Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson gives a rare interview to FourFourTwo back in November 1999, and is as blunt as ever.
A few years ago, a television company was making a film about what it was like to be a footballer with Manchester United. The club approved of the programme and the camera crew was given access to the Cliff, United’s fabled training ground in north Manchester. Alex Ferguson, too, approved and could hardly have been more co-operative, not only in making himself and his players available, but in providing introductions to a whole galaxy of former stars.
Several days into filming, however, the producers were growing concerned that the soundbites were becoming a little repetitive. Everyone, it seemed, found playing for United a great honour, the thrill of a lifetime. What was needed was a bit of light and shade: a player whose time at Old Trafford had been less comic-book, someone who could talk candidly about the pressures of playing for the biggest club in Britain.
Ralph Milne had been one of Ferguson’s earliest purchases, an outstanding winger at Dundee United but someone, according to Ferguson’s recent autobiography, who found Old Trafford ‘simply too much for him’. A researcher made contact with Milne by phone and enquired about an interview. Big mistake.
The next day at the Cliff, Ferguson, until then a charming and welcoming host, exploded. What the hell did the programme makers think they were doing contacting Milne without checking with him first? This was liberty-taking of the first degree and, if repeated, the access so courteously provided would be shut off like a tap. The result? Assurances were given, the filming continued and the programme went out. Without Ralph Milne.
Ralph Milne (remember him?) is tackled by Brian Laws (remember him?)
Arriving at United’s training ground on a sunny autumn morning it is easy to see how Fergie exerts such control. This is his domain. It’s a quarter to eight, but his BMW has been in its car parking slot (itself set apart from the others) for 45 minutes or so. On the door to the main building there is a sign. ‘No one allowed beyond this point without the manager’s permission,’ it says. It has surely been penned by a specialist in Basil Fawlty’s favourite Mastermind subject (the bleedin’ obvious).
There aren’t many staff around at this time but it’s clear the manager is held in high regard: a mixture of warmth and awed respect. ‘Alex [he pronounces it Alec] is still in the gym,’ a friendly middle-aged man says, guiding me to the canteen. ‘Fetch yourself a cup of tea. He’ll be up for his breakfast soon.’
The canteen, like the rest of the building, is surprisingly austere, its decor and furnishings that of a good state school (certainly far less plush than your average public school: no doubt Ferguson the socialist would approve). United’s footballers may live in the lap of luxury but they don’t eat there, not while at work anyway. On the noticeboard there is a printed sign: ‘If you have an itch please scratch it on the pitch.’
Ferguson’s office is much the same. Again what’s striking is the lack of ostentation. Again the analogy that comes to mind is educational: the headmaster’s study at a decent comprehensive. (Though not, it has to be said, a particularly tidy headmaster.) The desk, large but certainly not antique, is strewn with letters, videos, books and notebooks. It needs, as Ferguson admits at one point, a good tidy. The furnishings are decent but not especially carefully chosen. There is a crystal vase, a whole array of clocks, and various photographs of United teams winning trophies.
The most prominent tome on the bookshelves is the European Football Yearbook. The television, on which the merits and weaknesses of the world’s best players are assessed, is smaller than you might expect. Looking around you can’t help wondering whether there is anyone else in Britain at the heart of a plc with an annual turnover of £90m who ?operates from such frugal surroundings.
Just about the only clue to United’s riches are the beautifully manicured practice pitches visible through the window that takes up much of the far wall. In a couple of hours’ time they will be graced by some of the best players in the country, but for now they are green and empty in the sunlight.
Yet, as he makes his plans for world domination – and with both the the Intercontinental Cup and the World Club Championship to play for this season that, in a literal football sense, is now what he must do – this is clearly how Fergie likes it. This is his lair, and the clutter and sense of informality contribute to the atmosphere he has deliberately fostered.
‘It has got a family feel about it,’ he says, sitting behind the desk in shorts and short-sleeved shirt with the letters ‘AF’ emblazoned on it. ‘I know a lot of people will tell you that the plc can feel distant from them. But the plc is only the arm that engineers the thing. Obviously the plc has changed most people’s image of ?us. But the people working with us never change.’
Fergie is unveiled at Manchester United in 1986 by then chairman Martin Edwards
When Ferguson arrived in November 1986 there were around 30 such people working for United full-time, and he knew them all. Now there are 400, and he still knows a lot of them. ‘Everyone here we know,’ he says indicating the Cliff. ‘And the core of the people who were here when I was first here are still here. People who look upon Manchester United as a life. Cathy Tipps in the reception, Ken Merrett and Ken Ramsden have been here all their lives. In the ticket office, Arthur Chubb and people like that. My secretary Lynn, and Maria and the young girls in the office. All been here for life.’
