Sir Alex never courted publicity ... which some might say is just as well

By Patrick Collins

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It was an hour before the opening match of the 1989-90 season and Alex Ferguson was chatting with his  opposite number, George Graham of Arsenal. Suddenly, the two men became aware of a rumpus outside. Ferguson switched on a television  monitor and saw a tubby 37-year-old man in a United strip, juggling a ball in the centre circle. 

The man cavorted down the pitch, thumped the ball into the empty net at the Stretford End and bowed to the mocking fans. As Ferguson would later recall: 'I was starting to have a terrible gut feeling about my new chairman.'

Checking in: Sir Alex Ferguson arrived at the team hotel on Saturday night just as Wigan lifted the FA Cup

Checking in: Sir Alex Ferguson arrived at the team hotel on Saturday night just as Wigan lifted the FA Cup

The tale is often retold at Old Trafford, usually with a faint air of disbelief. The idea of a club chairman behaving like a game-show contestant is even more improbable now than it was back then. 

But there is one detail, lurking in small print and largely overlooked, which now seems totally astonishing: the ball juggler, one Michael Knighton, had bought Manchester United for 20million.

How United's value has soared

1986 United value 15m
Biggest transfer in 1986-87: Liam O'Brien, from Shamrock, 57,000

1989 value 20m
Businessman Michael Knighton offered to buy United for 20m. Chairman Martin Edwards agreed to sell but it fell through. Biggest transfer: Mark Hughes from Barcelona, 2.4m

1991 value 18m
United floated on the London Stock Exchange. Biggest transfer: Denis Irwin, Oldham 638,000

1994 value 100m
United's value soared after first Premiership title in 1993 and Double in 1994. Biggest transfer: David May, from Blackburn, 1.4m

1998 value 623m
BskyB bid 623m for United. Monopolies and Mergers Commission blocked the deal. Biggest transfer: Henning Berg, from Blackburn, 6.6m

2005 value 790m
The Glazer family's takeover is completed, valuing the club at 790m. Biggest transfer: Wayne Rooney from Everton, 27m

2008 value 897m
Forbes valued United at 897m. Biggest transfer: Anderson, from Porto, c.20m

2013 value 2bn
Flotation on New York Stock Exchange put value at 1.98bn. Biggest transfer: Robin van Persie, from Arsenal, 24m

He was able to do so because the United chairman, Martin Edwards, had been financially stretched by his purchase of a 50.2 per cent stake in United. With the Stretford End urgently requiring development, at a cost of 10m, and Edwards requiring a further 10m for his shares, Knighton arrived as the answer to his prayer, and they shook hands on the transaction. 

As it happens, the deal fell through within a few weeks and Edwards was restored as chairman. But the fact had been established: United were valued at 20m.

Last Wednesday, following news of Sir Alex Ferguson's resignation, Manchester United's share price fell briefly on the New York Stock Exchange. It recovered by close of trading to something close to its original level, and the overall market value of the club was set at around 1.98billion. 

If we wish to assess the scope of Ferguson's achievement, we must look beyond the great teams, the famous trophies and the fine players; from Robson and Bruce, to Cantona and Keane, to Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, Van Persie and the rest.

Instead, we should consider those  staggering figures which illuminate the growth of an empire, of a club that,  subject to adjustment for inflation, is now worth something like 100 times what it would have fetched almost a quarter of  a century ago. 

And every pound, every penny of that towering sum, may be traced to the effort, the energy, the instinctive genius of the man from Govan. 

But, naturally, the romance is not to be found in the balance sheets. It is the  football which will linger in the mind's eye, the image of a man jumping from the dugout to wave his team forward, always forward. 

He wouldn't settle for squeezing out  a mean result. Where a pragmatist would have favoured consolidation, Ferguson was constantly mindful of an obligation to the game; of what it meant and of how it ought to be played. Even when he was behaving badly - and he frequently behaved very badly indeed - there was always a saving acknowledgement that he represented not merely a football club but a romantic institution; one with  standards and traditions.

