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کتاب: زندگینامه من- الکس فرگوسن / فصل 4

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THE motto of the Ferguson clan in Scotland is: ‘Dulcius ex asperis’ or, ‘Sweeter after difficulties’. That optimism served me well through 39 years in football management. Over that time, from East Stirlingshire for four brief months in 1974, to Manchester United in 2013, I saw beyond adversity to the success on the other side. The act of controlling vast change year after year was sustained by a belief that we would prevail over any challenger.

Years ago, I read an article about me that said: ‘Alex Ferguson has done really well in his life despite coming from Govan.’ Spot the offending phrase. It’s precisely because I started out in the shipbuilding district of Glasgow that I achieved what I did in football. Origins should never be a barrier to success. A modest start in life can be a help more than a hindrance. If you’re examining successful people, look at their mother and father, study what they did, for clues about energy and motivation. A working-class background wasn’t a barrier for many of my greatest players. On the contrary, often it was part of the reason they excelled.

In my time in the dug-out, I advanced from managing East Stirling players on £6 a week to selling Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £80 million. My St Mirren squad were on £15 a week and were left to fend for themselves in the summer because they were part-time. The maximum any Aberdeen first-team player earned in my eight years at Pittodrie was £200 a week, the ceiling set by Dick Donald, my chairman. So the financial journey for the thousands of men I managed in nearly four decades was from £6 a week to £6 million a year.

I have a letter on file from a chap who said that in 1959–60 he worked in the dry docks in Govan and used to visit a particular pub. He remembers a young agitator coming into this establishment with a collecting tin for the apprentices’ strike fund and delivering a firebrand speech. The only thing he knew about this boy was that he played for St Johnstone. His letter ended with a question: ‘Was that you?’ At first I had no recollection of this visit to the political arena, but the note jogged my memory and eventually I recalled going round the pubs in our area to raise money for the strike. I was not auditioning for a role in politics. To call my shouting a ‘speech’ would embellish it with oratorical qualities it almost certainly lacked. I remember ranting on like an idiot after being asked to justify my request for money. Everyone would have been nicely lubricated and in the mood to hear the young fundraiser explain the cause he was advancing.

Pubs were a large part of my early experiences. My earliest business idea was to use my modest income to enter the licensed trade, as security for the future. My first establishment was at the junction of Govan Road and Paisley Road West and was populated by dockers. Pubs taught me about people, their dreams and frustrations, in a way that complemented my efforts to understand the football trade, though I was not to know that at the time.

In one of my pubs, for example, we had a ‘Wembley Club’, into which customers would pay for two years so they could get to the England v. Scotland match at Wembley. I would double whatever was in the kitty and off they would go to London for four or five days. Or, that was the theory. I would join them on the day of the game itself. My best mate, Billy, would head off to Wembley on the Thursday and come back seven days later. Inevitably, this unscheduled extension of the trip would cause ructions with his family.

One Thursday, after a Saturday game at Wembley, I was at home when the phone rang. It was Anna, Billy’s wife. ‘Cathy, go and ask Alex where Billy is,’ Anna said. I pleaded ignorance. Maybe 40 of our customers would make the trip to the Twin Towers and I had no way of knowing why Billy was absent without leave. But for the working men of my generation, a big football match was a sacred pilgrimage, and they loved the camaraderie as much as the game.

The pub we had on Main Street, Bridgeton was in one of Glasgow’s biggest Protestant districts. The Saturday before the Orange walk, big Tam the postman would approach me to say: ‘Alex, the boys are asking what time you’re opening next Saturday morning. For the walk. We’re going down to Ardrossan,’ which is on the west coast of Scotland. ‘The buses leave at ten o’clock,’ says Tam. ‘All the pubs are open. You’ll need to open.’ I was flummoxed. ‘Well, what time should I open?’

Tam says: ‘Seven.’

So there I was at 6.15 a.m., with my dad, and my brother Martin, and a wee Italian barman we employed. We’re well equipped because Tam has told me: ‘Get stocked up, you’ll need plenty of drink in.’ I open at 7 a.m. The pub is soon full of Orangemen in full voice and the police are walking by, not saying a word.

