DAVID WALKER, the sports editor of the Sunday Mirror and SJA chairman, remembers his encounters with Sir Alex Ferguson, and the Manchester United manager’s personal kindness to staff and journalists
It was May 1986 when a gruff voice called me at home. “Hi David, it’s Alex Ferguson from Aberdeen here. I hope you can help.”
A mutual friend and manager had given Alex my number. He was quickly into his stride, requesting any information I could give him about the new transfer tribunal system. Or as Alex pointedly put it: “I want to make sure Aston Villa don’t stitch up my club over the Neale Cooper transfer.”
Thus started a relationship that has survived the intervening 27 years. There have been plenty of ups and downs. He banned me from Old Trafford on at least three occasions. He’s also gone out of his way to show support and kindness to me and my family.
I’ve seen him turn purple with rage in rows that left you fearing for his health – as well as your own. I’ve also seen him crying with laughter, tears running down his cheek as an old journalist friend recalled tales of being banned including the classic phrase Fergie invariably used: “That’s it, you’re finished. Stories? You’re like a dog with a bone.”
How do you get back into Old Trafford when the most successful manager in British football history has banned you? Easy. You keep ringing him, asking if he’s available, pressing him for a chat. For a few days the message comes back that you’re banned and he has no interest in talking to you.
Then, the impasse is broken and he takes a call. You don’t actually have a conversation. He reminds you that you’re banned but finally offers: “What do you want to know, you pest.”
He then mumbles a few yes, no answers to questions but the deadlock has been broken. Within days he’s back on his best form and at his best there are few managers to rival Fergie at delivering outspoken opinions, sharing stories and settling a few scores through the media.
Of course he’s ruthless. Indeed, he’s made a fine art of delivering bombshell decisions that deliberately disturb the balance of the United dressing-room.
For example, take the summer of 1995. United had just finished second to Blackburn in the Premier League and lost the FA Cup final to Everton. Fergie’s reaction? He sold fans’ favourite Paul Ince to Inter Milan, handed Mark Hughes a free transfer to join Chelsea and was forced – against his wishes – to sell Andrei Kanchelskis by the player’s agent.
Fergie took some delight in recalling the meeting in which he and chairman Martin Edwards had been confronted by Moscow-based agent Grigoriy Essaulenko. The United bosses insisted the flying winger was simply not for sale. Essaulenko pointed out that Edwards would be wise to sell Kanchelskis – or else the United supremo would be killed.
As Fergie joked: “I’ve never seen the colour drain from the chairman’s face so quickly.” Coincidentally, Kanchelskis duly left for Everton. Some time later Essaulenko, by then a vice president of Spartak Moscow, was murdered when a bomb exploded under his seat at a football match.
The United boss was deluged by mail from disgruntled fans angry about the sale of Ince, the self-styled Guv’nor. Fergie was justified in his belief that without Ince a certain Roy Keane would become an even more irresistible force in the United midfield. After that summer of review and some rancour United bounced back to win a domestic double.
Fergie was then approaching his 10th anniversary at the club. In the past he had regularly used a key word, both in interviews and private conversations. It’s been hallmark of his managerial life and vital to him becoming the most successful manager we’ve ever seen. His watchword was control. He believed he had to control his club, his players and, if possible, the media. Many heated rows have erupted down the years over this final ambitious target.
Some of Fergie’s hairdryer rants have been tests for young journos. I witnessed him tear into two bright young guys who’d arrived in Manchester. He was in their faces and screaming. He stormed off, walked past me down the corridor and with a wink whispered: “Let’s see if they come back for more.”
On other occasions his concern for journalists has been touching. I told him a few weeks ago about one of our old media mates who was enduring a bad time health-wise. Immediately that prompted a call from Fergie to the surprised, retired hack, a man who had quit covering United through ill health some 15 years earlier.
Like Sir Matt Busby, Alex prides himself on knowing the names and personal biographies of all the United staff. And, whenever possible, he’d attend the funerals of staff and their families. He wasn’t mawkish but Fergie was a regular attender of funerals. He felt he had to show his support for family and friends.
Nobody inside Durham Cathedral back in 2009 for Sir Bobby Robson’s thanksgiving service will forget the moving, erudite, personal tribute delivered by Ferguson. The cathedral was packed as, without notes, Ferguson found that perfect balance of personal insight, pathos and humour in his eulogy for a departed friend and rival. It was a tour de force.
I can cite many moments of personal kindness from Fergie. He was particularly concerned when I told him I’d decided to leave my newspaper and was being interviewed by a couple of alternative titles. “Who do you want me to ring?” he asked. I was a little stunned. He explained: “I’ll tell them I’ve banned you, had rows with you but that you get some big stories out of Manchester United. Will that do?”
A couple of days later I met a sports editor whose opening line was: “You’ve got some friends in high places.”
My worst hairdryer moment came when I’d broken a story that United had made a bid for Sheffield Wednesday striker David Hirst. The story was true. Alex didn’t want it to come out. We met that night at a United reserve game being played at Gigg Lane, Bury.
The half-time air turned blue in the main stand as he tore into me. A group of United fans gathered around to witness and then join in the row. You can guess whose side they were on.
The fact that my story was accurate prompted no acceptance from the furious manager. We were back to that key word in Fergie’s world – control. He didn’t want that story out. He also had the last laugh because while the Hirst deal was blocked, that rejection prompted United to try their luck with another Yorkshire club. A few days later they were lucky and Eric Cantona arrived from Leeds.
I saw him a few weeks ago at United’s training ground. I was early for our 8am breakfast meeting. He was already there, in training kit, chatting to his coaching staff and preparing for the day ahead. I presented him with a photograph I’d found in the Mirrorpix library of three English football greats – Fergie, Bryan Robson and Bob Paisley.
They were on board the United coach heading to Anfield. United’s previous visit had been marred by an ammonia attack on the team as they arrived at the stadium. Bob’s presence was to ensure United came and went safely.
The date was Boxing Day 1986. It was the first time a Ferguson team had won at Liverpool. The significance was not lost on him. Fergie’s recall was truly astonishing. He relived key moments of the game and how he’d deployed skipper Robson at centre-back. If that wasn’t enough he then recalled the next day, December 27. United had returned to Old Trafford and duly lost to Norwich. Robbo had torn a hamstring. The details came bubbling out.
His memory is incredible. His knowledge of issues beyond football immense. In a conversation he could switch from football tactics to recommending a book on the history of Africa.
I hope he enjoys a long, healthy retirement. I’m sure he’ll have made the right call. After all, this is the man who once reflected on some of the most momentous moments in his career, and how he’d reached his decisions, with the words: “It was pure animal instinct.”
Fergie’s instincts have invariable proved correct. Let’s hope he’s right with this one.