MIKE NEVIN’S glorious personal ‘tribute’ to Ferguson from issue 20 of Well Red Magazine
SO our old nemesis from Manchester has called it a day. After 27 tortuous years for Liverpool fans, Alex Ferguson has retired from football management. With 13 League titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, and 2 Champions Leagues to his name from his Old Trafford reign alone, I won’t begin to argue with his record. He leaves the game ranked as one of the greats to sit alongside Chapman, Nicholson, Busby, Stein, Shankly, Clough and Paisley in the British managers’ pantheon.
So far, this sounds more like the beginnings of a piece you might read in United We Stand, but give me time.
It is fair to say that if Alex Ferguson arrived in England with a prime objective of “knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch” then he has achieved his goal. With a helping hand in the form our own mismanagement, over the course of nearly three decades Ferguson has been instrumental in Liverpool and Manchester United swapping places.
We’ve assumed the mantle of glamorous, flaky and perennial underachievers while the Red Devils have become a well-oiled, relentless killing machine annexing titles and cups in their sleep.
Ferguson’s staggering trophy haul ensures he’ll be revered and remembered by current and future generations for years to come. His legend will grow with every passing decade fostered by a long line of fawning scribes who’ve made the back pages and football websites a place to avoid in the last few weeks.
However, and this is where we begin to redress the balance, fair-minded fans of the game will rightly point to an obvious stain on his “legacy”. As a tired old friend of my dad proffered the other day, there’s only one word, in terms of personality, to describe Alex Ferguson – obnoxious.
This supposed Knight of the footballing realm posted all of the above mentioned achievements without an iota of grace. The Scot had prospected Liverpool as a target for future bile as far back as the autumn of 1980 when his championship-winning Aberdeen side were unceremoniously undressed by Bob Paisley’s finest at Anfield in the European Cup.
Having loosened the Old Firm grip on Scottish football and succeeding Ron Atkinson as head of “Operation Mill Town”, Ferguson made an inauspicious start to his Old Trafford tenure, a first raft of signings making no immediate impression on Liverpool’s supremacy under Kenny Dalglish.
Evertonians too, in the days before pettiness saw them adopt Manchester United as their second team, mocked Ferguson’s 11th place finish in his first season.
The following year, while Liverpool’s Barnes, Beardsley et al romanced supporters nationwide with a brand of football worthy of comparison to the Brazilians at their best, Ferguson’s improved, pragmatic United arrived at Anfield in March with high hopes. but after an hour they were being trounced by three goals to one. Ferguson’s response was to introduce substitute Norman Whiteside empowered with the instruction to kick anything that moved in a red shirt.
Liverpool lost their rhythm, with the savage Whiteside miraculously allowed to stay on the field, but after the game, which ended in 3-3 draw, it was Ferguson who filled the Anfield corridors with barely justified vitriol; claiming, ludicrously, that managers ‘have to leave here choking on their own vomit, biting their tongue, afraid to tell the truth’. Dalglish was undaunted however, and carrying his baby daughter Lauren past the United boss, joked to assembled reporters: ‘You’ll get more sense out of her.’
If the majority of observers laughed off Ferguson’s spleen as the wailing of a man out of his depth, the passage of time would see his inelegant “rants” later perceived as masterful “mind games” as the gnarled old newspaper hacks of the 80s were gradually replaced by a spineless breed of self-serving multimedia sycophants.
Ferguson survived the sack by the skin of his teeth in 1990, courtesy of a Mark Robins goal in an FA Cup 3rd round tie at Forest and a subsequent Wembley win over Crystal Palace that mitigated against a 13th place finish in a First Division that was a common stroll for the Mighty Reds.
The European Cup Winners’ Cup followed a year later, but in 1992 when a vastly improved United team bottled it in sight of a first league title for 25 years, Ferguson blamed the “obscene” commitment of relegated West Ham and the Upton Park crowd for a catastrophic 1-0 defeat at Upton Park.
However, once the Football League became the Premier League and the championship Holy Grail was achieved after seven years of trying in 1993, if anyone expected Ferguson’s antics to abate they were mistaken. A crucial 2-1 Old Trafford victory over Sheffield Wednesday achieved in the last of seven inexplicable minutes of injury time saw Ferguson on his knees in desperate celebration and the standard set for two decades of the vomit-inducing phrase, “Fergie time”.
