

The FA Cup triumph was a key moment, says Ferguson, because “we needed a platform”. He corrects himself. “_I_ needed a platform. No one else did. I needed to be able to get on with the job. To feel I had proved myself as a United manager. While the league was always the priority, a trophy’s a trophy.”

Did he truly doubt the breakthrough would come? “The December of that season had been a terrible month for me. We never won a match and for the first time in my three years at the club there was an adverse reaction from the fans – a banner saying it was time to go, or something like that. Anyway, on the night of the FA Cup draw a journalist I know well, Bob Cass, phoned to get my response to having to play Nottingham Forest away. At that time Forest were probably the best cup team in the land. ‘What can I say?’ I told Bob. ‘We go there with great optimism.’ He knew what I really thought. Anyway, the game was in early January and beforehand the chairman, Martin Edwards, came and assured me I’d be staying at the club whatever the result. I’m sure that was done to bolster my confidence. It had been a hard month. Everyone has his pride and sensitivity, in the sense of caring what people think of you, what your players think of you – and what’s being written about you.”

What happened next has been exhaustively documented. Mark Robins scored, United lifted the Cup after a replay against Crystal Palace and the trophies started to flow. The next season it was the Cup Winners’ Cup, secured by Mark Hughes’s piquant pair of goals against Barcelona; the season after the League Cup, with Brian McClair scoring the only goal of the final against Forest. All the while, Ferguson was stressing to his staff that the objective was to “get on top of Liverpool” – it was as if they had replaced the Old Firm in his sights – and in the 1991/92 season, the year after Liverpool had again been beaten to the title by Arsenal, his maturing team did it. Yet it did not quite bring them the title, which Leeds took – with the crucial assistance of the unseen hand that guided their manager, Howard Wilkinson, towards Eric Cantona.

“It was fate,” says Ferguson. “They brought Cantona from France because of something that happened when we played them at Elland Road near the turn of the year. It was a 1-1 draw. What happened was that we won the ball and, because Lee Chapman was down injured in obvious pain, tried to kick it out so he could receive treatment. One of their players stopped the ball and played it into the penalty area and they scored. It turned out Chapman had broken his wrist. And that’s where fate came in because their search for a replacement striker led them to Cantona – and without him there’s no way they’d have won the league.

“We were dead unlucky not to win it that year. Looking back, a lot of people said we were making excuses about the fixture congestion that led to our having to play four league games in six days near the end of the season. But it’s asking a lot of any team. Already without Robbo, we lost Incey when we beat Southampton. Then we had Forest at home on the Bank Holiday Monday and lost 2-1 – to a goal in the last few minutes. So we went to West Ham and lost 1-0 to the flukiest of goals. West Ham were already relegated at that stage, but I think there’s something about that club and their supporters that makes it impossible for them to go out on a park and not try. You saw it at the end of the 2005/06 season when they beat Tottenham, who were desperate to clinch a Champions League qualifying place. On reflection, West Ham are just that kind of club.”

Six months later, Cantona’s relationship with Wilkinson having declined, Ferguson brought the Frenchman to Old Trafford. The power the United manager had always sought was switched on full blast and at the end of the season a 26-year wait for the title was over. Not only that; the awe Liverpool had once struck in him had become a distant memory. During the summer of 1991, he had enlisted as an assistant the former United winger Jimmy Ryan, who had been controversially dismissed by Luton despite saving them from relegation on the last day for two successive seasons. “I always remember something Jim said one day. ‘If you win it once,’ he told me, ‘it could be 10 years of famine for them.’ He meant Liverpool, of course. I asked him how he worked out the 10 years and he said it was just a feeling that other people like Arsenal beating them to the title wouldn’t matter as much to them as us doing it. Funny, that, isn’t it?” At the time of writing, Ryan’s estimate has already proved six years too low.

