When Alex Ferguson got sacked at St Mirren: 40 years on from the job that made him
In 1976, a fiery young manager named Alex Ferguson took Scottish second division side St Mirren on a three-week tour to the Caribbean. The trip had only been possible because the former chairman, Harold Currie, had contacts in the whisky export trade. Although Ferguson had a reputation as a troublemaker, the tour started off peacefully. But then they arrived in Guyana.
Guyana were gearing up for a crucial World Cup qualifier and, unlike St Mirren’s previous opponents, they did not treat the friendly as a friendly. When the game started, their big centre-back began to kick young striker Robert Torrance. On the touchline, Ferguson complained to the referee, to no avail. When the defender hacked down Torrance again just after half-time, Ferguson lost it.
“That’s it,” Ferguson told his assistant David Provan. “I’m going on.”
Throughout the tour, Ferguson and Provan had dressed up as subs just for fun, so the manager was ready to go on. He had retired two years earlier, having played in Scotland’s top two divisions as a sharp-elbowed striker. Now Provan was trying to dissuade him, but Ferguson was fired up. “That big bastard is taking liberties,” he said.
When the next cross came into the box, Ferguson “exacted a bit of revenge” on the defender. They continued to battle until Ferguson, in his own words, “nailed” his opponent “perfectly”. As the defender rolled around in pain, Ferguson got sent off.
“Don’t ever let anyone know about this sending-off,” Ferguson told his players afterwards. Nobody did. They knew that if you said nothing, you’d survive. Tell, and you’d enter the Black Book.
The Black Book held the names of those doomed souls who had irked Ferguson. Tardiness was a typical offence, though anything could set him off. When he'd arrived at St Mirren two years earlier, the local Paisley Daily Express had sent a photographer to take a team photo. When it appeared in print, Ferguson saw that the captain, Ian Reid, had made rabbit ears behind him. Ferguson called Reid into his office.
“If I’m looking for a captain, I’m looking for maturity,” Ferguson said. “That was a childish schoolboy trick. You have to go.”
People at Manchester United feared Ferguson for his temper. He used to be far worse. As a player he had berated centre-backs, referees and even team-mates, once marching the length of the pitch to confront a player on his team over a misplaced pass. It was a testimonial match. When Ferguson retired, he took charge of East Stirlingshire. “I’d never been afraid of anyone before,” said striker Bobby McCulley, “but he was a frightening bastard from the start.”
Four months later, Ferguson joined St Mirren having been recommended by Willie Cunningham, the outgoing manager who had coached him at Dunfermline and Falkirk. At 32, Ferguson had little to lean on beyond his playing career, a natural decisiveness and burning determination. The day he arrived, he told himself: “I’m not going to fail here.”
Exiled from Love Street
St Mirren had just finished 11th in the second division. Their stadium, Love Street, held 25,000 but usually drew 3,000. The players had part-time contracts worth £12 a week. The coaching staff were a band of four: assistant manager Provan, a reserve team coach, physio and part-time kit manager. Day-to-day operations were in the hands of the groundsman. “Everything about the club was run down,” Ferguson wrote.
Worse, St Mirren were slipping down the table at the worst possible time: the following season, the top two divisions would split into three. The top six teams would join the new second division and the rest would slide down into the third. Ferguson knew he had little time, and even less to work with. When he first looked at his 35 players, he decided that most of them would have to go.
He immediately installed discipline. When a player named John Mowat defied his instructions, he followed Reid into the Black Book. One player was reprimanded for driving to an away game instead of taking the team bus. Another said he’d miss training because he was taking his girlfriend to a pop concert. Ferguson told him not to come back. “I just wanted to make it very clear to all the players that I didn't want to be messed about with,” Ferguson wrote. “They got the message.”
Trouble at Fergie’s
St Mirren were soon climbing the table. Besides filling the team with his Glaswegian street-fighting spirit, Ferguson created the blueprint that he would later copy at Aberdeen and United. He drilled in a high-octane style of attacking football and built a productive local scouting network. At one point, St Mirren won eight games in a row, prompting Ferguson to proclaim that they wouldn't lose again that season. They duly lost two of their last five, yet finished sixth; enough to secure a place in the new second division.
Ahead of his first full season, Ferguson targeted promotion. Complicating matters was his second job: hired on a part-time contract, he'd opened a pub in Glasgow to make ends meet. While ‘Fergie’s’ attracted all kinds of people, most were rugged dockers who liked a scrap. More than once, Ferguson had to break up brawls, coming home with a split head or a black eye.
“You weren't likely to find Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger in my place.” Ferguson wrote. “Though you might have encountered the odd costumer who, single-handed, could have put the three of them to flight.”
The two jobs forced Ferguson to start his day at Love Street, then leave at 11am to run the pub until 2.30pm. Then he’d return to Love Street to take training, then return to the pub for the night shift, then go home. He hardly had time to see his young family. As for St Mirren, they started well before eventually finishing sixth. Ferguson would later write that, had he been able to focus solely on football, the team might have fared better.