Between 7 a.m. and half past nine I took four grand. Double vodkas, the lot. My dad sat shaking his head. By 9.30 we were hard at work getting the place ready for the rest of our clientele. Scrubbed the place, we did. But there was four grand in the till.

Running pubs was hard work. By 1978 I was ready to escape the onerous responsibilities that came with running two watering holes. Managing Aberdeen left no time for wrestling with drinkers or staying on top of the books. But what good stories those years left in my memory. You could write a book just about those. They would come in on Saturday morning – the dockers – with their wives, having been paid on the Friday night and deposited the money with me behind the bar in the night safe. On a Friday night you felt like a millionaire. You didn’t know whether the cash in the safe or the till was yours or theirs. In the early days Cathy would count it on the carpet. On the Saturday morning the money would be away again when these men came to collect it. The record of these transactions was called the tick book.

A female regular by the name of Nan was especially vigilant in tracking the movements of her husband’s money. She had a tongue like a docker. ‘Do you think we’re all daft?’ she would say, fixing me in her sights.

‘What?’ I said, buying time.

‘Do you think we’re all daft? That tick book, I want to see it.’

‘Oh, you can’t see the tick book,’ I said, improvising. ‘It’s sacrosanct. The taxman wouldnae let you do that. The taxman examines it every week. You can’t see that.’

Nan turns to her man, subdued now, and says: ‘Is that right?’

‘Er, I’m not sure,’ says her man.

The storm had passed. ‘If I find out my man’s name’s in there I’m never coming back,’ Nan says.

These are lasting memories of a young life spent around people of great character and resilience. Tough people, too. Sometimes I would come home with a split head or black eyes. That was pub life. When it became too exuberant or fights broke out, it was necessary to jump in to restore order. You would try to separate the protagonists but often take one on the chin. Yet I look back and think what a great life it was. The characters; the comedy.

I always remember a man called Jimmy Westwater coming in, unable to breathe. Grey, he was. ‘Christ, are you all right?’ I asked. Jimmy had wrapped himself in Shantung silk to creep out of the docks without being caught. A whole bale of Shantung silk. But he’d wrapped himself so tightly in it, he could hardly draw breath.

Another Jimmy, who I employed, and who kept the place immaculate, turned up one night in a bow tie. One of my regulars was incredulous: ‘A bow tie in Govan? You must be joking.’ One Friday night I came back to find someone selling bags of birdseed by the bar. In that part of Glasgow, everyone kept pigeons.

‘What’s this?’ I asked.

‘Birdseed.’ Like it was the most obvious answer in the world.

An Irish lad called Martin Corrigan prided himself on his ability to meet any domestic need. Crockery, a canteen of cutlery, a fridge – anything you like. Another guy walked in and announced: ‘Want a pair of binoculars? I’m skint.’ Out came a beautiful pair of binoculars, wrapped in greaseproof paper. ‘A fiver,’ he says.

‘One condition,’ I said. ‘A fiver as long as you drink in here. Don’t go over to Baxter’s.’ He was a nice guy with a speech impediment. So I get the binoculars and he immediately spends £3 across the bar.

When I brought purchases home, Cathy would go crackers. I can remember coming back with a nice Italian vase that Cathy later saw in a shop for £10. The problem was that I had paid £25 for ours over the bar. One day I swaggered in with a new suede jacket that really looked the part.

‘How much?’ says Cathy.

‘Seven quid,’ I say, beaming.

So I hang it up. Two weeks later we are going to her sister’s for a wee party. On goes the jacket, and I’m standing in front of the mirror admiring the cut. You know how a man gives the two sleeves a tug to get it to sit just right? That’s what I did – and the two sleeves came right off in my hands. There I stood with a sleeveless jacket.

Cathy was rolling about while I was shouting: ‘I’ll kill him!’ There wasn’t even a lining in the jacket.

On a wall in my snooker room hangs a picture of Bill, my best mate. He was some lad, Billy. Couldn’t even make a cup of tea. Back at his house one day, after we had been out for a meal, I told him, ‘Get the kettle on.’ Off he went. But Billy was gone about 15 minutes. Where the hell was he? He was on the phone to Anna, his wife, asking: ‘What do you do with the tea?’ Anna left a steak pie in the oven one night, while Billy watched the movie, The Towering Inferno. Anna came back two hours later to find smoke spewing from the kitchen.

