It was and is built by Clyde, formed into a specific shape recognizable by any Scotsman of that age. The wonder of Sir Alex Ferguson at 80 is not his obvious individuality or the spectacular success he spawned, but his adherence to the principles, emotions and duties that were part of his father, grandfather, of a culture that embraced Govan but had a hold on a wider Scotland.
Its success was also mainly formed in Scotland. The dozens of trophies at Manchester United have added considerable luster to his profile. But he was already big in football. Two European trophies in Aberdeen? Sacking of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid? Shifting the internal balance of power from Glasgow to Aberdeen?
By extolling the virtues of Jock Stein in an exclusive interview with Sportsmail On the 50th anniversary of Celtic’s Lisbon triumph, Ferguson defined genius as the ability to do something memorable that has never been done before and can never be done again. The glory years in Aberdeen fit neatly into this category.
Football world pays tribute to Sir Alex Ferguson after turning 80 on Friday
His upbringing as a working-class Glaswegian gave him dynamism, but invested him with an anger that is no stranger to those who have been brought up in the same way.
This fury was best directed against injustice, but was a weapon intended for those who “took a liberty”, whether the victims were innocent or not. The past is here deliberate. Ferguson has softened in his anger, especially after the illness that nearly turned out to be fatal in 2018. But other attributes have, on the other hand, hardened.
It is difficult, if not absurd and presumptuous, to offer judgment or just glimpse into a man. It is, however, natural to form an opinion even on the briefest encounters.
There may be glimpses that open your eyes to a deeper truth. They can be encompassed by reference to three categories.
Taken to books
In a eulogy to Jimmy Reid at Govan Old Parish Church in 2010, Ferguson spoke about the future union leader walking through the Fifty Pitches while reading a book, while carrying a bag full of other people on his way to the library.
This did not produce contempt in the young Ferguson, whose football game he had interrupted, but respect. The image of the powerful and focused football man is valid. But there is also reading.
Ferguson respects education with the fever of those who are deprived of the opportunity to pursue it formally. He looks for it in travel and conversation, but most often finds it in books. He largely avoids fiction, preferring biography and history.
He can be considered an expert on the Civil War, various presidents and the John F. Kennedy shooting. He gladly gives books as gifts.
Sir Alex has enormous respect for education and often gives books as gifts
A conversation with Walter Smith once ended with him saying, “I won’t talk to you for a while.”
“Sir Alex (and he always called him Sir Alex, at least to me) sent me a great biography of Abraham Lincoln. I don’t know if I should read it or climb it.
Ferguson’s pursuit of knowledge and his competitiveness make him a powerful opponent in impromptu quizzes. But this seemingly insignificant quest has a deeper meaning. He wants to know. He wants to know more.
These could be the names of the 12 angry men. It may be the precise influence of battleships in Civil War battles. These may include details on the effectiveness of rest periods for elite athletes. Everything must be known.
The Don far from Pittodria
Ferguson’s influence in football cannot be overstated. His accomplishments challenged the imperatives of modern football. Money is everything? United defeated Chelsea and Manchester City when their budgets were bigger.
Is the modern footballer unmanageable? Ferguson was a careful shepherd of wandering egos. He coached Eric Cantona, bringing United a dramatic breakthrough to lasting success. He managed Cristiano Ronaldo for the benefit of the player and the club. He rejected those he thought were beyond his influence: Jaap Stam, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy.
“His biggest trait for me as a manager was his ability to make a decision,” said Smith, a friend and colleague. “He made the big decisions and never – ever – looked back.”
Ferguson had no difficulty dealing with big stars including Cristiano Ronaldo
He was also the epitome of that necessary and fragile football ingredient: the ability to make players want to play for you. He grasped a truth from Niccolo Machiavelli, a truth that has been intentionally distorted to fit current commercial and political practice.
Machiavelli, the 16th century diplomat and philosopher, did not say that it is better to be feared than to be loved. He said it was better to be loved and feared at the same time. It is only when this ideal is not possible that Machiavelli suggested that fear is a more reliable means of inspiring discipline than love.
It is mischievous but true to say that it fits with one of the maxims of Stein, Ferguson’s hero and mentor.
Stein’s approach to locker room policy was simple: “The secret to a good manager is to keep the six players who hate you away from the five undecided.”