The relief of United’s own famine was achieved with a team in Ferguson’s own image, a team including several warriors: Schmeichel, Bruce, Ince and Hughes as well as Cantona. Strong-willed individuals, too, who might not always be the easiest to handle. Ferguson agrees, but says he understood them. “I’m happy seeing myself out there. Or people like me. Schmeichel, for instance. I didn’t know how strong-willed he was when he was playing in Denmark. In fact, we had him watched about 10 times. Could he play in the English game? That was my concern. The word came back from someone I trusted that he was a winner, and when I met Schmeichel I could see it in his eyes – and feel it in his handshake!

“To have the support and advice of Matt Busby and Bobby Charlton was my good fortune. They were a great support system”

“Mark Hughes was different in the sense that he made less noise. In fact, Sparky never said a word. But put him on the pitch and he was a different human being. Ince, Bruce, Cantona, McClair, Robson – they were all really strong-minded people.” Asked if he ever had to pull rank on them, Ferguson replies: “Absolutely. Every one of them’s had it. I remember calling the lot of them in once. We’d had a bad period where we’d had a lot of players sent off – Schmeichel, Cantona twice, Hughes and Kanchelskis. So I called them all in and went round the room, stabbing my finger at all them in turn and swearing at them, saying: ‘One more time and I’m finished with the lot of you.’ And they’re sitting there and you can tell what they’re thinking from the oh-yeah look on their faces. So I say: ‘Right, I’m going to fine you as well – two weeks’ wages for a sending-off, one for a booking.’ And with that I sent them away. As they went down the stairs, I could hear them laughing. Because they knew I needed them. They knew I needed winners. But they did also know there had to be a dividing line – and our disciplinary record did improve after that. To be fair, it’s been pretty good over the years. That time with Andy D’Urso [the infamous instance when several United players advanced on the referee to dispute the awarding of a penalty to Middlesbrough at Old Trafford] was a watershed in many ways. Because I did give the players a lot of stick at that time.”

At the head of the posse that day was Roy Keane, who had taken over from Bryan Robson as captain and leader and was to become an ever more influential enforcer as Ferguson’s teams seemed to take a subtler tone. As for Ferguson himself, he recognises that talk of his mellowing had always been guaranteed to produce a wry smile. At Aberdeen he was associated with the teacup-throwing school of managerial expression, while at United someone once said – and how it stuck – that his rollickings were like having a hairdryer in your face. “All that stuff is exaggerated,” he insists. “There are a lot of myths. One of the papers – a quality paper, too – once claimed that I used to go behind the stand at East Stirlingshire and practise screaming. But there’s an element of truth in it. The hairdryer thing was started by Sparky – he owned up to it after he left me – and I can understand that because of my policy in the dressing room. When somebody challenges me in there, I have to go for them. That’s me, you know. I believe you cannot avoid the confrontation.”

Has it ever got physical? “No. Not ever. Mind you, at Aberdeen, when I used to go over to big Doug Rougvie and he’s looking down at me, Archie used to say to me: ‘One of these days, he’s going to kill you.’ But I never thought about that. I had a right bust-up with Schmikes once. He was towering over me, and the other players were almost covering their eyes. We’re eye to eye and I’m looking up and thinking to myself, if he does hit me, I know I’m dead. But although I’ve a quick temper, I’ll get over it quickly too. If I have an argument with a player on a matchday, next day it’s all forgotten.”

Mellowed or not, Ferguson agrees that he has adjusted to the passing years in terms of taking specialist advice, delegating responsibility and so on. One asset bestowed in youth, though, endured: his memory, which his friend Andy Roxburgh (the former Scotland manager who became technical director of UEFA) describes as “photographic – the reason Fergie’s so good at quizzes”. While quietly contesting the implication that his general and footballing knowledge might not be the entire reason for his undoubted excellence in this sphere, he accepts that he has “a great memory” upon which he relies to absorb the lessons of a first half.

