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Fergie the Greatest
The Biography of Sir Alex Ferguson
By Frank Worrall
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2014 Frank Worrall
All rights reserved.
'I'D NEVER BEEN AFRAID OF ANYONE BUT FERGUSON WAS A FRIGHTENING BASTARD FROM THE START.'
Bobby McCulley, East Stirlingshire forward, June 1974
When Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in November 1986, he was largely unknown to fans of English football. In itself that is quite remarkable, given the way he had turned the Scottish game on its head by transforming Aberdeen into the No. 1 side at the expense of the 'Old Firm', Celtic and Rangers. But just as stunning is the way he worked his way from humble beginnings in Govan, Glasgow, to the very top of world football to become arguably the greatest manager ever.
There must be something special in the air up on the banks of the Clyde and in the coalmines of Lanarkshire – something that provides an inherent set of necessary traits, psyche and character for certain of its sons to become world-class football managers. Sir Alex is one of a breed steeped in the proud ideals and culture of the region that would also produce fellow legends Sir Matt Busby and Jock Stein.
Alexander Chapman Ferguson was born in Govan on 31 December 1941 to a Protestant, working-class family. He remembers his childhood as a happy one, a warm one, and says he felt secure, even though life on the edge of southwest Glasgow's rough-and-tumble shipyards could be exacting and challenging at times. He was to admit, 'there was never a shade of menace over my boyhood.'
Fergie was named after his father, Alexander Beaton Ferguson, a shipyard worker. Young Alex's brother Martin would also turn to the shipyard for work – indeed, he was to work with their father at the Fairfield yard. Years later, Sir Alex would pay tribute to them both by naming his luxury home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, after the yard in which they toiled – Fairfields. His mother Elizabeth had given birth to him at his grandmother Janet's home in Shieldhall Road, Govan, just yards from the River Clyde but he was to grow up in a tenement at 667 Govan Road (which has since been demolished), where he lived with his parents as well as Martin, who was born almost a year after him.
Money was tight and the brothers shared a bedroom but Alex had a sunny, optimistic outlook on life. He was a bright boy and attended Broomloan Road Primary School and later Govan High School – although he initially failed the qualifying exam for the secondary school after a period of ill health. At the age of 16 he knew he wanted to be a professional footballer. He was football mad – and had been since he first kicked a ball as a toddler. While his father Alex senior supported Celtic, both Alex junior and Martin were Rangers-crazy and Alex's ambition, as he grew up in Govan, was one day to play for the Ibrox giants.
Fergie explained his childhood obsession in this way: 'It was only football, football, football. That was it. My house [in Govan] was one up from the back court and there were clothes poles on either side and it was all walled-in, so you could play there all the time. It was an absolute football arena – housewives wouldn't hang the washing on clotheslines; it was too dangerous – boys were playing football all the time. It was fantastic. The competitions were going on all summer. Boys were coming from all over Govan to play. Football was a release, it was what you loved, it was your enjoyment.'
Yet while his dream was to play for Rangers – and he would do everything in his power to achieve that ambition – he knew that he had to be realistic, too. He needed a job that he could fit his football around, one that would also provide a trade, so he became a toolmaking apprentice, even though he was convinced he had what it took to become a professional footballer. The job would one day provide him with an opportunity to show off his leadership qualities – instinctively a proud, working-class man, he became interested in union activities while working in the Clyde shipyards. One day, as a shop steward, he would lead an unofficial walk-out over a pay dispute.
But football remained his main love. Of course, he had played his way up from youth teams to schoolboy level and local amateur outfits, but his career as a player began in earnest at the age of 17, with Queen's Park in 1958. He stayed there two years – fitting his toolmaking work around the football – and scored 20 goals in his 31 games, but he could not hold down a regular place in the side and moved to St Johnstone in 1960.
A bustling centre-forward, he would spend four years at McDiarmid Park before finally turning professional and joining Dunfermline in 1964. The highlight of his spell at St Johnstone had, ironically, come when he was called on to play against Rangers and duly grabbed a hat-trick. It was the first time St Johnstone had ever won at Ibrox – and it was the first time a player had scored a hat-trick against Rangers at their home fortress.
Fergie amassed a total of 19 goals in 37 games for Saints and easily bettered that with 66 in 89 at Dunfermline. Yet in the 64/65 season he was to experience the lows that invariably walk side by side with those joyous highs when he was dropped for the 1965 Scottish Cup final an hour before the game.
Willie Cunningham explained it was because of a poor performance in a league game against St Johnstone but Fergie was incandescent with rage and screamed 'You bastard!' at the Dunfermline boss. Eventually, Dunfermline lost the final 3-2 to Celtic and then failed to win the League by one point.
The following season (65/66), Fergie hit 45 goals in 51 games for Dunfermline – a feat that would earn him the accolade of joint top scorer in the Scottish League with Celtic's Joe McBride. Thirty-one of the 45 goals had come in the League. It was an astonishing goal record at a club not viewed as big-timers – and it would certainly have played a major part in bringing the big man's lifetime dream to fruition.