Nod to the old man: Sir Alex Ferguson arrived in the shadow of SirMatt Busby but soon made his own mark on United

Nod to the old man: Sir Alex Ferguson arrived in the shadow of SirMatt Busby but soon made his own mark on United

After all that has happened through the Ferguson years, it is easy to forget that he took the post at a time when United  managers were still being measured against the achievements of Sir Matt Busby, a man widely regarded as the father of football.

I recall visiting Old Trafford one May morning in 1983. The previous evening  in Gothenburg, Ferguson's Aberdeen had defeated Real Madrid to win the European Cup-winners' Cup. One of the features of the match had been the performance of the Aberdeen winger Peter Weir, who had stretched the Spanish defence with a bold display of attacking play.

As I waited for my appointment with United's manager, Ron Atkinson, Sir Matt came past. A gentle man, with the bearing of a kindly parish priest, he was buzzing with Aberdeen's achievement. 

'Did ye see that last night, son?' he asked. 'Wasn't that something? And  people tell us there's no place for wingers in the game. No place?' He shook his head, still smiling. 'Good side, Aberdeen,' he said. 'Very good side.' Years later, Busby would watch with relish as the manager of that 'very good side' delivered impossible dreams at Old Trafford. 

Although their footballing instincts had much in common, Busby and Ferguson were very different men. Sir Matt was never a soft touch, but he would have been quite incapable of maintaining the number of feuds and vendettas which were Ferguson's daily diet. 

Over the past few days, we have endured endless tales of the so-called 'hairdryer' treatment. This involves a furious, red-faced man bawling insults at anybody who displeases him, be they players, media or officials. Many of the victims seem irrationally proud of their ordeal, telling the tales with the satisfaction of survivors. 

The truth is that Ferguson took some care to bully only those who would be  bullied. There is no evidence, for instance, that he ever sought to dry the hair of  people like Eric Cantona or Roy Keane.

Such methods were distinctly 'old school', spiky remnants of a time when a manager's will was implacable and his word was law. Yet the most impressive aspect of Ferguson's management was his readiness to adapt to the times;  tactically, socially, intellectually.

Ferguson celebrates with the European Cup

From the outside, it was quite impossible to foresee his personal development. In his first month of management in England, I recall him taking his team to that charmless slum called Plough Lane, where Wimbledon would intimidate their betters with muscle and studs. 

United lost to a goal scored by a combative teenager named Vinnie Jones. Later, Ferguson sat on a table in the middle of his dressing room, talking to a handful of querulous journalists and trying to  rationalise defeat. 

Clearly, he had been shocked by the inadequacies of his team, but he  promised better things. 'We'll get there,' he said. 'It'll take time, but we'll get there.' A personal view is that much of his later success derived from his understanding of the young men in his charge. Even when he passed his three-score and tenth year, he never really stopped thinking like a player. 

 

His stories tended to be about his old team-mates. That was the time he loved best, the pranks and the larks and the nonsense. 

Somehow, he retained all the laddish optimism of those days. And yet he always possessed uncommon gifts; an original mind, a curiosity about the workings of the world and a genuine talent for spontaneous eloquence. 

I remember that bleak day in Durham when he delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Sir Bobby Robson. The incomparable cathedral was packed to overflowing and the service was broadcast live on network television.

Ferguson was warm, nostalgic, perceptive and magnanimous. Not a word was wasted, not a phrase misplaced. It was a stunning oration, and only when he was approaching the conclusion did  I realise that he had given the entire speech without a note. 

Later, at the reception, I mentioned his lack of a prompt. 'Ach,' he snorted, as if it had never crossed his mind. 'I don't need notes to talk about Bobby Robson.' 

I fancy Ferguson has done a fair amount of dismissive snorting these past few days over some of the reactions to his decision to step down. 

There was a BBC Radio presenter named Richard Bacon who, desperately seeking 'celebs' to pay tribute to the great man, seized upon a bloke from Emmerdale. 'What was your first thought when you heard Sir Alex Ferguson was retiring?' he inquired. 'It felt a bit like grief,' replied the bloke from Emmerdale. 

But even that unctuous gem paled in comparison with this piece of profundity from television's Eamonn Holmes:  'Fergie's going reminds us that even he is mortal, even he has a lifespan. And, therefore, so do we.' Truly, there are times when Pseuds Corner writes itself.