‘Christ, did you not turn the oven off? Look at the smoke,’ she puffed.

‘I thought it was coming from the telly,’ Billy cried. He’d thought it was a special effect from the burning tower.

Everyone congregated at Billy’s house. They were moths to his light. He wasn’t known as Billy, though. Everyone called him McKechnie. His two boys, Stephen and Darren, are a credit to him and Anna, and are still very close with my sons. Billy is no longer with us. But I still remember him for all the fun we shared.

I have a hardcore of friends from that time. Duncan Petersen, Tommy Hendry and Jim McMillan were at nursery with me from four years of age. Duncan was a plumber who worked for ICI at Grangemouth and retired very early. He has a nice wee place in Clearwater, Florida, and they like to travel. Tommy, who had some heart trouble, was an engin-eer, as was Jim. A fourth one, Angus Shaw, is looking after his ill wife. John Grant, who I’m also very close to, moved to South Africa in the 1960s. His wife and daughter run a wholesale business.

When I left Harmony Row as a lad, it created a big division between me and the Govan boys. They thought I was wrong to leave the team and go to Drumchapel Amateurs. Mick McGowan, who ran Harmony Row, never spoke to me again. He was intransigent. Mick ‘One-Eyed’ McGowan. He was an incredible enthusiast for Harmony Row and just blanked me when I left. But the Govan boys and I would still go dancing up to the age of 19 or 20. We all started with girlfriends around that time.

Then came the separation between us, the drift. I married Cathy and moved up to Simshill. They all married too. The friendships seemed to fall apart. Contact was intermittent. John and Duncan had played with me at Queen’s Park, in 1958–60. In management you have little time for anything beyond the demands of the job. At St Mirren I certainly didn’t. But our bonds were not completely severed. About two months before I left Aberdeen in 1986, Duncan phoned and said it was his 25th wedding anniversary in October. Would Cathy and I like to come? I told him we would love to. It was a turning point in my life. All the lads were there and it brought us back together. Our families were established; we were mature men. I moved to United the following month and we’ve remained close ever since.

When you get to that age, around 19 to 20, there is a gentle parting of the ways, but they all kept together. It was only me who had a different type of life. It was not avoidance in any way. It was just the way my life unfolded. I was running two pubs and was manager of St Mirren. Then came the Aberdeen job in 1978.

Those friendships sustained me at Manchester United. They would all come to our house in Cheshire for a buffet and a singsong and we’d put all the old records on. They were all good singers. By the time my turn came, the wine would have infused me with an exaggerated sense of my own crooning abilities. It would be neck and neck between me and Frank Sinatra. There would be no doubt in my mind that I could treat my audience to a fine rendition of ‘Moon River’. Two words in, I would open my eyes to find the room empty. ‘You come and eat my food and there you are watching telly in the next room while I’m singing,’ I would complain.

‘We’re no listening to that. It’s crap,’ came the reply. They are good solid people. Most have been married over 40 years. God, they give me stick. They pummel me. They get away with it because they are so like me; they are the same stock. They grew up with me. But they were also supportive. When they came down we tended to win. But if we lost a game they might say, sympathetically, ‘That was hard work.’ Not, ‘That was rubbish’, but ‘That was hard work.’ My friends in Aberdeen remain close. The thing I learned about Scotland is that the further north you go, the quieter people are. They take longer to forge friendships, but when they do those ties run deep. Gordon Campbell goes on holiday with us, my lawyer Les Dalgarno, Alan McRae, George Ramsay, Gordon Hutcheon.

As I became more entrenched in the job at United, my social life diminished. I stopped going out on a Saturday night. The football was exhausting for me. Getting away from the ground after a 3 p.m. kick-off, I wouldn’t return home until quarter to nine. That was the price of success: 76,000 people all going home at the same time. The urge to go out weakened. But I developed some strong friendships: Ahmet Kurcer, the manager of the Alderley Edge Hotel, Sotirios, Mimmo, Marius, Tim, Ron Wood, Peter Done, Pat Murphy and Pete Morgan, Ged Mason, the wonderful Harold Riley, and my staff, of course, who were loyal to me. James Mortimer and Willie Haughey were two old pals from my home town, there was Martin O’Connor and Charlie Stillitano in New York and Eckhard Krautzun in Germany, all good people. When we did summon up the energy, we had good nights out.