Yes, almost 10 years after he had set out on the trail to the top with Queen's Park, he eventually arrived there with his beloved Rangers. In 1967, the Ibrox outfit splashed out a fee of £65,000 for his signature – at the time a record between Scottish clubs.
But what should have been a joyful peak as a player ended with an acrimonious split after he was fingered for his team's 4-0 thrashing by Celtic in the 1969 Scottish Cup final. Fergie was blamed for one of the goals and forced to play for the club's junior side instead of the first team. According to his brother, Fergie was so upset by the experience that he threw his runners-up medal away. There were claims that he left Ibrox over racial discrimination because he married Cathy, a Catholic, but in his autobiography, Managing My Life, he stressed this was not the case; that the club knew of his wife's religion when he joined and that he quit Ibrox because of the bitterness over the Cup final.
The following October, Nottingham Forest wanted to sign him but Cathy was not keen on a move to England at the time, so he went to Falkirk. He was promoted to player-coach there, but when John Prentice became manager he removed Ferguson's coaching responsibilities. Fergie responded by requesting a transfer and moved to Ayr United in 1973, where he finished his playing career.
As a manager, Fergie started out as part-time boss of East Stirling in 1974, at the age of 32. He was paid the grand total of £40 a week but quickly earned the respect of his players with his disciplinarian attitude. It was there that the famous 'frightening bastard' quote would originate. Striker Bobby McCulley would say of Ferguson: 'He terrified us. I'd never been afraid of anyone before but he was such a frightening bastard from the start. Everything was focused towards his goals. Time didn't matter to him; he never wore a watch. If he wanted something done he'd stay as late as it took, or come in early. He always joined in with us in training and would have us playing in the dark until his five-a-side team won. He was ferocious, elbowing and kicking.'
I tracked down journalist John Fitzpatrick, who was one of the first to interview Fergie in his first managerial post. Fitzpatrick worked for the Falkirk Herald and would, like Fergie, go on to greater things himself, eventually ended up at the London Evening Standard and the Mail on Sunday. He told me that even back in 1974 it was clear that Fergie was someone going places; that he had all the attributes needed to be a success. Fitzpatrick said: 'It might have been a case of very humble beginnings, but Alex Ferguson struck me as a person who knew exactly what he wanted, where he wanted to be and how he would get there – however long it took.
'He was a determined man, passionate about his football and full of integrity. East Stirling was simply a stepping stone, an early staging post on a journey to the top. No doubt about that. In any conversations I had with him he was always very pleasant and courteous. I felt sad when he moved on so quickly, but knew that I would be hearing a lot about Alex Ferguson over the years – and I wasn't wrong on that score!'
Six months after joining East Stirling, Fergie moved to St Mirren on the advice of Jock Stein. Many years later Tony Fitzpatrick, the then St Mirren captain, would say of his new boss: 'He made me captain at just 17 and was always fantastic with me. I've heard all about his reputation now but he never threw teacups at me or anyone else, but he had a very young team and it wasn't necessary. He is one of those people with an aura about him – you could just feel it. I think he's one of those great figures we see running through history; he's definitely got the gift of leadership.'
That strand – a leader among men – would also be taken up when Fergie quit Love Street for Aberdeen in 1978. His four years at St Mirren transformed an ailing club – turning them from Second Division strugglers when he arrived into First Division champions the year before he departed for the Dons.
In the Granite City his similarly rock-hard, rock-solid, hands-on approach was also a winner. While at Pittodrie, Ferguson won three championships, four Scottish FA Cups, one Scottish League Cup, the European Cup Winners' Cup (beating Real Madrid 2-1 in Gothenburg) and the European Super Cup in a remarkable eight and a half years. It was an incredible haul, given the traditional gulf in resources between the Dons and Celtic and Rangers.
His centre-half at Pittodrie was current Birmingham boss Alex McLeish and he would say: 'Alex is a leader of men. That's what he does best, and it wouldn't have mattered where or when he managed a club like United, he would have been successful. He just gave players so much belief and even when we played Real Madrid in that Cup Winners' Cup final he wasn't fazed at all and made sure we weren't either. His enormous mental strength is unquestionable.'
The triumphs at Aberdeen would also prove some sort of revenge on Rangers for their ill treatment of him. In those eight and a half years at the bleakest, most northern of outposts of British football Ferguson broke the Old Firm monopoly of Rangers and Celtic. Pre-Fergie, the club had not won the title since 1955, but he changed all that when they lifted the League trophy in 1980. It was the first time in 15 years that the title had not been won by either Rangers or Celtic and Ferguson now felt he had the respect of his players, later saying: 'That was the achievement which united us. I finally had the players believing in me.'
Aberdeen then followed up with back-to-back titles in 1984 and 1985. They also lifted the Scottish Cup three seasons in a row: 1982, 1983 and 1984, but their greatest success came when they beat Real Madrid to lift the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1983.
Fergie was also to briefly manage the Scotland national team after the tragic death of Jock Stein before becoming manager of United. He would admit to being devastated by the death of Big Jock, whom many view as his mentor. Fergie was in the Scotland dug-out as assistant to the former Celtic manager for the World Cup qualifying draw against Wales on 10 September 1985.
