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THREE - RETIREMENT U-TURN

ON the sofa that night of Christmas Day 2001, I had nodded off while watching television. In the kitchen a mutiny was brewing. The traditional assembly room of our family home was the scene for a discussion that would change each of our lives. The chief rebel came in and kicked my foot to wake me. In the frame of the door I could pick out three figures: all my sons, lined up for maximum solidarity.

‘We’ve just had a meeting,’ Cathy said. ‘We’ve decided. You’re not retiring.’ As I weighed this announcement I felt no urge to resist. ‘One, your health is good. Two, I’m not having you in the house. And three, you’re too young anyway.’ Cathy did all the early talking. But our sons were right behind her. The gang was united. ‘You’re being stupid, Dad,’ the boys told me. ‘Don’t do it. You’ve got a lot to offer. You can build a new team at Manchester United.’ That’ll teach me to nod off for five minutes. It ended with me working for 11 more years.

One of the reasons I had decided to stand down in the first place was in reaction to a remark Martin Edwards had made after the 1999 European Cup final in Barcelona. Martin had been asked whether there would be a role for me after I surrendered the manager’s job and had replied: ‘Well, we don’t want a Matt Busby situation.’ I wasn’t impressed by that answer. The two periods could not be compared. In my era, you needed to factor in the added complications brought on by agents, contracts, the mass media. No sensible person would want to be embroiled in those activities once he had finished serving his time as manager. There was not the slimmest chance I would want to be involved in the games themselves or the complexities of the football trade.

What else made me intend to retire in the first place? There was always a sense after that magical night in Barcelona that I had reached the pinnacle. Previously my teams had fallen short in the European Cup and I had always chased that end of the rainbow. Once you’ve achieved your life’s ambition, you ask yourself whether you can achieve such a high again. When Martin Edwards made his remark about avoiding the Matt Busby syndrome, my first thought was ‘Nonsense’. My second was: ‘Sixty is a good age to walk away.’ So three factors wormed away in my mind: the disappointment of Martin raising the Matt Busby spectre, the imponderable of whether I could win a second European Cup, and that number, 60, which assumed a haunting quality. I had been a manager from 32 years of age.

Reaching 60 can have a profound effect. You think you’re entering another room. At 50, a pivotal moment has arrived. Half a century. But you don’t feel 50. At 60, you say: ‘Christ, I feel 60. I’m 60!’ You come through that. You realise it’s a notional change, a numerical alteration. I don’t feel that way now about age. But back then, 60 was a psychological barrier in my head. It was an obstacle to me feeling young. It changed my sense of my own fitness, my health. Winning the European Cup enabled me to feel I had completed the set of dreams and could now step away fulfilled. That was the catalyst in my thinking. But when I saw Martin casting me as an annoying ghost on the shoulder of the new manager, I muttered to myself, ‘What a joke.’ It was a relief to me, of course, to perform a full U-turn, but I still had to argue the practicalities with Cathy and the boys.

‘I don’t think I can reverse it. I’ve told the club.’

Cathy said: ‘Well, don’t you think they should show you some respect in terms of allowing you to change your mind?’

‘They may have given it to someone by now,’ I said.

‘But with the job you’ve done – don’t you think they should give you the chance to go back on it?’ she persisted.

The next day I phoned Maurice Watkins who laughed when I told him about my U-turn. The head-hunters were due to meet a candidate to succeed me the following week. Sven-Göran Eriksson was to be the new United manager, I believe. That was my interpretation, anyway, though Maurice never confirmed it. ‘Why Eriksson?’ I asked him, later.

‘You may be wrong, you may be right,’ Maurice said.

I remember asking Paul Scholes one day: ‘Scholesy, what’s Eriksson got?’ but Scholesy could shed no light. Maurice’s next move was to make contact with Roland Smith, the then chairman of the Plc, whose response to me when we spoke was: ‘I told you. Didn’t I tell you how stupid you were? We need to sit down to discuss this.’ Roland was one of those wise old birds. He had lived a rich life, a complete life. All kinds of interesting experiences had passed his way and he could unfurl a marvellous array of stories. Roland told us a tale of Margaret Thatcher being at a dinner with the Queen. Her Majesty wanted the royal plane to be refurbished. Roland came rolling along and noticed the two of them with their backs to one another.

‘Roland,’ called the Queen, ‘will you tell this woman I need some work doing on my plane?’

