In May 2013, football was changed forever. A post on the Manchester United website confirmed the news, social media posts from the Old Trafford club triggering thousands of comments from around the world.
The message was short, definitive and sombre. “Sir Alex Ferguson retires”.
Later that month, the Scot, with 13 league titles to his name at Old Trafford, would take charge of United for the last time to bring the curtain down on 39 years as a manager.
However, the silverware collected at Aberdeen and United does not tell the entire story of the man who you voted the greatest British manager of all time last year.
Here, BBC Scotland delves into the stories behind Sir Alex Ferguson as he celebrates his 80h birthday.
‘Just have two bottles of red for me’ – Owen Coyle
Numerous managers have commented on receiving support frm Ferguson throughout the years. In the summer of 2008, Burnley manager Owen Coyle needed a favour.
I was just completing my pro licence and was in Switzerland for the European Championships. I was with Jim Fleeting and Martin Ferguson [Alex Ferguson’s brother]. We chatted away and I said: “Martin, can you do me a favour and phone the top man? He has a player and I want to speak to him before anyone else.”
So he phoned him and put me on and I said: “I need a favour. You have Chris Eagles and I think he’d be different class for me” and he said: “We are back on 4 July and we’ll sort something out. I give you my word, but don’t bother me before then.”
Sure enough, 8.30am on 4 July, I’m on the phone and he said: “You kept your word, but I’m taking him on a pre-season tour of South Africa because I need him. But, when we come back, if he wants to come to you, he’s yours.”
He also made us a deal with what it would cost, so the whole thing was only £1m. He then said: “Don’t bother me until I’m back, but we’ll sort it.”
I then watched every game United played in South Africa and isn’t he the top scorer in the tournament? He’s playing out of his skin. I’m thinking ‘I’m not going to get him’.
So, the first day back, I phone again and he said: “Aye, I was expecting your call, son. Right OK, everything I said before was agreed.” I told him that I’d been worried and he said: “I gave you my word. If he wants to come on board, he’s yours.”
He was then great with me after that. When we won the play-off final to get promoted to the Premier League, he messaged saying: “You were brilliant this year, but remember when we come to visit, I want two nice bottles of red for me and my staff.”
As it happened, our first home league game was against United and we won. Despite that, he must have sat for an hour and a half after the game with me. The class of the man.
I’m teetotal and I’d said to Darren, who did the PR at Burnley, to go get two nice bottles. So he spent £300-400 and I went to put the two bottles in the fridge. Thank goodness he was there or it would have been spoiled. Sir Alex and his staff drank the lot, so it must have been all right.
My mum hung up on him’ – Darren Fletcher
Speaking to The Lockdown Tactics Podcast, former Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher, who went on to win five titles and a Champions League under Ferguson, recalls a titanic clash between the United manager and his mother.
I nearly signed for Newcastle. I’d been going to United since the age of 12 and Newcastle were the second biggest team. Everyone is telling you “look at all those great Manchester United midfielders, you will never get in the team, Newcastle are closer to home”. Alex Ferguson at this point was going to retire when he initially said he was going to.
So I’m thinking of signing for Newcastle and the word gets back to Sir Alex. He phoned the house one night and my sister picked it up. She said it was for me and it’s just the boss going absolutely mental.
I’m 15, chalk white and he’s just giving it to me down the phone. My mum sees me and grabs the phone and listen for a few seconds. She says: “Don’t speak to my son like that ever again” and slammed the phone down. I’m thinking ‘what the hell is going on?’
So the next minute the phone rings again and it’s Sir Alex saying: “I’m really sorry, Mrs Fletcher. We really like your son, I’m coming up on the next flight to Edinburgh.”
My mum is probably looking around the house thinking she’s not done the housework or has washing and she said: “No, you’re not, they’ll come down and see you.”
I went there and it got sorted. It was the best decision I ever made and what an influence he was on my career.
Reverse psychology – Billy Stark
Billy Stark, who played under Ferguson at St Mirren and then Aberdeen.
The year we won the title in 1985 [with Aberdeen], we had played at Celtic Park and I missed a penalty that day and Davie Provan curled in a free-kick for Celtic to win it 2-1.