Becoming more Satanic with each passing summer, the red-faced tyrant upped the ante big-time in his torment of referees. Although he received censure for tirades against Jeff Winter, Mark Clattenburg, Mike Dean, Alan Wiley and Martin Atkinson, countless other agenda-driven, verbal assaults were ignored by the FA.
On the pitch, if an official with a hint of backbone dared award a contentious decision, a United team built in his own snarling image would see his raging generals Keane or Ferdinand, sticking their contorted features into the face of referees backed up by the sniping of those whining foot-soldiers; Giggs, Beckham, Neville and Scholes.
The advent of a fourth official patrolling the area close to the managers’ dug out was manna from heaven for Ferguson. Like a child with a new Subbuteo set, he could now referee matches himself from the sidelines. Perhaps the most sickening example was the Manchester derby in September 2009 when throughout the game Ferguson harangued Alan Wiley in the technical area, received his expected quota of overtime and saw that little traitor, Michael Owen score a last-gasp winner.
As the Sky cameras panned to an ecstatic manager, there he was, laughing and joking with the supine Wiley, before shoving him away with disdain; the fourth official’s purpose well and truly served.
Of late, it has become fashionable for a new generation of Liverpool fans – who wouldn’t know good old-fashioned bias if it bit them on the nose – to argue that United under Ferguson merely get their fair share of decisions while we just mask our own failings with cries of perceived injustice.
Perhaps there’s an element of truth in this, but try this statistic for size – between Ruel Fox of Norwich in1994 and Danny Murphy of Liverpool in 2004 not one goal was conceded to a penalty by Manchester United at Old Trafford. TEN YEARS, for Christ’s sake! Did United’s rearguard spend a decade playing in carpet slippers?
Ferguson’s spell over referees was rivaled only by his command of the media. For a recent example of his hold over pundits he once collectively bracketed as a gang of “Liverpool fans”, witness the reaction of Mark Lawrenson to Jonjo Shelvey’s finger-stabbing reaction to his Anfield sending off.
“You can’t do that to Sir Alex”, opined “Lawro” his falsetto voice barely audible from the upper reaches of Ferguson’s arse.
Endless platitudes came from Match of The Day couch despite Ferguson refusing to give interviews to the BBC for seven years. A 2004 documentary suggested his son Jason, an agent, exploited his father’s influence and position to his own ends in the transfer market. Subsequent interview duties were fulfilled by his assistants Carlos Queiroz and later Mike Phelan, but the Ferguson fawning continued. Although new Premier League rules meant Ferguson was required to end his BBC boycott in 2010 he refused, and Manchester United confirmed the club would pay the resulting fines. Unchecked contempt and arrogance knew no bounds.
Once past the age of 70, there was a pathetic, growing trend towards acceptance, even whimsical acclaim of Ferguson’s tyranny. The cult of “Fergie” began to rival merited admiration that another, truly avuncular Septuagenarian, Sir Bobby Robson enjoyed in the twilight of his managerial career. Time and again, indecipherable childish Ferguson outpourings were laughed off as readily as one of Paul Scholes’ X-rated tackles.
Former footballers turned pundits from opposite ends of the talent and achievement spectrum – read Gary Lineker to Robbie Savage – queued up to blow smoke up his backside, in inverse proportion to any semblance of class exhibited by the infantile Scot.
Conversely, a real Old Trafford gentleman, Sir Bobby Charlton became so embarrassed by the worst of Ferguson’s excess, that he took to disguising himself under mad Russian hats.
If there was a metaphorical ball taken home for every infantile Glaswegian strop, the need for an extension to the west wing of Ferguson’s Cheshire mansion would have made a mere dint in the fortune of this archetypal Champagne Socialist. Even United fans themselves recognised flaws in their manager’s inconsistent values. Supporters were dismayed at Ferguson’s public backing of the Glazer family in the face of the “Green and Gold” protest against owners no doubt lining Govan pockets while pilfering millions from the Old Trafford coffers.
Of course, Ferguson undoubtedly maximised the luck he enjoyed through the simultaneous emergence of his “Fledglings” – a crop of young players including Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, Nicky Butt and the male model sons of Neville Neville.