‘Ma’am,’ said Roland, ‘I’ll attend to it right away.’

That’s what I needed him to say about my change of heart. I needed him to attend to it right away. My first point to Roland was that I needed a new contract. My existing deal would expire that summer. We needed to move fast.

The moment I made the announcement specifying the date of my departure, I knew I had made an error. Others knew it too. Bobby Robson had always said: ‘Don’t you dare retire.’ Bobby was a wonderful character. We were sitting in the house one afternoon when the phone went.

‘Alex, it’s Bobby here. Are you busy?’

‘Where are you?’ I said.

‘I’m in Wilmslow.’

‘Well come round,’ I told him.

‘I’m outside your door,’ he said.

Bobby was such a refreshing man. Even in his seventies he still wanted the Newcastle job back, after losing it early in the 2004–05 season. It was never in Bobby’s nature to embrace idleness, and he refused to accept the Newcastle post had suddenly moved beyond his capabilities. That defiance stayed with him to the end and showed how much he loved this game.

Once I had decided I would be standing down, I stopped planning. The minute I reversed that policy, I started plotting again. I told myself: ‘We need a new team.’ The energy came back. I started to feel that thrust about myself again. To the scouts I announced, ‘Let’s get cracking again.’ We were mobilising once more and it felt good.

I had no physical ailments or impediments that would have stopped me carrying on. In management you are fragile, sometimes. You wonder whether you are valued. I remember my friend Hugh McIlvanney’s Arena TV documentary trilogy on Stein, Shankly and Busby. A theme of Hugh’s study was that these men were too big for their clubs and each, in his own way, had been cut down to size. I remember big Jock saying to me about club owners and directors: ‘Remember, Alex, we are not them. We are not them. They run the club. We are their workers.’ Big Jock always felt that. It was us and them, the landowner and the serf.

What they did to Jock Stein at Celtic, apart from being distasteful, was ridiculous. They asked him to run the pools. Twenty-five trophies with Celtic, and they asked him to run the pools. Bill Shankly was never invited to join the Liverpool board and as a consequence a resentment grew in him. He even started to come to Manchester United games, or watch Tranmere Rovers. He appeared at our old training ground, The Cliff, as well as Everton’s.

No matter how good your CV, there are moments when you feel vulnerable, exposed; though in my last few years with David Gill, the base in which I operated was first-class. Our relationship was excellent. But there is a fear of failure in a manager the whole time, and you are on your own a lot. Sometimes you would give anything not to be alone with your thoughts. There were days when I would be in my office, in the afternoon, and no one would knock on my door because they assumed I was busy. Sometimes I’d hope for that rap on the door. I would want Mick Phelan or René Meulensteen to come in and say: ‘Do you fancy a cup of tea?’ I had to go and look for someone to talk to; enter their space. In management you have to face that isolation. You need contact. But they think you’re busy with important business and don’t want to go near you.

Until around 1 p.m. there would be a constant stream of people coming to see me. The youth academy guys, Ken Ramsden, the secretary, and first-team players, which was always gratifying because it meant they trusted you, often with family problems. I always adopted a positive approach to players confiding in me, even if it was to ask for a day off to deal with fatigue, or to address a contract problem.

If a player asked me for a day off, there had to be a good reason, because who would want to miss a training session at United? I would always say yes. I would trust them. Because if you said, ‘No – and why do you want one anyway?’ and they answered, ‘Because my grandmother has died,’ then you were in trouble. If there was a problem I would always want to help to find a solution.

I had people who were 100 per cent Alex Ferguson. Examples would be Les Kershaw, Jim Ryan and Dave Bushell. I brought Les in in 1987. He was one of my best-ever signings. I hired him on the recommendation of Bobby Charlton. Because I didn’t know the English scene that well, Bobby’s tips were invaluable. Les had worked at Bobby’s soccer schools and scouted for Crystal Palace. He had also worked with George Graham and Terry Venables. Bobby’s view was that Les would love to work for Manchester United. So I hooked him in. He was effervescent. So enthusiastic. Never stops talking. He would call me at 6.30 p.m. every Sunday night to update me with all the scouting reports. Cathy would come through after an hour to say, ‘Are you still on that phone?’ The moment you interrupted Les, he would accelerate. What a worker. He was a professor of chemistry at Manchester University. Dave Bushell was a headmaster who ran English schools Under-15s and I took him when Joe Brown retired. Jim Ryan was there from 1991. Mick Phelan was a player for me and became my valued assistant, apart from the spell when he left us in 1995 and rejoined in 2000 as a coach. Paul McGuinness was with me from when I joined the club. He was the son of former United player and manager Wilf McGuinness, and had been a player himself. I made him an academy coach.

