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کتاب: زندگینامه من- الکس فرگوسن / فصل 22

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THE best piece of advice I ever received on the media front was from a friend called Paul Doherty, who was then at Granada TV. Great lad, Paul. He sought me out one day and said: ‘I’ve been watching your press conferences and I’m going to point something out to you. You’re giving the game away. You’re showing your worries. Look in that mirror and put the Alex Ferguson face on.’ Appearing beleaguered is no way to handle the press. Showing your torments to them is no way to help the team or improve your chances of winning on a Saturday. Paul was right. When he gave me that advice I was displaying the strains of the job. I couldn’t allow a press conference to become a torture chamber. It was my duty to protect the dignity of the club and all that we were doing. It was important to be on the front foot and control the conversation as much as possible.

Before I went through that door to face the world, I trained myself, prepared myself mentally. Experience helped. I reached the point in my Friday press conferences where I could see the line a journalist was pursuing. Sometimes they agreed a party line, telling one another: ‘Right, you start that, I’ll go the other way.’ I could read them all. Experience gave me that. Plus, the internal mechanism starts to work faster. I loved it when a journalist asked a big long question because it allowed me time to prepare my answer. The hard ones were the short questions: ‘Why were you so bad?’ That kind of pithy inquiry can cause you to elongate your response. You stretch it out while you’re trying to think, and end up justifying your whole world to them. There’s an art to not exposing the weaknesses of your team, which is always your first priority. Always. You might have a game three days later and that, too, should be at the forefront of your thoughts when being interrogated. Winning that game is what counts, not scoring intellectual points in a news conference.

The third objective is not to make a fool of yourself by answering stupidly. Those were the considerations working away in my brain as I was being grilled. The skills, that greater awareness, took years to acquire. I remember being on television as a young player and blubbing about a six-game suspension I had received from the Scottish Football Association. I said on air: ‘Aye, that’s the Star Chamber justice they operate in Scotland.’ Right away, a letter from the SFA came flying in to the club. Thinking you have a duty to be interesting, you can say something you regret. I was right that day in Scotland but I finished up having to write a letter to explain myself. The manager asked me: ‘Where the hell did you get that one from – the Star Chamber justice line?’

I couldn’t hide the origins of my speech. ‘I was reading a book and just thought it sounded good,’ I told him.

Of course my longest and biggest media bust-up was with the BBC, which lasted seven years until I decided enough was enough in August 2011. There were many annoyances from my perspective, including an article in Match of the Day magazine, but the step too far was a documentary called Fergie and Son, broadcast on 27 May 2004, on BBC3, which featured a horrible attack on my son Jason. They looked at the transfers of Jaap Stam to Roma and Massimo Taibi to Reggina in relation to Jason’s involvement with the Elite Sports Agency. Before the broadcast went out, the United board cleared me, Jason and Elite of any wrongdoing in transfers, but decided that Jason could no longer act for the club on transfer dealings.

The BBC would not apologise and the allegations they made were not true.

In the aftermath, Peter Salmon of the BBC came up to see me and I told him, ‘You watch that programme and tell me whether it does the BBC credit.’ I wanted to sue them, but my solicitor and Jason both opposed the idea. Salmon assumed his old friendship with me from Granada TV would end the standoff.

‘The BBC’s a Manchester firm now,’ he said.

‘Great,’ I said. ‘And you need to apologise.’ No answer. His plan was to get me to address the Fergie and Son programme in an interview with Clare Balding. Why would I do that? But we did agree to differ in the end and I resumed my interviews with BBC staff. By then I had made my point.

More generally Sky television changed the whole media climate by making it more competitive and adding to the hype. Take the coverage of the Suárez biting incident in the spring of 2013. I was asked about it in a press conference. The headline on my answer was: ‘Ferguson feels sympathy for Liverpool’. They asked me a question about Suárez and I said, ‘I know how they feel because Cantona received a nine-month ban for kung-fu kicking a fan.’ My point was – never mind ten games, try nine months. Yet they ran a headline suggesting I felt sorry for Suárez.