Yet even a man not easily impressed must have been moved by the sheer  volume of tributes. He has never actively courted popularity - which some might say is just as well - and he has rarely recognised any standards but his own. Yet as the days and weeks pass, and  reality sinks in, he must realise that he has made an indelible mark on British sport and British public life. 

In its own way and on its own stage, the career of Alex Ferguson has exemplified the philosophy of a truly great man, one of Ferguson's personal heroes. As Robert F Kennedy would say: 'There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask: "Why?" I dream of things that never were, and ask "Why not?" '

 

 

The comments below have not been moderated.

"Sir Alex never courted publicity".............He didn't need to, he basically owned the DM and Sky sports, any Journalist who dared ask him a pertinent question would never get the chance to ask another and their career would be damaged by not being able to work at Old Trafford, likewise referees were terrified of him, they knew that they would be crucified in the media if they ever gave a 50/50 decision against United, so the safe option has always been "if in doubt give it to United" that adds up to a lot of points over a season.

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Sir Matt Busby would be proud. I wish he was still alive to see how great United are.

Click to rate     Rating   10

I admit now in hindsight that I should have expanded on my " boring" comment. My feeling is that there has been too much bias in all the articles and the DM should be providing (a) more focus on other sports news and (b) reporting on the negatives of SAF alongside all the positives (and yes, there are a lot of positives, I am man enough to recognise this). - Frenchblue , Vence, France, 12/5/2013------Frenchblue, if you read the full articles,you will always find more than enough of the negatives on all things Sir Alex. To name just two, Patrick Collins and David James. I'm sure you will thoroughly enjoy the James piece!!! This week sports fans have witnessed events that we will never see the light of again,the sports pages are undoubtably going to be focused on SAF. I still don't appreciate your stance on this. I managed to read about our Olympic sailor and that of Petrov at Villa. I have posted comment on the Petrov forum.I take it you are being honest about your frustrations?????

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I admit now in hindsight that I should have expanded on my " boring" comment. My feeling is that there has been too much bias in all the articles and the DM should be providing (a) more focus on other sports news and (b) reporting on the negatives of SAF alongside all the positives (and yes, there are a lot of positives, I am man enough to recognise this).

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Frenchblue. Only the boring become bored

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My overall picture of Sir Alex has been set for many years and will never be distorted by another's view, but I did enjoy reading this piece. We all know the tales that some recite that serve to have a negative image of Sir Alex, the hair dryer, the bullying and the rage, but some of these tales are exaggerated. Consider how little, in comparison, we hear the tales of the decent compassionate side. Football, for some, is such a passion, that it can consume the person, sometimes resulting in saying and doing the wrong things. It does for him and it did for me. Most just laughed at my indiscretions when at Old Trafford, I'm thankfully my every move is not followed like Sir Alex's ! To all those in B stand in the late 1970's, 1980's and 90's, I apologise!!!! What turns a quiet woman who doesn't know how to swear into an wild deranged lunatic who spends most of the game clambering on any off their seat ( with the odd swear word directed at the pitch ) You see, passion can effect us all !!

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Frenchblue.......That 1 word sums it up as far as you are concerned does it? I fail to see why you would comment in such a manner without expanding on your remark. On a story like this people tend to add their own perspective and that is what the reporter has tried to do.For many of us who don't know SAF these little snippets of info about the man are very welcome additions to the overall picture we have of him. - ponty , manchester, United Kingdom, 12/5/2013 08:5. Because it is, and I find in rather strange that you know so little about SAF, being a die hard MUFC fan. How many more stories/articles do the DM feel they need to write, yet at the same time so little about one of the greatest British Olympic Sailors who died so tragically this week. All these snippets have been revealed before ( I assume you have read his autobiographies) , and are just being re-churned again, and again. Heavens sake, will have the Carrington canteen staff next. Respect him yes, but too much now

Click to rate     Rating   5

Frenchblue.......That 1 word sums it up as far as you are concerned does it? I fail to see why you would comment in such a manner without expanding on your remark. On a story like this people tend to add their own perspective and that is what the reporter has tried to do.For many of us who don't know SAF these little snippets of info about the man are very welcome additions to the overall picture we have of him.

Click to rate     Rating   14

Boring

Click to rate     Rating   12

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