Normally a manager brings an assistant and that assistant stays with him. United are a different proposition because my assistants acquired a high profile and became targets for other clubs. I lost my assistant, Archie Knox, to Rangers, two weeks before the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, and in Archie’s absence I took Brian Whitehouse to Rotterdam for the game and made sure all the backroom staff were involved.

Later I went scouting for a No. 2. Nobby Stiles said: ‘Why don’t you promote Brian Kidd?’ Brian knew the club and had transformed the local scouting network, bringing in a lot of his old pals, United men and schoolteachers who knew the local area. That was the best work Brian ever did. It was a terrific success. So I gave Brian the job. He did well in the sense that he became very friendly with the players and put on a good training session. He had been to Italy to watch the Serie A teams and brought a lot of that wisdom home.

When he left to go to Blackburn in 1998, I told him: ‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’ When a coach leaves, they always ask: ‘What do you think?’ With Archie I couldn’t get Martin Edwards to match the Rangers offer. As for Brian, I didn’t feel he was suited to management. Steve McClaren: management material, no doubt about that. What I told Steve was: you should make sure you get the right club, the right chairman. Essential. Always. West Ham and Southampton were the ones who wanted him at this stage.

From nowhere, Steve took a call from Steve Gibson, the chairman of Middlesbrough, and my advice was, ‘Absolutely no doubt, take it.’ Bryan Robson, though he had lost his job there, always spoke highly of Steve Gibson, who was young, fresh, and always willing to put his money in. They had a great training ground. ‘That’s your job,’ I told Steve.

Organised, strong and always looking for new ideas, Steve was made for management. He was effervescent and energetic with a good personality.

Carlos Queiroz, another of my No. 2s, was brilliant. Just brilliant. Outstanding. An intelligent, meticulous man. The recommendation to hire him came from Andy Roxburgh, at a time when we were beginning to look at more southern-hemisphere players and perhaps needed a coach from beyond the northern European nations, and one who could speak another language or two. Andy was quite clear. Carlos was outstanding. He had coached South Africa, so I called in Quinton Fortune one day for his opinion. ‘Fantastic,’ said Quinton. ‘To what level, do you think?’ ‘Any,’ said Quinton. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘that will do me.’ When Carlos came over to England in 2002 to speak to us, I was waiting for him in my tracksuit. Carlos was immaculately dressed. He has that suaveness about him. He was so impressive that I offered him the job right away. He was the closest you could be to being the Manchester United manager without actually holding the title. He took responsibility for a lot of issues that he didn’t have to get involved in.

‘I need to talk to you.’ Carlos had rung me one day in 2003 as I was holidaying in the south of France. What could it be? Who was after him? ‘I just need to talk to you,’ he repeated.

So he flew into Nice and I took a taxi to Nice Airport, where we found a quiet corner.

‘I’ve been offered the Real Madrid job,’ he said.

‘I’m going to say two things to you. One, you can’t turn it down. Two, you’re leaving a really good club. You may not last more than a year at Real Madrid. You could be at Man United for a lifetime.’

‘I know,’ Carlos said. ‘I just feel it’s such a challenge.’

‘Carlos, I can’t talk you out of that one. Because if I do, and in a year’s time Real Madrid are winning the European Cup, you’ll be saying – I could have been there. But I’m just telling you, it’s a nightmare job.’

Three months later, he was wanting to quit Madrid. I told him he couldn’t. I flew out to Spain to meet him at his apartment and we had lunch. My message was: you can’t quit, see it through, and rejoin me next year. That season I didn’t take an assistant because I was sure Carlos would come back. I co-opted Jim Ryan and Mick Phelan, two good men, but I didn’t want to dive in with an appointment, knowing Carlos might be returning. I had interviewed Martin Jol, a week or so before Carlos called to say it wasn’t working out in Madrid. Martin had been impressive and I was inclined to give him the job, but then came the call from Carlos, which obliged me to go back to Martin and say: ‘Look, I’m going to leave it for the time being.’ I couldn’t tell him why.