Another headline was: ‘Ferguson says José Mourinho is going to Chelsea’. The question they had asked me was: ‘Who will be your main challenger next year?’ I replied that Chelsea would be there next season and added that if the papers were right and Mourinho was going back, it would give them a boost. The headline became: Ferguson says Mourinho’s going back to Chelsea.

I had to text Mourinho to explain. He texted back and said, ‘It’s OK, I know, I saw it.’ That headline ran every ten minutes. Mourinho did end up back at Chelsea but that’s not the point.

So there was an intensity and volatility about the modern media I found difficult. I felt that by the end it was hard to have relationships with the press. They were under so much pressure it was not easy to confide in them. When I first came to Manchester, I was wary of some but wasn’t guarded in the way I was in my final years. Characters like John Bean and Peter Fitton were decent lads. Bill Thornton. David Walker. Steve Millar. Decent guys. And I had my old friends from Scotland.

On tours we used to have a night out with the press lads. One evening we ended up back in my room and Beano was in striking form, tap-dancing on my table. Another night I was in bed, at about 11 o’clock, when the phone rang and a voice said: ‘Alex! Can you confirm or deny that you were seen in a taxi with Mark Hughes tonight?’

It was John Bean. I told him, ‘It would be very difficult, John, because he was playing for Bayern Munich tonight in a European tie.’

John said: ‘Oh yes, I watched that game.’

I banged down the phone.

John then turns up on the Friday. ‘A million apologies, Alex. I know you’ll accept my apology.’ And sat down.

Latterly we had a lot of young reporters who dressed more casually than the men I had known in my early years. Maybe it was a generational thing, but it just didn’t sit well with me. It’s a difficult job for those young reporters because they are under so much pressure from their editors. Forget off the record. It doesn’t exist any more. I banned a couple of reporters in 2012–13 for using off-the-record remarks. I banned another for saying Rooney and I never spoke in training sessions – and that everyone at the club could see it. Not true.

I didn’t read all the papers, but from time to time our media staff would point things out that were inaccurate. The process can drain you. Years ago I used to take action, but it ends up costing you money. As for an apology, 40 words tucked away on page 11 was a long way from a story with banner headlines on the back page. So what was the point?

In banning reporters I would be saying: I’m not accepting your version of events. Again, I was in a strong position, because I had been at Man United a long time and had been successful. If I had been some poor guy struggling on a bad run of results, the scenario would have been different. In most cases I felt an underlying sympathy because I knew that extrapolation or exaggeration was a product of the competitive nature of the business. Newspapers are up against Sky television, websites and other social media channels.

Any Premier League manager should have an experienced press officer, someone who knows the media and can act quickly on stories. You can’t stop them all but you can warn the author when the facts are wrong and seek corrections. As a backup, a good press officer can extricate you from trouble. Every day, for 24 hours, Sky News is rolling. A story will be repeated over and over again. Dealing with the press is becoming more and more problematic for managers.

Say Paul Lambert is having a bad time at Aston Villa. The press conference is bound to be dominated by negativity. Only someone who knows the press can train a manager for that. When I had my bad spell at United, Paul Doherty told me: ‘You’re tense, you’re bait for them. Before you get in that press conference, look in the mirror, rub your face, get your smile on, get your act together. Be sure they can’t eat you up.’ That was marvellous advice. And that is what you have to do. Most times you have to go with the flow and make the best of it. A standard question is: do you feel pressure? Well, of course you do. But don’t give them a headline. I held my press conferences before training. A lot of managers hold theirs afterwards. In that scenario, you are concentrating on your training session and not thinking about the press. For a 9 a.m. press conference I would have been briefed by Phil Townsend, our director of communications, on what might come up.

He would tell me, for example, that I might be asked about the Luis Suárez biting incident, say, or the Godolphin doping scandal in racing, or a possible move for a player such as Lewandowski. I always started by talking about players who would be available for that particular game. Then the emphasis would usually switch to issues around the game, personalities. The Sundays would often look to build a piece around one subject. Michael Carrick’s good form, for instance.

