From slanging matches to bunches of flowers
It is a sign of the way things have changed that there were eight minutes of skirting the subject yesterday before someone actually summoned the courage to ask Sir Alex Ferguson about the 25th anniversary of his arrival at Old Trafford.
The word was out that he did not want to dwell on this topic – or was "nae getting into all that" to cite the response which has become his catchphrase – though since 700 of his closest friends will celebrate this silver jubilee overlooking the Old Trafford cricket pitch tonight, it may equally be a case of him not caring to give those who chart his life in newsprint the satisfaction of a story. "You f***ing sell your paper and radio shows off the back of this club," as he said, eight years ago.
"I'm nae going to get into all that," Ferguson replied when the BBC, only restored to his press conferences two months ago, took the plunge. "All I'm going to say is I've been very fortunate to have some of the best players in the game. When I look back at these players I say to myself 'how fortunate I am'." But that wasn't the finish of it. The Manchester United manager's full reflections are reserved for tomorrow's newspaper but as he sat back, gazed into the pale sunshine illuminating the Carrington training complex and talked, you could have heard a pin drop. Very few questions were required, just the odd prompt for the most disarming and engaging manager in football – when the mood and the subject take him.
It is not always like this, of course. It is not even often like this. Ferguson's press conferences in United's nondescript youth academy building are generally prickly and fairly desperate affairs: a process of seeking to extract a meagre few beads of information from a man who does not need a good press and does not need to be here. His 10-minute audiences are actually a lot easier than Kenny Dalglish's. He goes in for monosyllabism and irritation, but rarely his compatriot's mockery.
But since Ferguson relocated this event across the car park from the main Carrington building in 2005 – punishment for the verbatim reporting of a press conference which he stormed out of after 74 seconds and 85 words – it has become an increasingly monochrome affair. Ferguson insisted when imposing this regime that everything he said must be filmed and, though he was persuaded two years ago that the daily newspapers' questions should not be transmitted on screens until they are published, it is a very different world. Daniel Taylor's This is the One, an excellent and affectionate portrayal of Ferguson republished for this anniversary, offers a reminder of how Ferguson waltzed down Carrington's central staircase, tanned and healthy after a few days in Malta with Lady Cathy, singing an old Josef Locke song to Kath, his receptionist. "Hear my song, Violetta, hear my song beneath the moon..." That was six years ago and yet somehow also a lifetime.
This was the Alex Ferguson encountered in 1986 by David Meek, chronicler of his actions at the Manchester Evening News and also the ghostwriter of his programme notes all these years. For Meek, the arrival of the new man from Aberdeen was a "breath of fresh air" – delivering a more accommodating manager than Sir Matt Busby, Wilf McGuinness, Frank O'Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton or Ron Atkinson had ever been – though Atkinson was a little more media-minded. It helped that Ferguson was an evening newspaperman's dream – installed at The Cliff training ground by 8am and and ready to take a call to hit first edition deadlines – and aware of the need for a fresh line from the nationals.
The propensity to erupt was also there from the start. The first spot of bother for Meek came when Ferguson took his players for a day trip to the SAS headquarters in Hereford, at the instigation of the club's head of security Ned Kelly, who had served with the regiment. One of the MEN news reporters got wind of the story, Ferguson asked the paper not to publish – fearing that his club would become a target for the then active IRA – but the paper went ahead anyway.
Ferguson effectively severed all relations with Meek when the reporter decided to meet the problem head on at Old Trafford, where the players were training just before Christmas. Ferguson spotted him. "The Manchester Evening News is finished at this club," he bellowed and marched away up the slope to the top of tunnel. He was out of breath, at the top, when Meek caught up with him. "OK. If that's how you feel, then Merry Christmas," he retorted as another Glaswegian volley came his way. Meek was marching past him when Ferguson's arm came out. "Nothing personal, you know!" Ferguson said, a smile breaking across his face.