Assistant manager at Manchester United is a high-profile position. It’s a platform within the game. When Carlos left the second time in July 2008, his homeland was pulling on his heartstrings, so I could understand him wanting to go back to Portugal. But he was smashing, Carlos. He had most of the qualities to be the next Manchester United manager. He could be an emotional man. But of all the ones who worked alongside me, he was the best, no doubt about that. He was totally straight. He would walk in and tell you directly: I’m not happy with this, or that.

He was good for me. He was a Rottweiler. He’d stride into my office and tell me we needed to get something done. He would sketch things out on the board. ‘Right, OK, Carlos, yeah,’ I would say, thinking, ‘I’m busy here.’ But it’s a good quality to have, that urge to get things done.

The structure of the team was strong in the year I decided to rescind my retirement plans, though we had lost Peter Schmeichel and Denis Irwin. Now there was a player, Denis Irwin. We always called him eight out of ten Denis. So quick and nimble: quick-brained. Never let you down. There was never any bad publicity with him. I remember a game at Arsenal, when Denis allowed Dennis Bergkamp to score late in the match, and the press said: ‘Well, you’ll be disappointed with Denis,’ and I replied: ‘Aye, well, he’s been with me for eight or nine years and he’s never made a mistake. I think we can forgive him one.’ The biggest challenge was in the goalkeeping position. From the minute Schmeichel left to join Sporting Lisbon in 1999 – and having missed out on Van der Sar – I was throwing balls in the air, hoping one would land in the right place. Raimond van der Gouw was a terrific, steady goalkeeper, and a very loyal and conscientious trainer, but he wouldn’t have been the No. 1 choice. Mark Bosnich was, in my opinion, a terrible professional, which we should have known. Massimo Taibi just didn’t work out and he returned to Italy, where he rejuvenated his career. Fabien Barthez was a World Cup-winning goalkeeper, but it’s possible that the birth of his child back in France affected his concentration, because he was going back and forth a lot. He was a good lad, a fine shot-stopper and a good fielder of the ball. But when a keeper loses his concentration, he’s in trouble.

When the team thought I would be leaving, they slackened off. A constant tactic of mine was always to have my players on the edge, to keep them thinking it was always a matter of life and death. The must-win approach. I took my eye off the ball, thinking too far ahead, and wondering who would replace me. It’s human nature, in those circumstances, to relax a bit, and to say: ‘I’m not going to be here next year.’ United were so used to me being around it wasn’t clear what the next chapter was going to be. And it was a mistake. I knew that by the previous October in 2000. By that stage I was wanting the season to be over with. I couldn’t enjoy it. I cursed myself: ‘I’ve been stupid. Why did I even mention it?’ There wasn’t the same performance level on the pitch. I was starting to have doubts about my own future. Where would I go, what would I do? I knew I would miss the consuming nature of the United job.

The 2001–02 season was a fallow year for us. We finished third in the League and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, losing to Bayer Leverkusen, but there were to be no trophies in the year of my U-turn. This after a run of three straight Premier League titles.

That summer we spent heavily on Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastián Verón. Laurent Blanc came in, too, after I sold Jaap Stam – an error, as I have admitted many times since. My reasoning with Blanc, as I said at the time, was that we needed a player who would talk to and organise the younger players. The early part of that campaign was most memorable for Roy Keane throwing the ball at Alan Shearer (and being sent off) in the 4–3 defeat at Newcastle, and our incredible 5–3 victory at Spurs on 29 September 2001, in which Tottenham scored through Dean Richards, Les Ferdinand and Christian Ziege before we mounted one of the great comebacks.

It is such a vivid memory. As they traipsed into the dressing room, three goals down, the players were braced for a rollicking. Instead I sat down and said: ‘Right, I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. We’re going to score the first goal in this second half and see where it takes us. We get at them right away, and we get the first goal.’ Teddy Sheringham was the Tottenham captain and, as the teams emerged back into the corridor, I saw Teddy stop and say: ‘Now don’t let them get an early goal.’ I’ll always remember that. We scored in the first minute.

You could see Spurs deflate while we puffed ourselves up. There were 44 minutes left in the half. On we went and scored four more. Just incredible. Tottenham’s standing in the game imbued that victory with more lustre than a five-goal comeback at, say, Wimbledon. To beat a great football club in that manner has historical ramifications. Our dressing room afterwards was some place to be: players rolling their heads, not quite believing what they had done.