“What I tell the players at half-time has to be accurate,” he says. “For instance, when we played Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League semi-finals in 1997 and they scored after six or seven minutes, at the interval I blamed Schmeichel. He said Lars Ricken’s shot had got a deflection. I said there was no deflection. And then Gary Pallister said it had come off his legs. When I saw the deflection later on the television replay, I realised Schmeichel had had no chance. So I started wearing glasses after that. You have to be right. You can’t afford to be wrong.”

So, while he might have started seeing more clearly after that, Ferguson continued to store the lessons in his mind. He had no need for the frantically scribbled notes of many of his younger counterparts, or the diagrams favoured by Jose Mourinho. “We did think about putting up a video screen in the dressing room, to replay things at half-time, and Carlos Queiroz and I did talk about it. In the end I told Carlos we only had 15 precious minutes at the interval. If we started putting replays up, we’d be ignoring all the players not involved.

“A team talk is about everyone. We don’t want anyone switching off. Say the right-back’s made a mistake – we don’t want to be saying: ‘Look here, Gary, I think you’re taking up the wrong position,’ with all the others sitting there. I like to do it all mentally and then talk to them. While I’m walking down the touchline to the dressing room, I’m thinking about the first things I’m going to say. Then, after about seven or eight minutes, I’ll take a break and Carlos will talk to them. I’ll come back and do the motivational side, the regrouping as I prefer to call it, the setting out of where we are and where we’re going, because there’s always a road and the last 45 minutes are the last chance to get it right.”

The last thing a manager says – is that the key? “I prefer to rely on habit. A belief in ourselves, our tempo, the honesty in our game. They are representing Manchester United, after all. And we don’t – let’s put it this way – minimise their ability. We try to make the most of it. Simply because, at this level, there’s no point in being negative. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll criticise a player at half-time or the end of a game. But through the week the intention is to build up that confidence and belief. That is why I’ll never, ever be critical during a training session. All we say is: ‘Well done.’”

And at half-time? It used to be held that to praise players then was a mistake, even when they’d done especially well, because they tended to relax. Ferguson says he trusts his players not to do that, and he will give them a verbal pat on the back. “Sometimes you’ll say: ‘Well done – but let’s not be stupid.’ Sometimes I used to tell them, particularly in European games, if they were a goal up at half-time: ‘We’ve won the game – make sure we keep possession and don’t let them back into it.’ And that can work, but I think there’s a better way now. It’s: ‘Go out and kill them.’ It prevents the players from sitting back. What you say depends on the context of the game.”

“Although I’ve a quick temper, I’ll get over it quickly too. If I have an argument with a player on a matchday, next day it’s all forgotten”

The context of the game… Has there ever been such a turning point as that Manchester United and Bayern Munich experienced in the 1999 Champions League final in Barcelona? Perhaps the championship-winning Michael Thomas goal for Arsenal a decade earlier. But surely Ferguson’s United has never been involved in a more thrilling drama than took place in the Nou Camp, on an occasion that was always going to test their manager because he had been deprived of two key players, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, through suspensions incurred in the heroic semi-final victory over Juventus in Turin.

So it asked much of his decision-making skills, in that he had to recast his midfield, moving David Beckham from the right to a central role and using Ryan Giggs and Jesper Blomqvist on the flanks. Interestingly, he chose to employ the better of his wide players, Giggs, out of position on the right and this worked because his direct opponent, Michael Tarnat, couldn’t cope with his pace. Beckham, too, acquitted himself well in the middle, Ferguson reflects. But the inescapable fact was that United went into the final quarter of the match staring defeat in the face, Mario Basler having scored the only goal up to that point. So now the art of substitution would inevitably come into play. Ferguson sent on first Teddy Sheringham and then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the pair won United the match. It was Ferguson’s most memorable tactical tweak. “We were always going to do it,” he says. “We were very lucky we had those two to throw on.”

