The real Alex Ferguson?

SIR Alex Ferguson, highly successful, highly authoritarian, manager of Manchester United is ever a controversial figure and all the more so with the publication of a biography, The Boss: The many sides of Alex Ferguson by the well-known political and football journalist, Michael Crick. An author who has already collaborated in a stinging history of Manchester United in largely pre-Ferguson days, revealing a lot of very dirty work at the Crossroads, not least by the late Chairman, Louis Edwards, who died of a heart attack in his bath just two steps, of the posse, you might say. Apart from his finagling at the club, there was the matter of the inferior meat his butcher's business had sold for years to the local council for schoolchildren, bribing the official in charge with &pound100 worth of free, good quality, meat each week!

Ferguson is subject to no such accusations, though Crick's book prints him as a greedy man, seemingly never satisfied with the huge sums of money he has made over the years; perhaps the consequence of his impoverished (though he would reject the word) upbringing in his native Glasgow, when, under a father as dour and authoritarian as Ferguson himself, the family lived in such primitive conditions.

Ferguson is depicted here as an intimidating bully, whether it be with his own players or a generally cowed media. It should be observed here, however, that it is quite remarkable that he should still clearly exercise such dominion over his footballers in a period when their or their equivalents' vast earnings and the ease with which post Bosman they can slip out of their contracts makes it very hard indeed for their managers to exercise over them the old style authority. Ferguson however, according to the testimony of this book, can fly into ferocious rages in the dressing room, guaranteed to cow all but the toughest, one of whom was Paul Ince who, says Crick, was once on the verge of coming to blows with Ferguson in the dressing room after being blisteringly assailed. They were parted just in time.

Ferguson also comes down furiously on journalists, whether they be from television or the Press, when he considers that their questions are out of order. There is an alarming description of how he flew at the peaceful BBC commentator John Motson when poor John, primed by his studio, had asked Fergie about the sending off, the third, of Roy Keane. Ferguson stopped the interview, then swore furiously at Motson, whose plea that he was only asking the question he'd been told to was no defence.

Actually, I have a favourite memory of one of Fergie's Press Conferences after a match; though be it noted, as Crick points out, that this season he boycotted them all for months, after negative criticism of his team in the papers. This, though it is meant to be a strict rule of the Premiership that managers attend all such conferences. As Crick says, no one at the Premiership had the guts to bring him into line. Anyhow, the scene was the crowded Press room at West Ham after a game against United. Suddenly a thin, grey headed, spectacled man, standing against the wall near me, asked a question which was mildly provocative. "I'm away!" said Ferguson; he stood up and he left. "Whom are you working for?" I asked the man. "Shh!" he replied. "It's me brother, it's me brother!" He'd killed the conference and he wasn't even a journalist! But at least he didn't suffer Fergie's wrath.

When the BBC publication Match of the Day, which actually had no connection with the TV side, was rash enough to publish an article which was strongly critical of him, Ferguson banned all interviews with the actual Match of the Day TV programme with him or his players, and sue for libel. Crick says that the BBC's lawyers wanted to fight the case but the organisation caved in and paid Fergie &pound10,000 out of court.

Perhaps his finest achievement came before he got to Old Trafford, when, with the modest Scottish club, Aberdeen, he so remarkably won the European Cupwinners' Cup, beating mighty Real Madrid in the Final. He actually had a very uneasy time of it when he came to Manchester and was in danger of even getting the sack. Then success in the FA Cup saved him, and he has been steadily successful ever since.

Sometimes, though, it has owed more to luck than judgement. As above all in the 1999 European Cup Final in Barcelona. There, his blunders made you think that the recent strictures of the former United and Aston Villa goalie Mark Bosnich, now a Chelsea reserve, may have had some substance. Just before Chelsea recently played United at Stamford Bridge, Bosnich publicly opined that Fergie was tactically inadequate.

He certainly seemed so that 1999 night in Barcelona when he so inexplicably deployed the left-footed Ryan Giggs on the right wing, giving his usual role to the ineffectual Swede, Jesper Blomqvist. By the time Fergie remedied this, Bayern Munich were a goal up and had hit the wood-work twice. But right at the death, goals by Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer won the Cup for United, for the first time since 1968.

Ferguson, of course, was due to retire at the end of this season, only according to Crick at the last moment, before Sven Goran Erikksson was given the job, to change his mind and stay at the helm. Both the Football Association and United have denied any such thing, but who can say? As for Ferguson himself, Crick quotes a local journalist who insists that you can never believe what Fergie tells you about "team selection, injuries and so on." And when Fergie last summer insisted that Jaap Stam, the Dutch defender who'd clearly offended him in what he'd said in a autobiography (Ferguson had severely criticised Gordon Strachan and Brian Kidd, who nearly sued him, in his own) was not for sale, it was only a few weeks later that Stam was on his way to Lazio. You have to salute the Arsenal coach, Arsene Wenger, for the way he never rises to Fergie's bait, as Kevin Keegan once did.