Stein suffered a heart attack and collapsed before the end of the match, which the Scots drew 1-1 to earn a play-off place against Australia. The first man to lead a British team to European Cup glory – with the Hoops in 1967 – passed away in the dressing room at Ninian Park.
Ferguson expressed his agony 20 years later. He said: 'To this day, I still miss those night sessions we would have in the team's hotel when he was manager of Scotland and I was his assistant. He hardly slept, of course, and would sit up all night talking, if you let him. At about 3am, I'd say, "Jock, it's all right for you, but I'm taking training in the morning and I'll have to get to my bed."
'He would say, "Ach, you can have a nap in the afternoon." Then he'd turn to Jimmy Steel, the masseur and a wonderful character, and say: "Steely, order another pot of tea."
'But it was inspiring, listening to him talk. With some men who get a bit of success there is a bit of me, me, me, in their conversation – telling you what they did, and how they did it. Whenever I asked Jock about his great Celtic teams and how they did what they did, especially in specific matches like, say, the European Cup final, he never once mentioned his own part.'
He would dearly miss Big Jock, both as a friend and a footballing sounding board, whom he could trust implicitly.
Fergie's tenure as Scottish boss started on 16 October 1985 and ended on 13 June 1986 – taking in that year's World Cup in Mexico. Of his 10 matches in total, he won three, drew four and lost three – the side scoring eight goals and conceding five. The World Cup campaign was hardly a success: Fergie got it off to a controversial start by ignoring the claims of one Alan Hansen for inclusion in his squad and the results in Mexico were unsatisfactory; Scotland lost their first game 1-0 against Denmark, their second 2-1 against West Germany (Gordon Strachan giving Fergie hope with a consolation goal) and drew their third and final game 0-0 against the Uruguayans.
The World Cup may have been a disappointment, but when he returned to Aberdeen after the World Cup, Fergie found he was much in demand. He was approached by Barcelona, Arsenal, Rangers and Tottenham and Manchester United. The Spurs job appealed and he was tempted, but when United came in there was only one destination for the much-travelled Scot.
The legend of Alex Ferguson and Manchester United was about to be written ...CHAPTER 2
UNITED HE STANDS
'I WANT TO KNOCK LIVERPOOL RIGHT OFF THEIR FUCKIN' PERCH.'
Alex Ferguson, 1986
Alex Ferguson walked into Old Trafford on 6 November 1986, surveyed the wreckage that was the legacy of the Ron Atkinson era, smiled at the crowd of United employees gathered to welcome him and shared a joke with one of his groundsmen. He started as he meant to go on: he was a man of the people from humble beginnings, who felt it was important to treat all the staff the same, whether MD or a cleaner.
Fergie, then 44, knew he had his work cut out – but so what? What was new? It had always been that way, hadn't it, from clawing his way through an upbringing that was warm in family love though hardly privileged to battling through the echelons and challenges of football, first as a player and then as a manager.
But the size of the task at United was gigantic. He might have been taking over the biggest football club in the world, but they were in a bad state: United were helping to prop up the table, second from bottom in the old First Division, and relegation was a frightening possibility. Fergie quickly instilled a discipline in the squad that had been lacking – and warned that their drinking would have to stop and their levels of fitness increase or they would be on their bikes. The iron fist worked: United climbed up the table to finish the season in 11th place.
In that first season, Fergie would also set out his ambition to the media. It was simple: as at Aberdeen, he wanted to win everything even though United, like the Dons, were considered outsiders when it came to the glory stakes. Also like Aberdeen, he would have to break up a monopoly of the established order to do that. This was the man who, at Pittodrie, had shaken up the Glasgow stranglehold on Scottish football with his exciting young side. Now his aim was to do a similar job in England in targeting Liverpool's hold on the English top-flight title.
His one superstar player at Old Trafford, club skipper and lionheart Bryan Robson, confirmed that that was what his new boss wanted more than anything at the start of his reign. Robbo said: 'His aim was to knock Liverpool and Everton off their perch and make United number one again.'
And Fergie was to succeed – he would turn the club upside down after surviving an uneasy initial three years and achieve his ambition of overwhelming Liverpool within seven years. But it meant revolution at Old Trafford: many unpalatable changes, in personnel, mindset and attitude, would need to be rushed through. He would have to sort out the rabble and the rubble bequeathed him by his predecessor, Ron Atkinson.
Excerpted from Fergie the Greatest by Frank Worrall. Copyright © 2014 Frank Worrall. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1: The Govan-er,
2: United He Stands,
3: King Eric – His Greatest Buy,
4: The Fergie Babes,
5: Kids Did Win Titles,
6: Miracle in the Camp Nou,
7: Bosh and Becks,
8: Sweet FA,
9: Barren Nights,
10: On the Boos,
11: Back in Business,
12: Fergie's New Dream Team,
13: Crème de la Kremlin,
14: Kop That ... 18 Titles All,
15: World Beater,
16: Roman Ruins,
17: Retirement, Eh? Bloody Hell!,
18: Record Breaker,
19: Feud For Thought,
20: Simply the Best,
21: End of an Era,
22: World At His Feet,