Sheringham appeared first, replacing Blomqvist in the 66th minute. “The reason I put Teddy on the left-hand side was to try to drag Markus Babbel onto him. Of their other defenders, Sami Kuffour and Thomas Linke were relatively small, as was Lothar Matthäus, who sat in front.” Shortly afterwards, Bayern’s Ottmar Hitzfeld began to employ his own bench, from which the creative Mehmet Scholl sprang, taking over from Alexander Zickler to such effect that the woodwork was struck and Peter Schmeichel had to make two outstanding saves. United survived and, Ferguson recalls, made chances themselves. “But what really helped us,” he says, “was Bayern’s replacement of Matthäus with Torsten Fink in the 80th minute. Because Matthäus, as their captain and most distinguished player, organised their offside game. When they were defending set pieces, Scholl replaced him on the post and, in the build-up to our first goal, Scholl was late coming out and this left Sheringham onside.” It was the last minute before stoppage time, and no sooner had Sheringham’s equaliser hit the net than all eyes turned to the linesman. “Including mine,” Ferguson vouchsafes. “And Teddy’s. But Scholl had played him on.” Solskjaer, who had taken over from Andrew Cole around the time that Matthäus was accepting the German supporters’ applause on his departure from the field, then stabbed the winner through the broken heart of Bayern’s rearguard and the most memorable transformation in United’s history was complete.

The winning managers in four of the five previous Champions League finals had been Fabio Capello (with Milan), Louis Van Gaal (Ajax), Marcello Lippi (Juventus) and Hitzfeld (Borussia Dortmund – he was to repeat the achievement with Bayern in 2001), and now Ferguson, already a giant in the British game, could be categorised with these major figures on the European coaching scene. Some would have said he already deserved it after steering not only United, but also Aberdeen, to success in the Cup Winners’ Cup.

“Maybe landing the big one made a difference to how I was perceived,” says Ferguson, with an air that suggests it isn’t something that has ever kept him awake at night. He looks back to his glory days at Aberdeen. How times have changed. “When we came back from Gothenburg with the Cup Winners’ Cup, everyone drank from it on the plane – even the press – and I took it home with me. I took it to bed and had it in my house the next day. Now, with everything that surrounds Manchester United in the modern age, I’m hardly allowed to touch any trophy we win before security take it away and it is put in a museum, in a reinforced-glass case.”

Another change is evident in the recollection that he could stay all those years at Aberdeen without being accused of lacking ambition. “For most of my time there,” he says, “I never thought about leaving.” Disparities in football were less pronounced then. “I thought I could go all the way with Aberdeen and make them champions of Europe – I honestly did – and I’d turned down quite a few English clubs, including Arsenal and Tottenham. Wolves too.

“Aberdeen was a great club, a happy club where all the players had grown up together and you knew the wives and you knew the kids. It wasn’t a case of lacking ambition because, as I say, I did truly believe we could win the European Cup. But, looking back, things changed after we won the Cup Winners’ Cup.” Even Ferguson’s Aberdeen couldn’t remain impervious to market forces. “Players got restless – Eric Black, Mark McGhee, Doug Rougvie – and in fairness to them, although at the time I was angry and accused them of deserting the ship and so on, the club couldn’t afford to pay them what they were worth. When Steve Archibald left for Tottenham, I remember gasping when I heard what he was getting. It seemed an obscene amount of money. Then, when wee Gordon Strachan left for United, and McGhee for Hamburg, and Black for Metz, and Rougvie for Chelsea, I found myself reflecting that money must play a part in anyone’s life. And although we replaced them and kept winning trophies, I started to get itchy feet myself. It happened as soon as I began working as assistant to Jock Stein with Scotland. I was dealing with top-class players such as Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen, and it was great to be coaching them. I remember Souness forever biting my ear off about English football and how I should be working in it. Then one night Jock asked how long I planned to be at Aberdeen. It all got me wondering what I was achieving by staying.”

