8 May 2013

There’s only two Alex Fergusons…

There are more than two Fergies. There’s the inimitable manager the football world toasts today – Manchester United announcing at 9.17 this morning “Sir Alex retires, #thankyousiralex”.

The two Champions League titles, 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups – the 49 trophies in all, making him the most successful gaffer in the history of British football.

But there’s also Fergie the habitual worrier of referees, tormenter of opposing managers, and complainer of how everyone is out to to get Manchester United. They’re not quite Millwall, but as boss of one of the biggest clubs in the world he’s presided over United’s new-found persecution complex.  Consider that well-worn football adage: “no one likes us, we don’t care” – which is surely to be expected when you just keep on winning.

It’s the off-field stuff that tells us more though; where the two Fergies seem to compete for control of his mouth and infamous temper. Rewind to the eve of the Champions League final against Barcelona two years ago.

Ryan Giggs was the talk of the town for his extra marital indiscretions. But a high court super-injunction temporarily prevented the media from discussing it – except in the most veiled of terms.

I found myself sat with a group of sports news journalists in the Old Trafford briefing room, waiting for the official Uefa press conference.  It was clear the main topic for discussion was to be Giggs – something everyone knew would tip Sir Alex into a rage.  Some form of hair drier treatment was inevitable.

The question came… “Sir Alex, such an important game – you’ll be relying on your senior players. Like Ryan Giggs. How is he today?”

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Sir Alex glared at his inquisitor. He was sat right next to me. I knew instantly how Keegan, Wenger and so many more had felt over the years. He batted the question away. Refused to answer it.  Whispered something in his assistant’s ear.

And then word came from our camera crews at the back of the room. Their ultra sensitive broadcast mics had picked up Sir Alex’s aside.

“Who was the journalist who asked that question? Ban him…”

The daily reality of working with Sir Alex. It was always his way or the proverbial highway.

Or was it?

Because debutante managers will tell of how they would receive unexpected calls from a bloke called Alex with a thick Glasgow brogue, wishing them all the best in their new job and extending the hand of support. It’s a lonely perch, running a football team.

Which is perhaps why he spent so much time on the racecourse – leaving the training to his friend Paul Nicholls, working with beasts – however impetuous – that don’t answer back. Why you’ll find Sir Alex today at the races, following his favourite hobby.

And where a couple of months ago – a few days after United were beaten in the Champions League quarter-finals by Real Madrid – Sir Alex told me in buoyant mood that he had no intention of leaving the club and would “outstay everyone”.

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For his cards have almost always been close to his chest. The fire and brimstone was his show, his act.  But also his essence. The last time speculation grew that he might leave – a decade ago – he vowed that when he left he’d do it in a flash.

Ok, so it took the club 12 long hours to confirm the rumours that leaked out overnight – but Fergie left his old life in the only way he knows. On his own terms.

Sir Alex. Fergie. The hairdrier man. Today – all of them, one and the same.

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