In the new year many of them, including Ferguson and the first team, will be moving to a new, purpose-built facility at Carrington, part of the Trafford Centre, leaving the training ground the club has inhabited since the Fifties to the youngsters. For the moment, though, Ferguson acknowledges that his personality is all-pervasive at the Cliff, but denies it is something he deliberately cultivates.
‘No, I think it’s just time and control. Control gives the authority. And the one thing a player always respects is when he knows the manager is going to be his manager the next day, you know? I think you see traces of that when a team’s under pressure. They want to do well for the manager, but they know he is on a lifeline. They can see that his job is teetering. And thereby it dilutes the control of the whole place.’
Ferguson has been on the other end of that of course, a decade ago when his position was ?precarious. ‘Yup, and it’s not a healthy situation at a football club. It’s an unavoidable feeling, percolating throughout the team and the club.’ He survived and the patience of United’s directors has paid dividends ever since. Is there less patience nowadays? ‘There’s a lot of ways at looking at that patience thing,’ Ferguson replies firmly. ‘I think there was little patience when I came, too. I mean Ron Atkinson was a very popular manager in the press. But it didn’t save him, did it? Two FA Cups, never out of the top four. Didn’t save him.’
As the 1990s draw to a close, the most ?striking characteristic about Ferguson’s sides over the past decade is their capacity for more. From the moment Leeds denied them in 1992, their response to a rival winning the title has been to win back-to-back championships themselves (a statistic which appears to make this season’s Premiership a formality). And as if Doubles in ’94 and ’96 were not avaricious enough from a club that had never won more than one major trophy per season in its previous 120 years, they trumped that with last season’s historic Treble. It is an extraordinary haul and one that, in numerical terms at least, dwarfs the records of Shankly and Busby, the two legendary managers with whom Ferguson is so often compared.
Solksjaer gets the party started in Barcelona
This season United are at it again. While some sort of reaction would be understandable after last season’s ferociously wearying excursions, his team have responded instead with the best start to a League season in their manager’s time at Old Trafford. For Alex Ferguson this hunger is at the very core of his managerial credo.
‘Winning a trophy doesn’t really mean anything to me after it’s gone,’ he says. ‘At the time it’s the most cherished thing. But as soon as it’s over, it’s soon forgotten. Well, not soon forgotten, but it evaporates. Your next step is the important one, and the mentality here is of that nature. The players are brought up, as soon as they succeed, to go for the next thing.’
It is a outlook that is fostered in two distinct ways. First by the nurturing of young players through the club; second through the careful purchase of outsiders. From his earliest days at St Mirren, Ferguson has always had a hands-on approach to youth development, his aim always the same. ‘It’s about producing men,’ he says. ‘So the step up to first-team level is not a massive step, it’s an easy step.’
Can youngsters be taught hunger? ‘You can develop it. I know people say you can’t change people’s attitudes. But you can change people if they’ve got a latent attitude – but don’t exhibit that attitude. In other words if they’re laid-back or quiet, they’re the ones where you’ve got to develop their personality. And once their personality is developed, their character, their real character, comes out. Whereas you have people with a bad attitude and bad character because they’ve always had it. So that’s very difficult to change. You understand?’
As for recruitment, Ferguson gives a clue to any aspiring player dreaming of a career at Old Trafford. The next time you play United, clatter into their hardest player. It worked for Roy Keane.
‘He looked like a Manchester United player as soon as I saw him,’ Ferguson recalls, with almost paternal fondness. ‘We played him at Forest and the way he played told me a lot about the lad. His determination, his energy, his attitude to losing and winning, you know, told me something about him before we even got him.’
How quickly did you try and sign him? ‘Well, we saw Keane on his debut against Liverpool at Anfield and we tried to buy him right away. ?He played against us three weeks after that – that’s why we watched him at Liverpool, because we were due to play them at Old Trafford. They beat us one-nil, and at the kick-off the ball went back to Robbo and he cemented Robbo right away. Now that’s not a reason for signing a player, but it told you something about his attitude. Playing in the big arena didn’t phase him one bit and Robson didn’t intimidate him in any way – which you would find that quite surprising ’cos in Robbo’s halcyon days he tended to do that to everyone – including his own players – the kind of personality he had. From that moment on we targeted him.’
Six years after joining the club, Roy Keane is one of few causes for concern among United fans. The bulwark of the team’s midfield has turned down a new contract and looks likely to leave Old Trafford when his current deal expires at the end of the season. Juventus are thought to be leading the chase, one of a number of European clubs ready to offer him far in excess of what his current employers have put on the table, despite United’s status, according to the Deloitte & Touche/FourFourTwo chart, as easily the world’s richest club.
‘It’s not the money with Roy,’ Ferguson says vehemently if a trifle unconvincingly. ‘He’s perfectly happy with the offer the club’s given. That was always stressed.’ Ferguson’s words smack of loyalty to Keane, who was blunt about his when talking to FourFourTwo six months ago. ‘I want to stay at United if the terms are right,’ he said then. ‘ I do watch Spanish football and Italian football and it’s interesting and I like it. But the grass is not always greener. I’m happy in Manchester.’