When the call came from Old Trafford through an intermediary – Gordon Strachan’s accountant – he had no hesitation. Here was a perfect opportunity to discover how far his club-building dreams could take him. There had been two fundamental influences on his style of management. One was Stein, the other Scot Symon of Rangers, who he encountered after joining that club as a player in 1967. “I had him as a manager for only four months, but those four months taught me what a strong manager was. Because he was under pressure and yet he never spoke to the press, never criticised his players in public, kept everything in Rangers Football Club. He was in at seven in the morning and left at eight at night. He had a girl, Isobel, who was his secretary, and a part-time club secretary, Jimmy Simpson, but really he ran the club. People used to criticise him for not being a tracksuit manager – I used to say he didn’t have time to put on a tracksuit! I liked Scot Symon.

“But Jock Stein was fantastic. Wherever we went in Europe, he’d be treated with such respect and I’d just say: ‘I’m with him.’ I’d always be taking the opportunity to quiz him about things, but he would never take any credit himself for Celtic’s deeds. He loved Celtic, even after he left the club the way he did [after guiding Celtic to nine consecutive Scottish championships and the European Cup, Stein was downgraded from manager to a fundraising role]. It was amazing. I used to ask him about the great players, such as Jimmy Johnstone. Or what his tactics were for the final against Inter in Lisbon, where Celtic became the first British champions of Europe. But he just wouldn’t bite on that. ‘Ach,’ he’d say. ‘Wee Jimmy was brilliant that night. And Bobby Lennox. And that wee **** Bertie Auld.’ And that was it. Jock was fantastic. I loved Jock.”

To have come from the same heavily industrial west of Scotland as Stein and his own precursor at Old Trafford, Sir Matt Busby – not to mention Bill Shankly, the remoulder of Liverpool – had been an inspiration. Especially as Busby was still a familiar figure at United when Ferguson came to the club. “I was only sorry Matt was coming to his latter days, because he was fantastic with me. I used to love going into Old Trafford because, although my main base was at The Cliff, I had a wee office at the stadium where I could do my administration. And if I could smell the pipe smoke when I came in the door, I knew Matt was in the building. Then I’d go in and see him for an hour. He was brilliant with me. To have the support and advice of Matt and Bobby Charlton, another great football man, was my good fortune. They were a great support system – there’s no doubt about that.”

Given that Busby will forever be associated with youth development, it was appropriate that the United board should have chosen to go down that route again. And that Charlton – one of the youths who developed most impressively under Busby – should have been most acutely aware of what Ferguson could do for the club. The previous manager had been Ron Atkinson and, says Ferguson, “he was a terrific manager – the kind I’d like to have played for, because he relaxed people and encouraged them to enjoy themselves. But Ron believed in the older players. Don’t get me wrong – a lot of people put their reliance in experience and it’s one way of doing things. But it can leave a void between the old and the young at a club if you’re not careful. The trouble is that a lot of managers aren’t given time to build a youth policy. It’s only the clubs who have a board who trust the manager enough – like Arsenal with Arsène Wenger – who show that patience. So you need people to understand what you’re trying to do.

“I remember saying to the United board on my first day: ‘Do you know what you’re getting? You’re looking at my record at Aberdeen, but what I did there, and at St Mirren, was build a football club.’ The underlying message was that it would take time. Bobby Charlton understood and said straight away: ‘That’s why we want you here.’ Whether he was speaking for the others, I don’t know. In fairness to the chairman, Martin Edwards, he supported me as well. Everything I asked for on the youth side – more and more scouts, all needing to be paid expenses – I got. He was a good chairman, I must say. You can understand why some managers, for fear of losing their jobs, play safe and think only of the first team. Perhaps I’m a bit more reckless than that. But I am what I am. I couldn’t do it any other way. Well, I could. But I wouldn’t enjoy it the same.”

He thinks back to his nights with the youngsters at St Mirren and Aberdeen, where he took a decidedly hands-on approach. “And at United, when I first came. Things had to change. We were losing young players to Manchester City, which I thought should not be happening to this club, and it wasn’t until we took Ryan Giggs that you could see we were giving City a fight. Until then, City had been taking the best of them. They’d won the FA Youth Cup with the likes of Paul Lake, Andy Hinchcliffe, David White and Steve Redmond – the sort of players United should have been getting. So we revamped the scouting system. I brought in Les Kershaw and Brian Kidd. Archie Knox and I worked every night in the gym, or trialling at Albert Park under the floodlights. We all worked our socks off to get it right.”