In my early years in Manchester I grew friendly with Mel Machin, who was manager of City, and who was fired not long after they beat us 5–1. The reason given, I seem to recall, was that Mel didn’t smile enough. I would have been sacked a long time ago had that logic applied at United. John Lyall, the manager of West Ham, was a rock to me in those days. I didn’t know all the players in England and wasn’t sure of the scouting department at United. I would phone John often and he would send me reports on players to supplement my own. I could trust him and confided in him a lot. As a way of telling me United weren’t playing well, he would say: ‘I don’t see Alex Ferguson in that team.’ Jock Wallace, the fiery former Rangers manager, also said to me in a hotel one night: ‘I don’t see Alex Ferguson in that team. You’d better get Alex Ferguson back in there.’ Those men volunteered their advice, knowing that friendship was at the base of their observations. I call those the best friendships. Bobby Robson was manager of England, so that was a different relationship at first, but we too became close. Lennie Lawrence was another friend from that time, and still is.

Bobby Robson and I re-established close contact at Eusébio’s testimonial in Portugal when he was coaching there with Porto and Sporting Lisbon. Eric Cantona made his debut in that game. Bobby came to our hotel and I will always remember him seeking out Steve Bruce to say: ‘Steve, I made a mistake with you. I should have given you an England cap and I want to apologise for that.’ In front of all the players.

So much of what I knew at the end of my career I learned in those early days, sometimes without realising the lessons were sinking in. I learned about human nature long before I headed south to United.

Other people don’t see the game or the world the way you do, and sometimes you have to adjust to that reality. Davie Campbell was a player I had at St Mirren. He could run like a deer but couldn’t trap a rabbit. I was into him at half-time when the door opened to reveal his father. ‘Davie, you’re doing brilliant son, well done!’ the dad announced, then disappeared.

We were at Cowdenbeath one day with East Stirling and made the mistake of not checking the weather. The pitch was brick hard. So we went into Cowdenbeath to buy 12 pairs of baseball boots. We had no rubber soles in those days. We were down three-nothing at half-time. In the second half I feel a tap on my shoulder from Billy Renton, a former team-mate of mine. He says: ‘Alex, I just want to introduce you to my son.’ I say: ‘For God’s sake, Billy, we’re getting beat three-nothing.’

That same day, Frank Connor, a lovely man with a hellish temper, watched a decision go against him and threw the bench on the pitch. I said: ‘Bloody hell, Frank, you’re winning three-nothing.’

‘It’s a disgrace, that,’ Frank fired back. These were the passions swirling all around me.

A story comes back to me of Jock Stein and his battles with Jimmy Johnstone, the brilliant player and legendary carouser. One afternoon, Jock took Jimmy off in a game as punishment for Jimmy not wanting to play in a European away game. As Jimmy came off he said: ‘You big one-legged bastard, you,’ and took a kick at the dug-out. Jimmy runs up the tunnel and big Jock gets after him. Jimmy locks himself in the dressing room.

‘Open that door,’ shouts Jock.

‘No, you’ll hurt me,’ replies Jimmy.

‘Open that door!’ repeats Jock. ‘I warn you.’

Jimmy opens the door and jumps straight into the bath, which is red hot.

Jock shouts: ‘Come out of there.’

‘No, I’m not coming out,’ says Jimmy. Outside, on the pitch, the game is still going on.

Football management is a never-ending sequence of challenges. So much of it is a study in the frailty of human beings. There was an occasion when a number of Scotland players, after a night of liquid entertainment, decided to jump in rowing boats. This ended with Jimmy Johnstone, wee Jinky, having the oars taken off him and the tide taking him out, while he was singing away. When the information got back to Celtic Park, Jock Stein was informed that Jinky had been rescued by the coastguard from a rowing boat in the Firth of Clyde. Jock joked: ‘Could he not have drowned? We’d have given him a testimonial, we’d have looked after Agnes, and I would still have my hair.’ Jock was hilarious. In our time together with Scotland, I recall us beating England 1–0 at Wembley in May 1985 and then flying out to Reykjavik to face Iceland, where we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. On the night of our arrival, the staff sat down to a banquet of prawns, salmon and caviar. Big Jock never drank, but I leaned on him to take one glass of white in celebration of our victory over the English.

