Fierce Fergie

With miniscule exceptions, notably the talented Paul Scholes, a teenaged prodigy recalled dramatically in his late 30s, Alex Ferguson finds no favourites; and many targets in his new autobiography. By Brian Glanville.

It was the French Revolutionary Saint-Just who declared, “You cannot govern without blood on your hands.” Metaphorically Alex Ferguson, who has just published his second autobiography within a few years, seems to have embraced the same philosophy. With miniscule exceptions, notably the talented, redheaded Paul Scholes, a teenaged prodigy recalled dramatically in his late 30s, Ferguson finds no favourites; and many targets.

That he should show special antipathy to that explosive Irishman Roy Keane is hardly surprising. He quickly got rid of that dynamic midfielder when Keane used the internal Manchester United television station to make a wholesale attack on almost all his team-mates. Yet in neither of his autobiographies does one find Ferguson condemning Keane for the brutal, deliberate assault, proudly admitted in his own autobiography, on the hapless Norwegian Alf-Inge Haaland, which Keane saw as revenge at Old Trafford for a serious injury suffered by himself as crude consequence of an attempt to foul Haaland at Leeds United.

Keane’s record of violent vituperation is well known. He marched out of Ireland’s training camp on a Japanese Island just before the World Cup began in 2002, having justifiably criticised the training facilities, for which he was taken to task and infuriated by the team manager Mick McCarthy in front of team colleagues. Ferguson accuses him of having “the most savage tongue you can imagine.”

David Beckham as a boy is indulgently remembered but not the Beckham who constantly changed his hair style who “would never concede he’d had a bad game and never accept he’d made a mistake.” The Beckham who notoriously Ferguson cut above the eye with a boot he’d launched in a post match dressing room confrontation.

He insists that strong families produce the best players, bizarrely forgetting that Ryan Giggs, one of the best players he ever had, came from one in which his father, a Welsh international Rugby League player, walked out on his wife and children, Giggs refusing even to use his surname in later life. Various embarrassing episodes are ignored or glossed over. Not least that of the champion race-horse Rock of Gibraltar whose high winnings its owners, the Irishman John Magnier and J. P. McManus, generously allowed Ferguson to keep. Only to draw the line when he demanded a share of the horse’s stud fees when it retired. Why, given his own wealth, would Ferguson have wanted the money anyway? As it was, he backed down from suing them in an Irish court. And they in turn withdrew the list of 99 questions they intended to ask him.

One of them might well have involved the prolix case of the USA goalkeeper Tim Howard. A Sunday paper revealed that when United signed him after he had excelled in France in the Confederations Cup, winning an appeal to the Department of Employment, a large sum of money had been paid to an obscure Italo-Swiss agent. The newspaper described how most of that money had been passed on to an English football agent in Monaco, and thence to Jason Ferguson, Alex’s son, then running a football agency in Manchester called Elite. But as I knew full well, being at the time a member of that small appeals committee which met in a fashionable London hotel, no agent could ever come near us.

And Ferguson was incensed when the BBC Panorama programme ran an expose of the Elite agency. So much so that he refused to speak again to any BBC sports programme, though the sports department had no involvement with Panorama. A ban which endured for seven sullen years.

And for many years past he has refused to give the obligatory post match interviews after Premiership games. The Premiership itself being too timid to discipline him, though he has been fined, occasionally, by the European body, for such behaviour.

For some time it was reported that when a youngster signed for United, Ferguson insisted that he leave his agent if he had one and go to Jason and Elite. Now Elite no longer exists, but Jason handles lucrative prospects for his father.

Wayne Rooney, who has said how much more pleasant it is to play now for the new incumbent at United, David Moyes, is criticised for his various transfer requests, displeased that he was being used out of his striking position, critical of the club’s transfer policy three years ago. Ferguson though admits that had Rooney previously been playing as well as he is now there would have been no contretemps.

A major surprise is his warm words for the American Glazer family, detested by United fans for the way they bought the club, then contrived to burden it somehow with the colossal debt which they themselves had incurred. For Ferguson it was enough they allowed him to spend as he wishes on transfers, but a financial day of reckoning can hardly be postponed indefinitely even with regular 75,000 crowds at Old Trafford and huge global sales of various merchandise.

Where Ferguson, who worked wonders in Scotland and in Europe with modest Aberdeen before he came to Old Trafford, does deserve self-satisfaction is in the subtle way he handled the tempestuous, sometimes violent French international Eric Cantona, much for the Leeds United Manager Howard Wilkinson and picked up for what soon seemed a derisory GBP1 million. Not every player received what came to be called ‘The Hairdryer Treatment’, with Ferguson fulminating in their face.

That he has been an exceptional and hugely successful club manager is undeniable. But when he managed Scotland in Mexico in the 1986 World Cup, elimination was swift and disappointing.