The emergence of Scholes, Beckham, Butt and the Nevilles confirmed that the club had been tailored to Ferguson’s requirements. Beckham apart, all came from Manchester and its environs. They knew each other inside out, like the backbone of Ferguson’s teams in Scotland, and title after title came to Old Trafford. But the net had to be cast ever wider and United’s scouting became a worldwide operation. It meant that Ferguson had to delegate responsibility – just one of the ways in which his management style had to alter.

“Age changes you anyway,” he says. “But the most significant change in this football club over the 20 years since I came here is that I started with eight staff – eight in all, including youth development, everything – and I’ve now got 35. At first I used to get letters every week from sports psychologists offering their services, and I just used to tear them up. But every now and again someone came up with an idea that struck me as positive. For example, after a couple of years a nutritionist wrote suggesting I have a chat with him. He had a lot of interesting things to say, so I took him on. That was the start. Since then we’ve added a weight training specialist, a full-time doctor, an optometrist, a podiatrist and so on. And all that, of course, leads to delegation. You cannot hire specialists and not let them get on with it. So I don’t interfere. They know their field better than I do.”

No one familiar with Ferguson could imagine that delegation would be easy for him. “I know,” he says. “It was a bit difficult at times. But I did start to learn the lesson before I came to Manchester, through taking on Archie Knox at Aberdeen. One day Archie said to me, in quite forthright terms: ‘I don’t know why you brought me here.’ Old Teddy Scott [reserve-team coach, kit man and general Aberdeen stalwart] was quietly making the tea at the time. And Archie goes on: ‘Because I don’t do anything.’ So I say: ‘But you take the players in the afternoon.’ And he says: ‘But I’m your assistant manager. Yet you do all the main training sessions. It’s ridiculous.’ So I said I wasn’t sure about that. And suddenly Teddy says: ‘He’s right, boss.’ Now I’d always listen to Teddy, because he was such a wise old guy, and here he was asking: ‘Why should you be in a training session, barking and instructing and coaching all the time? You should be observing. You should be in control.’ I said I’d think about it, but already I knew he was right. So I told Archie the next day that we’d give it a go. ‘Give it a go!’ he said, in a tone that made me realise it might be better to make the arrangement permanent. It was one of the best things I ever did.

“Here’s an example of why. One day I was watching a session and there was a player – I’d never noticed this before – screwing up his eyes. I said to Teddy that he might need glasses. Teddy said he’d been telling Archie and everyone else that for weeks and no one would listen. So we sent the lad for an eye test and he got sorted out. So, if you step back, you see more. Many times here I’ve been standing with Mick Phelan watching Carlos take a session and noticed something about a player that I’d probably have missed if I’d been out there doing the session myself.

“The youth side also requires delegation, because the academy has been extended. You have to have an academy director and let him get on with the job. We have regular meetings. Brian McClair is the academy director, but Jimmy Ryan is the one who’ll come to me and say: ‘We’ve seen a boy in Portugal or Brazil or wherever and I want you to meet the family.’ And that’s where I come in. To make sure they understand what the boy’s coming to. That part of it’s been easy for me, really. Age does that to you.”

For all his energy, Ferguson has not reached his 65th year without some recognition of time’s toll and the more wearing aspects of his job. It was towards the end of the last millennium, with United occupying the status he had craved, the place once held by Liverpool at the pinnacle of English football, that he took a look at himself.