Teddy’s warning to the Tottenham team that day reflected our success in frightening opponents with well-timed retaliatory goals. There was an assumption (which we encouraged) that scoring against us was a provocative act that would invite terrible retribution. Most teams could never relax in front against us. They were always waiting for the counterpunch.

I tapped my watch in games to spook the other team, not encourage mine. If you want my summary of what it was to be Manchester United manager I would direct you to the last 15 minutes. Sometimes it would be quite uncanny, as if the ball were being sucked into the net. Often the players would seem to know it was going to be hoovered in there. The players would know they were going to get a goal. It didn’t always happen, but the team never stopped believing it could. That’s a great quality to have.

I always took risks. My plan was: don’t panic until the last 15 minutes, keep patient until the last quarter of an hour, then go gung-ho.

Against Wimbledon in the Cup one year, Peter Schmeichel went up to chase a goal and we left Denis Irwin on the halfway line against John Fashanu. Schmeichel was up there for two minutes. Wimbledon were kicking the ball up to Fashanu and wee Denis was nipping in front of him and sending it back into the box. Great entertainment. Schmeichel had a physical prowess. He and Barthez liked to play out. Barthez especially was a good player, though he thought he was better than he was. On tour in Thailand he kept on at me to let him play up front, so I relented for the second half. The other players kept battering the ball into the corners and Barthez would come back with his tongue hanging out after chasing the ball. He was knackered.

No team ever entered Old Trafford thinking United might be persuaded to give in. There was no comfort to be gained from thinking we could be demoralised. Leading 1–0 or 2–1, the opposition manager would know he faced a final 15 minutes in which we would go hell for leather. That fear factor was always there. By going for the throat and shoving bodies into the box, we would pose the question: can you handle it? On top of our own frantic endeavours, we would be testing the character of the defending team. And they knew it. Any flaw would widen into a crack. It didn’t always work. But when it did, you got the joy that came with a late conquest. It was always worth the gamble. It was rare for us to be hit on the break while we chased a game. We lost at Liverpool once when Luke Chadwick chased back and got sent off. Everyone else was in the box. Against us, teams would have so many players back defending that it would be hard for them break out.

At half-time at Spurs we had looked buried. But as I said at the end of that season: ‘In a crisis you’re better just calming people down.’ We scored five times to win the game, with Verón and David Beckham scoring the last two. Around that time, however, we were having goalkeeping problems. In October, Fabien Barthez committed two howlers. We also lost 2–1 at home to Bolton and 3–1 at Liverpool, where Fabien came for a punch and missed. At Arsenal on 25 November, our French keeper passed straight to Thierry Henry, who scored, and then raced out for a ball that he failed to gather. Henry again: 3–1.

December 2001 started no better, when we lost 3–0 at home to Chelsea, our fifth League defeat in 14 games. Things improved from there. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer struck up a good relationship with Van Nistelrooy (Andy Cole was to leave for Blackburn in January), and we went top of the table early in the New Year of 2002. In the 2–1 win over Blackburn, Van Nistelrooy scored for the tenth time in a row, and by the end of January we were top of the League by four points.

Then came my announcement, in February 2002. I would not be standing down after all.

Once the retirement issue was cleared up, our form picked up dramatically. We won 13 of 15 games. I was desperate to make it to Glasgow for the 2002 Champions League final. I was so sure we would get there that I had scouted the hotels in the city. I tried to play it down but the urge to lead the team out at Hampden Park obsessed me.

In the semi-final against Bayer Leverkusen, we had three shots cleared off the line in the second game and went out on away goals after drawing the tie 3–3 on aggregate. Michael Ballack and Oliver Neuville had scored at Old Trafford. Also in the Leverkusen side was a young Dimitar Berbatov, who was later to join us from Spurs.

But at least I still had my job. On New Year’s Day, for my birthday, we had all been to the Alderley Edge Hotel – the whole family. It was the first time for a while we had all been together. Mark, who was usually in London, was there, along with Darren, Jason and Cathy. All the conspirators round a table.

When the players heard the news I would be staying on after all, I braced myself for the barbed comments that would come my way. I couldn’t have made an announcement of that magnitude without paying a high price on the banter front.

Ryan Giggs was the most skilful in his mockery. ‘Oh, no, I can’t believe this,’ Ryan said. ‘I’ve just signed a new contract.’

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