The following week in training, he sort of sidled by me and just said “I hope that doesn’t cost us the title”, which was a big thing. He just mentioned it in the passing, but it stuck in your mind and you thought “wow”.
Whether that was extra motivation – because that was my best season in terms of goalscoring and obviously we won the league at the end of it – I’ll never know. But he had those wee psychological things. He seemed to be able to find the right words at the right time.
Tea with the laundry ladies & personal touch – Archie Knox
Archie Knox, who was Ferguson’s assistant at Aberdeen and Old Trafford, was the Forfar Athletic manager in 1980 when the Dons manager came calling. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
I didn’t know him that well, but he turned up for a reserve game and asked for a word. I took him into the office at Forfar and he just asked: “How would you like to be my assistant at Aberdeen?” I said: “That would be great, I’m up for it.” He asked when I could start and I just said “tomorrow”.
Did I see a difference in him from Aberdeen to United? No. He was so focused with what he wanted to do with young players. He put the scouting infrastructure in at Old Trafford and said to the scouts: “If any of them sign for someone else, I want to know something about it.” So then we started to get Beckham, Butt, Giggs, Scholes and the Neville brothers coming through.
Alex would always have one of the young players that we were hoping to sign, or had just signed, up to a game with their parents for lunch and a chat. When we signed Beckham, he would come to all of our games in London with his mum, dad and sister, and would also come to the team hotel the night before a game.
The first thing he said to me when we went into Old Trafford was “we need to get to know everyone in this place”. From the stewards, the women in the office, the kitchen workers. We used to go in in the morning and the two ladies who worked in the laundry would make us a cup of tea before we headed to training.
It was a case of making sure everyone had a part to play, that we were all in it together. It was the same at Aberdeen – he knew everybody.
‘How are you, son?’ – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Manchester United’s recently departed manager feared the moment he had to tell Ferguson in 2007 that he was to refuse a further knee operation, opting to retire from football.
As I’m parking [at the training ground], he’s coming out and he says: “How are you, son?”
“Not great, I need another operation. I’m not going to do it, I need to retire.”
[Ferguson said] “Well don’t worry, son, you’ve had a fantastic career, your family must be so proud, your last season was fantastic. Why don’t you coach my forwards? Go home for a few weeks and come back when you’re ready.”
I went away for three weeks, came back and he integrated me into the first-team set-up and I coached Cristiano [Ronaldo], Wazza [Wayne Rooney], [Carlos] Tevez was there. So whenever Cristiano or Wayne scored through the defender’s legs, I nudged [son] Noah and said: “Your dad taught them that.”
A ringing endorsement – Paul Parker
While a caring and helpful soul for large swathes of the time, Ferguson’s dressing-room rants were legendary, with the term ‘hairdryer’ being coined for some of the vociferous dressing-downs issued by the intimidating Glaswegian. Speaking to Four Four Two, former United defender Parker recalls one particular half-time incident…
Steve Bruce’s wife Janet was in hospital having a back operation and we were playing at Old Trafford. Brucey left his mobile phone on during the game. We came in at half-time and things weren’t going well.
So we are sitting in the dressing room and Steve’s phone goes off. We are all sitting there wondering whose it was. I knew it wasn’t me and I knew it wasn’t Denis [Irwin] as his phone was never switched on. Big Pete [Schmeichel] straight away as normal was like “it wasn’t me” and maybe his eyes are giving away who it was.
Everything went quiet and you just looked at Brucey and his face and persona said “it was me”.
The gaffer has run across, grabbed the phone, had a go at Steve, who had a go back trying to tell him his wife was in hospital. He said: “I don’t care if your wife is in hospital” and threw the phone against the wall towards the bin. Smashed the phone.
‘He was like a father figure’ – David Beckham
Ferguson gave David Beckham his Manchester United debut.
I have said many times before, the boss wasn’t just the greatest and best manager I ever played under, he was also a father figure to me from the moment I arrived at the club at the age of 11 until the day I left.
I am truly honoured to have been guided by the greatest manager in football and to have had the career that I had under him. Without him, I would never have achieved what I have done.
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