“If I hadn’t stepped back from the game a bit,” he says, “I think the job would have worn me out. That’s why I went into the horses. Because I’d got to the point where I was going home very night and getting on the phone to scouts and various people. It was becoming an obsession. I could feel football eating into me, in the sense that soon there would be nothing else. _Nothing_ else. So one day I took my wife Cathy to Cheltenham, because it was our anniversary and we’d been invited. And afterwards I asked: ‘Do you want to buy a horse?’ She asked why. I said: ‘I think it would be a good release for me.’ She said I was thinking along the right lines there – but why a horse? I said it gave me a wee bit of excitement. So she said okay. And it was of great benefit to me. I’d go down to Newmarket on a Thursday morning, say, after a European tie. I’d get the 6.40 flight to Stansted and from there I could be at Newmarket in 25 minutes. Then you’re on the gallops, you’re out there and nobody can get you. And the fresh air! I’d come back to Carrington on the Friday, buzzing. I did it for eight years and it really helped me.”

Although he announced his impending retirement during that time, Ferguson came to harbour misgivings and one day Cathy, after an impromptu family conference held while he was enjoying a post-lunch snooze, reversed the decision. Once again he returned to a rebuilding job without end, placing his trust in a new generation of young players brought in as the twin demands of the Premiership and Champions League became even more severe – with Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo to the fore. And here Ferguson is in 2006, with May nearly over (despite the dismal weather), talking fondly of the past but still in that training kit and looking, as ever, to the future, a Manchester United future which he intends to be a part of.

I believe in aiming high. That’s why I’ve always pressed the board to make the stadium bigger. Because it gives us the imperative to make the team bigger””

“Look,” he says, “we’re talking about Manchester United and that means great personalities, great players. The game is about performing, and in my time I’ve been blessed with several world-class players. Schmeichel was certainly one. Giggs, for me, definitely. Cantona could have been even better, but for the parts of him you had to control. Rooney. That’s four. And I think Ronaldo is going to be. He’s playing in the hardest position in football, out wide, and never refuses to take the ball and attack players. He’s two-footed, he’s brave and, once his decision-making improves, he’ll be world-class without question. Then there’s Keane. That’s five. And there’s an argument for Scholes, the cleverest midfield player we’ve ever had. To work with such people has been an absolute pleasure. It’s fulfilled every aspiration that occurred to me when I joined the Scotland set-up and encountered the likes of Dalglish and Souness.

“We are a big club and we’re going to get bigger. In fact, if I had to point to an aspect in which I’ve done well for Manchester United – and I think the directors would admit this – it’s that I’ve always been pushing them to increase the size of the stadium. When it went up to 76,000 and David Gill made the announcement and they asked me for a quote, I said that once we got to 100,000 I’d be happy. I knew David would be panicking at that! After all, it would entail going over the railway line behind the main stand and buying up houses. But we could do it. The next step could be filling in the third and fourth quadrants in a different way – without touching the railway – to get the capacity over 90,000. I’ll certainly be pushing for that.”

Onward and upward; that is Ferguson’s answer to the wealth of a Chelsea transformed by the arrival of Roman Abramovich and the other challenges from overseas. “You need the biggest stadium in the world. And you need a team good enough to fill it. While bringing through our own young players, we must always try to get the exceptional one who comes on the market, like Rooney. Yes, Chelsea are an obstacle and we have to cope with that. But we’ve always managed to get great players and we’ll continue to do that. A Giggs will come though, or a Rooney will become available to entertain and fill the stadium. A 100,000 capacity is exactly the road we should go down. I hope it happens in my time. I believe in aiming high. That’s why I’ve always pressed the board to make the stadium bigger. It gives us the imperative to make the team bigger.

“I’ll never forget going to Barcelona with Bobby Charlton to bring Mark Hughes back. We looked around us at those towering stands and Bobby said wistfully: ‘We should be like Barcelona.’ And I said: ‘Why aren’t we?’ And he just said: ‘I don’t know.’ At that time our capacity was about 57,000 and theirs was maybe twice as many. Now we’re getting closer to Barcelona. The thing about this club is that, like Barcelona and Real Madrid, it has romance. Manchester United is always going to be a massive club and, no matter who the manager is, there will always be great players here.”

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