It is a brave individual who puts Ferguson's club at risk but fire is always best met with fire where Ferguson is concerned. That much was also revealed when a recent dispute with one of the few journalists he engages with – all of his own vintage – was recently settled by his text message offering a racing tip. The Evening News's own relationship with Ferguson was not helped by the 1995 readers' poll asking whether he should resign – the answer was yes – though the paper almost got away with it. The manager was holidaying in the United States at the time and did not appear to have spotted the story until someone pointed it out. The relationship remained good enough in 2003 for Meek's successor, Stuart Mathieson, to have a Good Friday lie-in disturbed at 8.45am. Ferguson was on the line, asking a bleary Mathieson: "Are you in bed?" and barking: "What the fuck is a day off?" before declaring he had a story to offer, involving United's side in a bitter dispute with Arsenal over Sol Campbell's dismissal for an elbow at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It was the local paper's series of articles on the breakaway FC United which severed the long, significant relationship.
Meek is one of many journalists to have known Ferguson's compassion. After illness forced him to break off from 16 years of uninterrupted programme notes, he arrived at hospital to find a huge bouquet. He was convalescing at home a week later when the phone rang. There were no words of introduction down the line, just a growl declaring: "The Scottish beast is on its way!" Ferguson was at Meek's door in 20 minutes. The same went for John Bean, the former Daily Express journalist who after a heart attack awoke in hospital to find flowers and a note. "What have you been doing to yourself, you silly old tap dancer?" There has been professional empathy, too. When Mathieson was estranged from United for a newsroom misdemeanour, Ferguson wrote to his editor, saying it was not the journalist's fault. "You're not giving the lad a chance," he said. Strangers receive random acts of kindness, too. In March, Ferguson phoned the club doctor when a cameraman collapsed at a press conference.
And when it comes to his own utterances, an appreciation of how his words will be received is undoubtedly there. About one in four of Meek's columns, which he emails to Ferguson for approval, return via the manager's secretary, Lynn, with amendments. For the Sunderland programme on Saturday, Meek added writer's licence to Ferguson's praise for the returning John O'Shea and Wes Brown. "Although perhaps not big-name superstars, they nevertheless brought a quality and strength to the squad that was invaluable," Meek's script read. Ferguson indicated that the "superstar" reference must be removed, for fear of causing offence.
The media world is unrecognisable to an individual who so embraced it from his Aberdeen years on. There is always a suspicion when a face he does not know appears at his press conferences particularly for those who look young, when they are British. Taylor relates the story of a Daily Express reporter in his mid-thirties who turned up. "Jesus Christ," Ferguson said. "Do they get them straight from school these days?" But it is the 24/7 media monster which he sees as a root of many evils. "[The English media] source a problem where there's no problem [and] create a sensation just to counter the challenge of Sky [Sports] and the internet," he said in a rare and revealing interview last year to see La Gazzetta dello Sport's Giancarlo Galavotti into retirement.
The media will doubtless attempt to doorstep his big bash tonight, being held in a space known as The Point at cricket's Old Trafford. But he will close the doors, shut out the scrutiny and reflect – for an evening when red wine will certainly flow – that, though the enemy might be at the door, it will certainly not get beyond it.
Fergie on the media...
* "I don't get the press coverage I'm entitled to and I no longer see it as part of my job to fulfil their interest."
* "The media has become a monster. They know all the answers, right and wrong. They want exclusive stories and confidential background. They want their cards marked. They want gossip. And believe me if they don't get it you're in trouble."
* "Whenever we lose the media want an instant answer, preferably something a bit different so it makes a good headline. By now the press know I am immune to their sniping."
* "I don't give any of you [press] credibility. You talk about wanting to have an association with people here and you wonder why I don't get on with you? But you're a f***ing embarrassment. One of these days the door is going to be shut on you permanently."
Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday described his 25 years at the club as "a fairy tale". Ferguson, 70 in December, has won 12 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions Leagues and a Cup Winners' Cup.
"It is a bit of a fairytale to last so long," he said. "It has been a fantastic spell for me. It is something you don't think is going to happen and I appreciate that." He reflected briefly on his career since succeeding Ron Atkinson in 1986. "I say to myself how fortunate I am to have had these players. The list is incredible, going back to Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, Brian McClair, [Mark] Hughes, [Paul] Ince, [Roy] Keane, [Eric] Cantona. What a collection of players. It is hard to think I controlled all these players for so long."
By Ian Herbert
Friday, 4 November 2011