The problem, both for Ferguson and Keane, is that United’s wage structure is one that until this summer limited its players’ basic pay to around a million pounds a year. There is a growing sense that if United are to remain competitive with Europe’s top teams it will have to be, if not completely abandoned, at least made more flexible. It is a sentiment, you sense, with which Ferguson has a growing sympathy.
‘Well, we’ve had a successful wages structure for the last few years,’ he says. ‘But obviously time changes everything, and we’ll change eventually. There’s changes probably at the moment. We’ll do things successfully until the point comes where we have to change. And that’s the point we’re coming to now.’
Is it a policy imposed on him by the plc? ‘Everybody’s got their views about policies, but it’s been successful for the club. And we’ve all benefited.’ Has there always been one? He pauses for a moment. ‘I think it has changed. There was a period when I first came when Robson and Strachan were above everyone. And that seemed to be common until the Cantona period. After the Cantona period wages started to go up toward a million pounds. So it was easy to create a sort of barrier then.’
A few years ago the million pound barrier meant wages in England caught up with the top earners abroad. Now, Ferguson thinks, the Italians are accelerating away again. Will we catch up again? ‘It will happen to a certain degree. What will also happen is the Italians will come to a limit and they will stabilise for maybe ten years. And then it will maybe go up again.’
A younger, fitter Fergie trains with Rangers team-mate Jim Baxter in 1969
A few hours after the interview Ferguson is watching his team train. It is midweek during a particularly hectic period so there is nothing too stressful, but everything appears to be geared towards improving first touch, not that many of them seem to need the practice (Quinton Fortune, the 22-year-old South African signed from Atletico Madrid in August, least of all).
Ferguson, still in his shorts and T-shirt, joins in one of the early exercises, a sort of souped up pig-in-the-middle in which three chosen ones must intercept the first-time passes struck by the dozen or so who surround them. Fergie, benign and avuncular among a group that consists mainly of youngsters, sometimes takes his turn in the middle but is continually pulling rank. He mishits a pass and the person on the receiving end is pointed into the middle with an authoritative grin. The mood is relaxed, even casual, so much so that there is a temptation to ponder the fate of Fergie the Firebrand, the almost mythically domineering figure of yesteryear.
The question is also one that confronts readers of Ferguson’s autobiography. There his recent squabbles with United’s board and with his former No 2 Brian Kidd are chronicled with startling candour. ‘A few years before, any hint that my ?assistant was grumbling to others at the club would have brought a much stronger respose from me,’ Ferguson writes of his reaction to learning that Kidd questioned the wisdom of paying £12m for Dwight Yorke. ‘Age does mellow you and it makes you more understanding.’
‘Yes, I do think I’ve changed,’ Ferguson had acknowledged in his office a little earlier. ‘I’ve mellowed. I’ve got more experienced. I’ve got more authority. And that’s all because of success. Everyone chases success. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve managed to get it.’ He pauses for a second or two, anticipating the next question the way Ryan Giggs anticipates a tackle. ‘But I’ve been fortunate enough to retain the drive to keep going for it.’
Arm round the shoulder: After Giggs's 50th league goal, in 1998
When the manager of Britain’s most successful club still gets to work at seven in the morning it’s difficult to disagree. He says it’s because he’s always been an early riser and, anyway, it allows him to beat the traffic, but accepts that it is probably the leftover of the work ethic engendered by his upbringing in the Govan shipyards.
He may be rich (though he jocularly disputes this: ‘You think I’m very rich, do you?’). He is certainly successful. But he remains driven. What drives him right now is the destiny of the present United team. ‘I think you’ve also got to remember it’s a new team,’ he says, almost with the detachment of a genealogist. ‘This is probably my fourth team. You think of the 1991 team that won the Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup. Then there’s the League team of ’93 and ’94 – the Double-winning team. Then the next phase is the Double ’96 team. And then this team.
'There’s been a few changes. Eric Cantona’s gone. Gary Pallister has gone. And the young players who were just kids in 96 are now starting to mature. They’re in that period of almost getting to maturity but not quite reaching a peak. We expect the likes of Scholes and Butt and Beckham and the Nevilles and Giggs to be peaking in the next five years.’
And how good can they be? ‘Well, we’ve always said that the real question is for this team to show its maturity. The ’94 Double team was mentally unbelievably strong. I mean, nobody could outfight them. They used to win games in second gear. This team has not got that kind of authority, but it’s got better ability. So you hope that that maturity brings with it the kind of authority that players like Cantona and Robson and Bruce and Hughes had.’
His voice has been even throughout, but at this moment comes as close as a 57-year-old Glaswegian Knight of the Realm is ever likely come to betraying a sense of excitement. ‘And if they do that, they should do very well.’
Words: Matt Tench. From the November 1999 issue of FourFourTwo.