In the game against Iceland, we scraped a 1–0 win. The performance was a disaster. And afterwards Big Jock turned to me and said: ‘See that? That’s you and your white wine.’

Despite having all this experience to draw on, I felt my way in the early years at Manchester United. Having a quick temper helped, because if I lost my rag my personality came through. Ryan Giggs has a temper, but a slow one. Mine was a useful tool. I just weighed right in. It helped me to assert my authority. It told the players and staff I was not to be messed about.

There are always people who want to take you on, defy you. When I started, even in my first days at East Stirling, I had a defining confrontation with the centre-forward, who was the son-in-law of one of the directors, Bob Shaw.

I was informed by one of my players, Jim Meakin, that his whole family went away for a weekend in September. It was a tradition.

‘What do you mean?’ I said.

‘You know, I’ll not be playing on Saturday,’ Jim says.

‘Well, I’ll tell you what,’ I said, ‘don’t play on Saturday – and then don’t bother coming back.’

So he played, and straight after drove down to join his family in Blackpool.

On the Monday I receive a phone call: ‘Boss, I’ve broken down.’ In Carlisle, I think it was. He must have thought I was stupid. Quick as a flash I said, ‘I can’t hear you very well, give me your number, I’ll call you back.’ Silence.

‘Don’t come back,’ I said.

Bob Shaw, the director, was deeply unhappy with me. This went on for weeks and weeks. The chairman was saying. ‘Alex, please, get Bob Shaw off my back, get Jim back playing.’

I said: ‘No, Willie, he’s finished. Are you telling me I can do my job with guys deciding when they’re going to go on holiday?’

‘I understand the problem, but is three weeks not enough?’ he said.

The next week he followed me into the toilets at Forfar, stood beside me, and groaned: ‘Please, Alex, if there’s any Christian understanding in your body.’

After a pause I said: ‘All right.’

And he kissed me. ‘What are you doing, you silly old sod,’ I said. ‘You’re kissing me in a public toilet.’

In October 1974, in the next stage of my apprenticeship, I went to work for St Mirren. First day, a photograph in the Paisley Express. In the print I noticed the captain making a gesture behind my back. The following Monday I called him in and said: ‘You’ve got a free transfer if you want it. There’s no place for you here. You’ll not be playing.

‘Why?’ he says.

‘For a start, doing a V-sign behind a manager doesn’t tell me you’re an experienced player, or that you’re a mature person. If I’m looking for a captain I’m looking for maturity. That was a childish schoolboy trick. You have to go.’ You have to make your mark. As Big Jock said to me about players: Never fall in love with them, because they’ll two-time you.

At Aberdeen I had to deal with all sorts of transgressions. I caught plenty out. Afterwards you kill yourself laughing at their reactions.

‘Me?’ they would say, with the most brilliantly wounded expression.

‘Aye, you.’

‘Oh, I went to see a mate.’

‘Oh did you? For three hours? And ended up pissed?’ Mark McGhee and Joe Harper would test me plenty. Then there was Frank McGarvey, at St Mirren. One Sunday in 1977 we took 15,000 fans to a cup game at Fir Park but lost 2–1. Motherwell kicked us off the park and I was reported to the SFA for saying the referee had not been strong enough.

That Sunday night my home phone rang. My mate John Donachie said down the line: ‘I didn’t want to tell you before the game because I knew you would go off your head, but I saw McGarvey in the pub, pissed, on Friday night.’ I phoned his house. His mother answered. ‘Is Frank in?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘he’s in town. Is there anything I can help you with?’

‘Can you ask him to phone me when he comes in. I’ll stay up. I’m not going to bed until I’ve spoken to him.’ At 11.45 p.m. the phone went. Pips sounded, so I knew it was a pay phone. ‘In the house,’ Frank said. ‘But that’s pips,’ I said. ‘Yeah, we’ve got a pay phone in our house,’ says Frank. That much was true, but I didn’t believe he was ringing from there.