Ferguson is still heartily hated by some of his old counts, but is respected by most and loved by a large constituency. Even the strong-willed and self-reliant Van Nistelrooy phoned his former manager long after his move to Real Madrid to apologize for his attitude which led to the split.
And that seamlessly leads us to the Fergie instrument of power, influence, and friendship … the phone.
It’s Alex here
The last most visible recipient of Ferguson’s appeal was Dick Campbell. The Arbroath manager told a radio station Ferguson phoned him to congratulate him on his team’s success. In 2007, however, Ferguson also called Campbell, right after being sacked by Partick Thistle. A Fergie call isn’t just for Christmas.
He assumes his role of mentor. He also likes gossip. He recalled in this Sportsmail interview that Stein called him most weekends. “He knew everything, Jock,” he said. He insisted on doing it.
Ferguson is also in touch with modern football. He knows the stakes. He knows many personalities and is open to those he does not know.
Shaun Maloney, now the manager of Hibs, has recounted on these pages how he met Jason, Ferguson’s son, on a train. The two struck up a conversation, with Maloney mentioning that he wanted to meet Ferguson Sr. He didn’t think much would happen after he gave his email.
Instead, he was invited to Ferguson’s lodge at Old Trafford for a game and allowed plenty of time to talk football.
Likewise, an international footballer who has become a coach recently expressed a desire to speak to Ferguson via email. He picked up the phone one day with these words ringing in his ears: “It’s Alex here.”
The above is not intended to portray Ferguson as a saint. He knows he’s not. He expressed remorse for past actions, especially the lack of time given to his children when they were growing up. Again, he conformed to the experience and regrets of the West of Scotland man of a certain age.
He also knows that he has fought too many fights and caused too many injuries. It remains unforgivable to certain players, to many men of the press.
But he’s too imposing a figure to dismiss with references to hairdryers or incontinent anger. Of course, to appreciate greatness you have to see the flaws, but there is a deep and personal story that deserves a more rigorous investigation.
Ferguson was formed by strengths that I recognize. He was told he had to do his best, he was told that there was a better future if he looked for it through work, he was told that he could only be successful by mobilizing efforts of others in a common cause.
Manchester United fans unfurl a banner wishing Ferguson a happy birthday on Thursday night
Much of this was articulated by the words and actions of his father. The rest existed nebulously in the atmosphere of working-class life in the fifties and sixties.
He’s a peer of the realm, a candidate for the greatest manager of all time and wealthy, perhaps beyond his dreams. But he has never escaped Govan, nor does he seek to tear himself away from his grip.
Once, standing in a SECC room after one of these “audience with” events, I saw him laugh, laugh, and joke with a group of his contemporaries. These were the “Govan Crew”, those we met for the first time after World War II, some of whom accompanied them on vacation into a new millennium. It’s a powerful mojo, I thought.
Over the years, amid Ferguson’s routine and heartfelt denunciations, I have heard more testimonies, all offered freely.
Hugh McIlvanney, a friend and contributor to the best of a glut of largely commendable Ferguson biographies, once told me, “What you must remember about Alex is that he’s a good man.” . Hugh, also volcanic and outrageously gifted, was a powerful witness and was not accustomed to bow to greatness, perceived or not.
Another unwanted reference was given to me at a party a few years ago. A doctor who specializes in palliative care approached me and said, “I heard you know Alex Ferguson?
‘Only lightly,’ I answered honestly.
“Well, I just wanted to tell you he’s a man of substance. “
No further comment or explanation was given. We kindly fell into the chatter.
Echoes of McIlvanney and the Good Doctor – and, by God, I learned later how good she was in spiritual terms – come easily, uninvited to me.
They speak of a truth about Ferguson. It is more than it seems. He is more than the good and the bad. He is more than the trinkets he has collected along the way, more than the burdens he has accumulated through his faults.
He is, at least in this, a personality that this West of Scotland character can recognize and identify with in his fragility and desire to be the best he can be.
Ferguson’s best is unassailable in some areas. Its worst is inherently inherent in many of us. The first can inspire, the second can console.
It has been invigorating, exciting, scary, educational and intriguing to see his rise, to know him even slightly.
Perhaps his biggest lesson is the power of endurance. In sunny days of glittering silverware, in desperate storms of failure and self-reproach, the ship built by Clyde has traveled.
It’s always like that. Happy birthday, Alexander Chapman Ferguson, a son of Govan.