With weak-minded away teams seemingly in awe of the Theatre of Dreams often beaten before they stepped on to the pitch, and in some cases – like Wolves and Fulham – fielding under-strength sides to rest players for more winnable fixtures ahead, domestic championships were won on a less than level playing field.
Ferguson used the template of a 4-4-2 formation incorporating two wingers and spent regularly in excess of £30m on the likes of Wayne Rooney, Ferdinand, and Juan Sebastian Veron. If any credit is due, his scant regard for drawn matches and all-out attack offset occasional weakness in midfield and defence so that luminaries of the modern game – I give you Anderson and John O’Shea – picked up league winners’ medals that should have rested in more deserving pockets.
In Europe things were different. Referees not quite so fearful of the fall-out that Ferguson wrought if ever an official dared cross him in the Premier League were less compliant, and players of a higher calibre and more robust mentality refused to crumble.
The habitual arrogance of Ferguson’s half-time Champions League TV interview often preceded a second period which saw his lack of sophistication exposed by the finest tactical minds on the continent. When Dutchman Arjen Robben inspired a cosmopolitan Bayern Munich to an aggregate victory at Old Trafford in 2010, Ferguson’s dignified response was to berate “typical Germans” influencing the referee. Oh, the irony.
When Ferguson enjoyed his finest hours he was blessed by uncanny but not uncommon good fortune. On Clive Tyldesley’s “balmy night in Barcelona” in 1999, United’s woodwork shook on no less than four occasions as Bayern Munich were pick-pocketed at the death. In Moscow nine years later, opponents Chelsea rattled post and bar time and again, culminating in John Terry falling on his arse in the rain to give Ferguson a fortuitous penalty shoot-out reprieve.
Despite Liverpool’s many ups and downs during Ferguson’s 27-year reign, he at least paid us the respect of always viewing the Reds as United’s most traditional rivals. He held regard for both Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez but only for as long as their Liverpool teams offered no real threat at home or abroad. The moment Rafa’s team threatened a league title challenge in 2009, Ferguson colluded with Sam Allardyce, the proprietor of the “Fergie Wine Club” – known in other circles as the League Managers Association – to concoct an inconceivably petty storm over Benitez’s alleged “game over” signal during the Liverpool-Blackburn fixture.
Later, his role in publicising the Evra-Suarez race row shouldn’t be underestimated, nor his assertion that Suarez should “never play for Liverpool again” – blatant hypocrisy in light of his staunch backing of Eric Cantona over a Kung-Fu kick meted out on a Crystal Palace fan. Predictably, the press always lapped up Ferguson’s “mind games” or insane ramblings (delete as appropriate). All this, despite a lazy enunciation of words, of which a bar room drunk would be proud, often rounded off with his slurred catchphrase, “no question of that”.
Of course, Ferguson wasn’t all bad. To be fair to the septic old windbag, his spoilt brat touchline antics have held us in comic thrall for years. He saved his best performance for an FA Cup semi-final against Everton when United were denied a probable late penalty for a foul by Phil Jagielka on Danny Wellbeck. His jig of fury in the technical area resembled a cross between the fit of a child reacting to his sweets being robbed and a shrapnel-infested pensioner making a dancefloor advance on a ladyfriend at the Legion.
Ferguson has won acclaim outside football too. English designer, Sir Paul Smith has patented the classic “Fergie” look of overcoat and black zipped up roll-neck combo, topped with simpleton woolly hat for his autumn/winter 2013 catalogue; forcing a wardrobe re-think for those European scruffs Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. And, the retirement pension fund has been further topped up by a billion pound endorsement from the makers of Hubba Bubba chewing gum, half of which is being invested in speech therapy for “Swalex’s” best mate, Roy Hodgson.
So, at last we must bid farewell to old Whiskey Nose, safe in the knowledge that while his fellow Scot, Bill Shankly will always be synonymous with the quote about life and death and that “football is more important than that”, the classy Ferguson will be remembered instead for “squeaky bum time”. But before you go, Sir, I have one final score for you coming in off the old BBC Grandstand teleprinter.
Imagine the voice of David Coleman.
And here it is: “Paisley……………….3……Ferguson…………………. 2 – full-time.”