Can’t keep this ‘Fergie’ away

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson remonstrates with fourth offical Alan Wiley during a English Premier League match.-PICS: AP

Sir Alex is rarely off the back page of the tabloids, often because he is cunning enough to use the papers to spread his gospel, sometimes because he is tempted to say more than he should, writes Ted Corbett.

If you open an English tabloid it is easy to be confused by the word “Fergie”.

There is, to start with the lady now divorced from the Duke of York who is often on the news pages for some error of judgement, serious gaffe or outrageous idea; and sometimes as the writer of stories for children.

More often a headline containing the word “Fergie” is about Sir Alex Ferguson, long-term, irascible manager of Manchester United and self-appointed critic of referees. He has just been fined and suspended for calling one referee unfit.

Most recently a third Fergie has come online. Darren Ferguson is the son of Sir Alex, and manager of Peterborough United. They are my local team so to speak since they play less than a dozen miles from my home.

Darren has been in the spotlight in recent days because, even though he managed The Posh — the city of Peterborough gets its status because of its lovely cathedral but otherwise it is about as posh as any other industrial conurbation — from the depths of the League Two to the Championship, fourth ranking league among football’s top teams, he has been sacked.

That is mainly because his players are not good enough to compete in the second highest strata of English football — next step the Premier League with Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and the rest — and it seems that for all his team juggling he could not find a way to force enough victories to give them stability.

So — and this is the blind custom among bad clubs — he has had to go. Don’t fret. I doubt if he and a young family will starve, not least because his father has a few shillings in the bank as a careful Scot might be expected to have. There are also rumours of other clubs wanting his services. Funny game, football.

In addition the game looks after its own. In old days reporting football I would often go into a board room after the match and see half a dozen familiar faces, managers who have lost their jobs but who were given scouting missions by their pals who had contrived to hang on to their posts.

No doubt in due course the favour was returned. Who better to do the scouting; or better placed to dish out a few pounds to keep someone in work?

Of course, Sir Alex is rarely off the back page of the tabloids, often because he is cunning enough to use the papers to spread his gospel, sometimes because he is tempted to say more than he should.

He is a blunt, rude, outspoken man, sure of his knowledge after a lifetime in football — as a striker with Glasgow Rangers, a Scottish international and working his way as a manager with small clubs, to Aberdeen, which he made a force in European competitions and so to United where Scots have often been in charge and usually made a success of the job.

Matt Busby, whose stars included Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, was the most famous. Tommy Docherty — remember him? He is still alive and making a few shillings with acerbic speeches on the after-dinner circuit — another lively personality and now the most prominent “Fergie”.

Sir Alex Ferguson has always been in the limelight.-

Ferguson is now 67 after 24 years at United — he began badly but since the 1990s he has mopped up cups and league success in Europe and won a greater number of fans in a rebuilt, larger stadium — through the efforts of Ryan Giggs, still playing, Eric Cantona, another unpredictable man now making films instead of goals and Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps better than the late George Best.

Ronaldo’s departure for Spain has heralded a dip in the United fortunes with the result that a third of the way through the season United trail Chelsea, losing by narrow margins that Ronaldo might have turned into wins.

But back to the clever Fergie. He seems to be rude about referees all the time until the old rule for journalists that dog bites man is not a story is being applied. (I notice that no referees turn down his games, or return his insults. It may tell you something about referees; I am not sure.)

So long ago — around 1968 I guess — that I can hardly remember the circumstances I had to meet him in a small flat not far from the Rangers ground.

There must have been some controversy — it is never far from Alex as he was then — but he opened the door to me and asked, almost immediately: “How much am I being paid for this?”

I had not been in that job long but we were rehearsed in the answer. “I’m afraid we don’t pay for stories,” I said. “If you agreed to see me under the impression there was a payment involved I can go now without having the interview.”

There was a brief silence while he absorbed the reply. “No, no,” he said. ”Carry on. It’s fine.”

We had the interview, the story appeared and for years I thought no more of the incident. But when I tried to get in touch with him again he did not return my call.

Since then Sir Alex Ferguson has become a mighty man in sport, a commanding figure in football around the world, the owner of race horses, consulted by the Labour government at times about the best way to get their point of view across.

Certainly he is the one “Fergie” held in the highest esteem.