Fergie deserves admiration

To stay in office as long as this, and to win in the process as many honours as Alex Ferguson has, is something which deserves to be celebrated and saluted.

Alex Ferguson has completed 20 years at Manchester United; a remarkable achievement of longevity and survival, deserving of our admiration. Even if, to be frank, one finds it easier to admire him than to like him. Still, to stay in office as long as this, and to win in the process as many honours as he has, is something which deserves to be celebrated and saluted. It is known that he still wishes deeply and desperately to win the European Cup again, and come a little nearer to the record of Liverpool's late Bob Paisley, who won the trophy so often where United won it only once and then in almost freakish circumstances — in Barcelona and against Bayern Munich.

That, you may remember, was the night in which Ferguson put out an inexplicably lopsided team, for some odd reason deciding to use Ryan Giggs — who now places him even ahead of Matt Busby — on the right wing and on his wrong foot, rather than the left. Bayern had been largely dominant, had not only gone ahead but had also beaten a tattoo on the woodwork when, almost at the death, United's substitutes snatched a couple of goals and the Cup was Ferguson's. Despite himself.

Perhaps his finest success in Europe came before he even joined Manchester United, when he was at Aberdeen. There Fergie, once a Rangers centre-forward famed chiefly for his shrewd use of the elbows, had transformed an ordinary club, an unexceptional team, into one capable of beating the mighty Real Madrid in the Copenhagan Final of the European Cupwinners' Cup. A competition he would win again in his early spell at United, arguably just in time to save his job.

For things had been going wrong, dismissal even seemed in prospect, and Ferguson was saved by the support of the club's chief executive and shareholder, Martin Edwards. Never a popular man with United's fans, much resented for the millions he made out of the club but in this case surely due some appreciation and gratitude even from supporters.

I beg to disagree with Giggs however that Ferguson has been a still greater manager of the club than Matt Busby. Not least because it was Busby who revitalised United and made them a great club. When he became manager at the end of the last War they did not — and would not for years to come — even have a stadium to play in. Old Trafford had been badly bombed and one recalls a famous photograph of one of their players, George Roughton, contemplating a tree which had grown in a goalmouth.

So Manchester City's Maine Road Stadium had to be shared but in no time at all football was delighted by the so-called Busby Babes, the very young players whom Busby put into his team in abundance. At Chelsea once, after a match in the early 1950s, I asked Busby about his policy. His reply was simple but explicit: "If you don't put them in, you can't know what you've got!" What he and United had got was the effervescent likes of Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton and George Best, all of whom came into the team as teenagers. But in February 1958 in the snows of Munich airport, United's plane, on the way back from a European Cup match in Belgrade, crashed with horrible loss of life. Bobby Charlton miraculously survived intact; shot out of the plane still strapped into his seat. Busby hovered between life and death but ultimately and splendidly survived, to take United, a decade later, to victory in the European Cup which he had coveted for so long, and which United had been the first English team to enter in 1956, defying the xenophobic Football League.

Busby was something of a father figure though he could exert his authority when necessary, even if it never did or could work in the case of the intransigent, brilliant George Best. Fergie is remarkable partly for the fact that, abrasive, authoritarian, at times aggressive, he can still treat his players — millionaires though they may be — like a fierce autocrat. The notorious hairdryer treatment, whereby he sticks his face into theirs and shouts at them, is a manifestation of his approach. Somehow it still seems to work.

Giggs, significantly, alluded in his tribute to Ferguson to the tune when one early season he disposed of three key players, the England midfielder Paul Ince, whom he derided as "a big time Charlie", but who went on to halcyon days with Inter and Liverpool, Kanchelskis, the powerful Russian outside-right, and Mark Hughes. I never could understand Fergie's ambivalence to Hughes, later manager of Wales and now Blackburn. He seemed to me essential as a centre-forward who could be the supreme target-man, holding up the ball and the play while awaiting reinforcements, yet time after time, before he sold him to Chelsea, where he continued to flourish, Ferguson would omit him. That United still won the League title that season, despite at one point being 12 points behind Newcastle United, was in no small measure thanks to Ferguson's psychological warfare on Kevin Keegan, then the volatile Magpies manager. It didn't work on such as Liverpool's Kenny Dalglish who once, after Liverpool had won, passing Ferguson haranguing the Press in the dressing room corridor, his own daughter in his arms, remarked to the journalists, "You'll get more sense out of her!"

Ferguson sometimes impulsively discards players he needed such as Jaap Stam, the Dutch centre-back, and even David Beckham whom he hit with a boot kicked across the dressing room.

He implacably refuses to attend post match Press Conferences. He supposedly has exhorted young players to join the Elite agency once run by his son Jason. He once cursed and swore on camera at harmless BBC TV commentator John Motson for daring to ask if he would punish Roy Keane. But there, defiantly, he still is.