I was generally fine in press conferences. The most difficult challenge was how to address the problem of bad refereeing. I was penalised for making remarks about referees because my reference point was the standards I set for football, not match officials. I wasn’t interested in the standards referees set themselves. As a manager I felt entitled to expect refereeing levels to match those of the game they were controlling. And as a group, referees aren’t doing their job as well as they should be. They talk of refereeing now as a full-time job, but that’s codswallop.

Most start at 16 or so, when they are kids. I admire the impulse to want to referee. The game needs that. I wanted to see men such as the Italian Roberto Rosetti referee here. He’s 6 feet 2 inches tall, a commanding figure, built like a boxer, and he flies over the pitch, calms players down. He’s in control. I liked to see the top referees in action. I enjoyed observing proper authority, properly applied.

It would have been hard to get rid of a Premier League referee on grounds of incompetence or weight. They all have lawyers. The union is very strong. Plus, young referees are not coming through, so they cling to the ones they have.

Refereeing was the one area of the game where maybe I should have walked away from interviews without expressing my opinions. The following week, I might be the beneficiary of a decision in our favour; so to go overboard after one bad decision could be interpreted as selective outrage.

I support The Referees’ Association. At Aberdeen I would bring them into training to help them get fit. I like standards. I like to see a fit referee. And I don’t think that levels of fitness are high enough currently in the English game. How far they run is not the correct standard of measurement. It’s how quickly they cover the ground. If there’s a counter-attack on, can they reach the right end of the pitch in time? In fairness, if you look at our 2009 Champions League semi-final against Arsenal, when Rosetti was the referee, he was still 20 yards behind the play when we put the ball in the net. It took us nine seconds to score. So you’re asking the referee to run 100 yards in nine seconds. Only Usain Bolt could manage that.

As a rule, I felt that the Football Association tend to go after the high-profile targets because they know it will bring favourable publicity. If you look at the Wayne Rooney incident against West Ham, when he swore into the camera, we felt they pressurised the referee, and Rooney ended up with a three-match suspension. The justification was that it’s not nice for children to see a player swear into a TV camera. I can see that, but how often have you seen players swear over the years?

It was never really possible to work out who was running English football’s governing body. You would get Exeter schools having a say. Greg Dyke, the new chairman, has to reduce the numbers involved in decision-making. A committee of 100 people can’t produce sensible management. These committees are set up to honour people’s ‘contribution to the game’ rather than make the organisation run smoothly. It’s an institutional problem. Reformers go in there 6 feet 2 inches tall and come out 5 feet 4 inches.

Our behaviour in big games was generally excellent. One newspaper cited the case of the referee Andy D’Urso being harassed by Roy Keane and Jaap Stam, which we stamped on. Me saying, ‘It’s none of their business,’ evidently irked the FA. I also pointed out that this was the League Cup, not the FA Cup. I was never much impressed with the work of the FA’s compliance unit.

When I criticised Alan Wiley for his physique in the autumn of 2009, I was making a wider point about the fitness of referees. In my opinion Alan Wiley was overweight when I made that point after a 2–2 draw with Sunderland at Old Trafford. The comment that landed me in hot water was: ‘The pace of the game demanded a referee who was fit. He was not fit. You see referees abroad who are as fit as butchers’ dogs. He was taking thirty seconds to book a player. He was needing a rest. It was ridiculous.’ Later I apologised for any personal embarrassment caused to Alan Wiley and said my intention had been to ‘highlight a serious and important issue in the game’. But, 16 days after the Sunderland game, I was charged by the FA with improper conduct. I had twice been banned from the touchline, in 2003, and again in 2007 for having my say about referee Mark Clattenburg. Later I was fined £30,000 and banned from the touchline for five matches for my comments about referee Martin Atkinson in the wake of our 2–1 defeat at Chelsea. After my comments about Alan Wiley, former referee Jeff Winter suggested a ‘FIFA-style stadium ban’ might be appropriate.

