“My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment [The re-emergence of Arsenal], my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f***ing perch. And you can print that.”
Sir Alex Ferguson, 2002
And so we have, Sir.
Biographers and Fleet Street hacks have printed that quote ad nauseam for the last decade.
Off-street merchandisers have made t-shirts of it. If United fans had a Bible, Ferguson 20:02 would very much be their Revelation 5:7 – ‘Then He came and took the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.’
For me, that instance of controlled hubris encapsulates the sense of awe a fiery young Glaswegian had for Liverpool, like it was a beast that possessed the key to a footballing heaven. And that, to be fair, he carved out. Yet it wasn’t just the numbers 18 and 4 (at the time). It was the philosophy-in-motion that so irked Ferguson. Lest we forget: it was built on admiration.
Ferguson, Shankly and the Boot Room
Much to the shame of fans from both sets of clubs though, not too many know that Busby actually played over a 100 games for Liverpool, and only moved to United when he was refused the reigns to the squad. The rest is, of course, history.
Not that we missed out terribly.
Ferguson, a fantastic student of the history of the game would have known of this. He also knew of the stature of the Anfield club, and while he was at Aberdeen, the Goliath nature of the man running it at the time. In the autumn of 1980 the Scots would face Liverpool in Europe, and Ferguson had come down on a spying mission to Anfield. He met Shankly.
“Hello, Alex, good to see you – you are doing a terrific job up there. So you’re down to have a look at our great team?” Yes, said Ferguson, grateful to be asked, they were indeed.
“Aye,” said Shankly, “they all try that.”
Funnily enough, you can see Ferguson circa 2013 try the same tactic: flatter an up-and-coming manager only to destroy him with a quick one-two.
Although his charges recall him being livid in the dressing room after the eventual inevitable defeat, inside he was a man smart enough to recognise what was to be learnt from the experience. It is safe to say he had a pure admiration for Shankly. They had common roots. One had achieved what the other desired.
Wee Gordon Strachan, ferret/winger extraordinaire (and a man of a hundred quips) recalls travelling to games in Ferguson’s car and being played hours and hours of Bill Shankly tapes. He also recalls Ferguson’s otherwise poor taste in music.
Ferguson even made multiple appearances in our Boot Room, and that speaks volumes of how his calibre was perceived even then.
It is often forgotten that Ferguson was once Assistant Manager to mentor Jock Stein with the Scottish national team. Now there are two factors to consider when contextualising the following anecdote.
First, LFC are at the peak of their powers in early 1985 while Scotland are not.
Before a pivotal home World Cup Qualifier with Wales, Stein and Ferguson seek advice from their LFC threesome on how to tactically conquer club-mate Rush. Hansen, Dalglish and Souness do not oblige. They have made their loyalties clear.
The second factor is that Manchester United’s Arthur Albiston complies readily, and provides advice to nullify Hughes.
Scotland lose and Ferguson is furious. Though he (and most) may not agree, he has been schooled in the art of club bonding. He will inculcate the same at United in the years that follow.
Scotland ultimately make it through to Mexico ‘86 in the tragic shadow of Jock Stein’s collapse in the game that seals their passage.
Beardsley, Barnes, Cantona and timing
Every LFC fan knows about Peter Beardsley and his brilliance. What few remember is how Ferguson tried to sign him from Newcastle. Beardsley chose Dalglish.
Fewer still remember that Watford’s Graham Taylor offered Ferguson a certain John Barnes for £900k. Ferguson, unsure in his first season as United manager, hesitated. Barnes was to reinvent wing-play at Anfield.
Neither Beardsley nor Barnes can claim to have lost out. They had stellar careers on Merseyside.
Every United fan and his dog (especially Roy Keane’s) knows the player who can singlehandedly lay claim to engineering replacing LFC on the aforementioned perch is erstwhile footballer/philosopher, Eric Cantona. Michel Platini, then France manager, tipped off Souness about his availability from Marseille. Souness, never the manager to match his playing nous, rejected the Frenchman.
Ferguson wouldn’t repeat the Barnes mistake, and later snapped him up for £1m from Leeds.
Guess who advised him to do so? A certain Gérard Houllier. Then Platini’s international assistant, he advised Ferguson that the mercurial Frenchman was “a far easier professional to handle than those reports might suggest – and a talent worth making allowances for.”
The Human and the Battler
Ferguson is a complex character, as much questioned as condoned. Yet when it comes to matters of loss and death, he has never been short of perfectly sensitive and empathetic.
Empathy, because his club was the first to feel a permanent damage with Munich and the Busby Babes. In the aftermath of Hillsborough, among the first telephone calls taken by Kenny Dalglish was one from Ferguson.
My understanding of Ferguson, after having done extensive research on him, is that he is an immensely adaptable man. He is, without a doubt, a bully to referees, and a hypocrite whilst at it. He is a bully to his players, both physically (Beckham) and psychologically (Stam). He is a knowledgeable (and vindictive) Machiavellian.
Yet he has survived, has created generations of winners who hang on his every word, and even at this age shows a ‘bounce-back-ability’ that is unparalleled.
Many are as nasty. None are as successful.