‘Where were you on Friday night?’

‘I can’t remember,’ he says.

‘Well, I’ll tell you. You were in the Waterloo bar. That’s where you were. You’re suspended for life. Don’t come back. You’re out of the Scotland Under-21s. I’m withdrawing you. You’ll never kick another ball in your life.’ And I put the phone down.

The next morning, his mother rang me. ‘My Frank doesn’t drink. You’ve got the wrong man.’ I told her: ‘I don’t think so. I know every mother thinks the sun shines out of their son’s backside, but you go back and ask him again.’ For three weeks I had him suspended for life and the players were all muttering about it.

A League decider against Clydebank was approaching and I told my assistant, big Davie Provan: ‘I need him back for this one.’ The club do was at the town hall in Paisley the week before the Clydebank game. I walked in there with Cathy, and suddenly Frank jumped out from behind one of the pillars, begging: ‘Just give me one more chance.’ This was a gift from heaven. There was me wondering how I could bring him back into the fold without losing face and he jumps out from behind a pillar. I told Cathy to walk in while I maintained my sternest tone with Frank: ‘I told you, you’re finished for life.’ Tony Fitzpatrick, who had been watching, steps forward: ‘Boss, give him another chance, I’ll make sure he behaves.’ ‘Talk to me tomorrow morning,’ I barked. ‘This is not the right time.’ I enter the hall to join Cathy, triumphant. We won the Clydebank game 3–1, and Frank scored two.

With young people you have to try to impart a sense of responsibility. If they can add greater awareness to their energy and their talents they can be rewarded with great careers.

One asset I possessed when I started as a manager was that I could make a decision. I was never afraid of that, even as a schoolboy picking a team. I was instructing players even then: ‘You play here, you play there,’ I used to tell them then. Willie Cunningham, one of my early managers, would say: ‘You know, you’re a bloody nuisance.’ I would talk tactics at him and ask: ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ ‘Nuisance, that’s what you are,’ he would answer.

The other players would sit there listening to my interventions and assume I was about to be killed for insubordination. But it was just that I could always make a decision. I don’t know where it comes from, but I know that as a boy I was an organiser, an instructor, a picker of teams. My father was an ordinary working man, very intelligent, but not a leader of any description, so I was not copying a parental example.

On the other hand there is a part of me, I know, that is solitary, cut off. At 15, playing for Glasgow schoolboys, I came home after scoring against Edinburgh schoolboys – the greatest day of my life – to be told by my father that a big club wanted to talk to me. My response surprised us both: ‘I just want to go out. I want to go to the pictures.’ ‘What’s the matter with you?’ he said.

I wanted to separate myself. I don’t know why. To this day I don’t know why I did that. I had to be on my own. My father had been so proud and delighted and my mother was dancing, saying, ‘It’s so great, son.’ My gran was going off her head. Scoring against Edinburgh schoolboys was a big deal. Yet I had to escape into my own wee vacuum, you know?

From there to here is such a vast distance. When I started at Manchester United in 1986, Willie McFaul was the manager of Newcastle United. Manchester City had Jimmy Frizzell and George Graham was in charge at Arsenal. I like George: good man, great friend. When I was having problems with Martin Edwards over my contract, Sir Roland Smith was the chairman of the Plc. The Plc could cause complications at times. You would have to wait for issues to be addressed. One day Sir Roland suggested that Martin, Maurice Watkins, the club solicitor, and I should go over to the Isle of Man to sort out my new deal. George was on double my salary at Arsenal.

‘I’ll give you my contract, if you like,’ George said.

‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’ I said.

So over to the Isle of Man I went, with George’s contract. Martin was a good chairman for me. He was strong. The problem was, he thought every penny was his. He paid you what he wanted to pay you. Not just me – everyone.

When I showed him George’s contract, he wouldn’t believe it. ‘Phone David Dein,’ I suggested. So he did, and David Dein, the Arsenal chairman, denied that George was being paid the sum on the contract. It was a farce. George had given me his documentation, signed by David Dein. Had it not been for Maurice and Roland Smith I would have left the job that day. I was close to leaving anyway.

There was a moral there, as in all of my 39 years on the front line. You have to stand up for yourself. There is no other way.

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