By the end, I felt we hadn’t had a really top Premier League referee for a long time. I know Graham Poll had that arrogant streak, but he was the best decision-maker. He had such an ego that it detracted from his performances, and when he entered one of his stroppy moods he could be difficult for you. He was the best judge of an incident over my time at Manchester United.

When a referee is working in front of 44,000 at Anfield, or 76,000 at Old Trafford, and he gives a goal that goes against the home team, and the crowd scream, it does affect a lot of them. That’s another distinction: the ability to make decisions against the tide, against the roar of the crowd. The old saying that a referee was ‘a homer’ does apply. It’s not to say a ref is cheating, more that they are influenced by the force of emotion in the crowd.

Anfield was probably the hardest place for a match official to be objective, because it was such a closed-in, volatile environment. There is an intimidation factor, from fans to referees, not just at Liverpool but across the game.

Forty years ago, crowds were not frenzied the way they are today. So perhaps it would serve a higher purpose for the referee to attend a press conference with his supervisor alongside him and explain how he saw it. For instance, I would have found it interesting to hear from the Turkish referee who handled our Champions League tie against Real Madrid at Old Trafford in March 2013, and listen to what he had to say about Nani’s sending-off, which was appalling.

A brief referee’s press conference might have been a step forward. You can’t stop progress. Take football boots: I was totally against the modern boot, yet manufacturers were pouring money into football and therefore could not be challenged. The level of gimmickry is now very high, to get young kids to buy pink boots, orange boots. A lot of clubs use the kit manufacturers as part of the deal to sign a player: we can get you a deal with Nike or adidas, and so on. They have to get their money back, and it’s through boots.

As an audience we are never ever going to be satisfied with referees, because we are all biased towards our own teams. But full-time referees have not been successful, except in terms of man-management. It’s impossible for a person to do his normal job and still follow the kind of training programme referees are assigned. So the system is flawed. There should be full-time referees who report to St George’s Park every day. You may say – how are they going to travel from Newcastle to Burton-upon-Trent every day? Well, if we signed a player from London, we found him a house in Manchester. Robin van Persie, for example. If they want the best refereeing system, they should be as professional as the Premier League clubs, with the money the game now has.

Mike Riley, the head of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, once claimed they lacked the finance to take such steps. If he is right, it is incredible that football lacks the resources for proper professional refereeing, with £5 billion in revenues from television. That is ridiculous. Think of the sums available in parachute payments to clubs relegated to the Championship. If referees are going to be full-time, the system should reflect that. It should be done properly.

In Europe, Champions League referees have an arrogance about them because they know they won’t see you again the following weekend. I was in four finals and there was only one where the referee could be recognised as a top official: Pierluigi Collina, in the Barcelona final of 1999.

I’ve lost two important European ties to José Mourinho, not because of the performance of the players but because of the referee. The Porto game in 2004 was unbelievable. The worst decision he made that night was not the disallowed Scholes goal that would have put us 2–0 in front. When Ronaldo broke away with a few minutes to go, he was brought down by the left-back. The linesman flagged for a free kick but the referee chose to play on. Porto went up the park, got a free kick, Tim Howard parried it out and they scored in injury time. So we had plenty of experience of bad decisions against us in Europe.

I was at an AC Milan–Inter game and a senior Inter official said to me: ‘Do you know the difference between the English and the Italians? In England they don’t think a game can ever be corrupt. In Italy they don’t think a game can not be corrupt.’

In England, on the plus side, there was an improvement in man-management. That was good. The communication between match officials and players was much more constructive. People in authority have to be able to make decisions, and a lot of them lacked the ability to reach them quickly. The human element tells you a referee can be wrong. But the good ones will make the correct decisions more often than not. The ones who make the wrong ones are not necessarily bad referees. They just lack that talent for making the right calls in a tight time frame.

It was the same with players. What makes the difference in the last third? It’s your decision-making. We were on to players about it all the time. If I were starting again, I would force every player to learn chess to give them the ability to concentrate. When you first learn chess you can be three or four hours finishing a game. But when you’ve mastered it and start playing 30-second chess, that’s the ultimate. Quick decisions, under pressure. What football is all about.

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