Governor's frae Govan

Part one of Robert Philip's exclusive interview with the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Alex Ferguson, then in charge of Aberdeen and minus the knighthood, celebrates winning the 1986 Scottish FA Cup final.
Alex Ferguson, then in charge of Aberdeen and minus the knighthood, celebrates winning the 1986 Scottish FA Cup final.

The first law of any house move decrees that something of great sentimental value will go missing along the way. You can swathe the item in bubble wrap, pack it with your own hands, seal the box with yards of brown tape and load it into the car rather than entrust it to the removal men but when you arrive at your destination, it will have vanished.

Thus, on the morning Manchester United left The Cliff training ground to move into their new complex at Carrington in 2000, the proud proclamation which had hung on the wall above Sir Alex Ferguson's desk mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. "Ach, listen," says Govan's most famous son, "I don't need a sign to remind me where I come from. It's etched on my heart. Reminding everyone I was born in Govan is the one touch of vanity I have."

Let us reflect upon that sentiment; he has achieved sporting immortality as the greatest manager in the history of British football, been knighted by a grateful nation, partied with Sean Connery, led the 2,000 Guineas winner into the unsaddling enclosure at Newmarket as part-owner of Rock of Gibraltar, met Nelson Mandela, schmoozed with prime ministers, potentates, princes, been the recipient of every accolade under the sun, moon and stars but yet, "...reminding everyone that I was born in Govan is the one touch of vanity I have".

Sir Alex describes his travels from the humble tenement close of his birth to the splendour of Old Trafford as, "a bit of a journey - but I'm still the same boy from Govan I always was. Having gone on to another pinnacle in life, if you want to call it that, mixed in all manner of different social circles, acquired a knighthood and all the rest of it, none of that materially changes you. "Why should it? All my boyhood mates from the Harmony Row youth club - pals I've known for over 50 years - still come down for the weekend every March to give me pelters (English translation: 'dog's abuse'.)

"That's what your old friends are for; to keep your feet planted firmly on the ground. In any walk of life, it's easy to be affected by success or money but I like to think my parents would find me completely unchanged." Alex snr and Lizzie Ferguson had nothing in the way of material riches to bestow but they bequeathed their son a treasure chest of old-fashioned ideals into which he has dipped each and every day of life. "They instilled in me all their traditional working class values - discipline, good manners, honesty, decency. They also suggested simple things to keep me out of trouble like joining the Life Boys and later the Boys' Brigade. My dad was reasonably strict - not so strict that you were ever afraid of him or anything like that - but you knew there was an invisible line drawn on the lino that you shouldn't overstep.

"When he said something, he meant it but he was a very, very fair man. One of his favourite sayings was that 'If a thing's worth doing then it's worth doing well.' So he was always very encouraging as regards my football. Of course, if I became carried away with myself then I got a clip round the ear. "The greatest fortune in life is to be born into a loving family and my dad influenced me in every way. For example, he was a real stickler for punctuality - my mum always insisted that it was he who opened up the shipyard every morning because he was unfailingly the first to arrive for work - and it's because of him that I'm never late for anything to this day."

Fergie's was, in fact, three hours early when he turned up for his first morning as a manager in July 1974 as a 32-year-old fledgling intent on transforming East Stirling - "...the worst senior football team in the country" - into a competitive force. Whereas he can now outmanoeuvre Real Madrid in their £80 million (Dh580m) pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo, his first signing at Firs Park was goalkeeper Tom Gourlay for an outlay of £750 (Dh5,837), who arrived a sizeable amount of imperial pounds overweight from the Partick Thistle reserves. "From East Stirling to Manchester United, I think if I have one quality it's that I've always been a trier. As a player I never liked losing and that has embodied my attitude ever since I first went into management.

"You can't win every game but if you try to win them all and show the right desire then you'll win more than you lose. And that's important as a manager because if you lose a couple of games then you can be out the door." Is there any difference, I wonder, in managing the aforementioned Tom Gourlay or a football glitterati such as Ronaldo? "There's not any difference in essence. But if you allow yourself to be affected by the star-status thing then that's when your difficulties begin.

"You can only achieve success when the players want to please you and not the other way around. Some people fall into the trap of trying to keep players happy all the time and allow powerful personalities in the dressing room to rule the roost but that's not management; you might as well be the assistant kit man. "It doesn't matter whether you're managing East Stirling or Manchester United, you have to remember two things. Firstly, you've got to have them trying their utmost to win for you and, secondly, you've got to have control and discipline over them. Anything else and you're fighting against the wind.

"I've been in management for 34 years and every one of those years has been a learning experience but many of the principles that I brought to the job as a new recruit at East Stirling are still as important to me now at Old Trafford as they were then. "In pre-season training at Firs Park, for instance, I liked to start every session with 'the boxes' whereby six players pass the ball around while two piggies in the middle try to intercept it. I use it even now for a bit of fun in training but at the Shire, where the technical standard of the players was light years behind those at United, it helped improve touch and develop movement.

"And long, long before nutritionists became commonplace, I held strong views on what the East Stirling players ate before a game. You could see them thinking 'what the hell's this?' when they were served up grilled fish, toast and honey." Sir Alex had been at Firs Park a little over three months (by which time the Shire were lying third in the old second division) when he was approached by St Mirren.

As he would come to do so many times over the years ahead, Fergie 'phoned the man he regarded as his mentor, Jock Stein, in the hope of being granted a pearl of wisdom. "Go and sit in the stand at Love Street and look around," pronounced the Big Man. "Then do the same at Firs Park and you'll have your answer." Just as he would subsequently confirm at both Aberdeen and Manchester United where his gentle touch inspired David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers unto greatness, it was in Paisley that Sir Alex first displayed he had a special talent in nurturing youngsters.

"There was no money available so we used to bring in young kids from all over the place on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights. "St Mirren already had a terrific scouting system - led by the incredible 'Baldy' Lindsay who was a taxi driver in Kinning Park - when I arrived, but I increased the network so we had guys working their socks off running round here, there and everywhere prospecting for nuggets. I had more scouts working under me than Baden-Powell.

"When it came to selling St Mirren to young players or their parents, I promised them two things; that they'd be given the opportunity to express themselves and that no matter their age, if they were good enough then they'd be given the chance of in the first team. "It was also important to me that St Mirren played with a certain style and flair. I was fortunate that so many of them were very receptive to that ideal. Lads like Frank McGarvey, Billy Stark and Peter Weir had great skills and an even greater desire to play the game as it should be played.

"Then there was Tony Fitzpatrick who I made club captain when he was still only 18 because of his drive and hunger for information to improve himself. Perhaps the greatest satisfaction I derived from my time at Love Street was in providing four players - Fitzpatrick, Stark, McGarvey and Robert Reid - for the Scotland Under 21 team in 1977. That was an incredible achievement for a club outside the Premier Division."

Part two of Robert Philip's interview will be published tomorrow

Published: August 2, 2008 04:00 AM


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