Never A Dull Moment

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What Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography lacks in depth and accuracy, it makes up in colour
My Autobiography | Alex Ferguson | Hodder & Stoughton, Hachette India | 402 pages | Rs 1299
The revelation that there are 45 errors in Sir Alex Ferguson’s auto- biography has dulled its sheen somewhat. Manchester United’s salty, feared former coach may have subjected those responsible for the errors to his trademark ‘hairdryer’ treatment, but the book still makes for useful reading. Ferguson wasn’t flawless but his commitment and achievements are undeniable. He lived admirably off the field as well as on, shunning the celebrity life, concentrating on family and hobbies, which range from wine to racehorses to the Kennedy assassination. When such a man talks, it pays to listen.

Ferguson’s nearly 27-year reign at Manchester United is the longest in English football. He came on board in 1986, when United were long past the glory days of the 1950s and 60s. Their last English league title had been in 1967, and their only Champions League (then known as the European Cup) win had been in 1968. The English league, too, was in crisis. An assault on Juventus supporters by Liverpool fans before the 1985 European Cup final in Brussels had left 39 Juventus fans dead, resulting in English clubs being banned from European tournaments. Also, stadiums in England were in poor shape and hooliganism was the norm.

Ferguson arrived at United in these turbulent times. But the sun rose again. In 1990-91, English clubs were readmitted to European football. The English league was relaunched in 1992 as the Premier League and became immensely successful. So did Manchester United. By the time Ferguson left his seat, United was a $2 billion behemoth listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and a Hall of Fame side. They won the League 20 times and the Champions League three times. Ferguson was so closely associated with United for so long, it seems a bit of a surprise that his replacement, David Moyes, has a name of his own—that he is not simply called ‘the new Alex Ferguson’.

Ferguson’s autobiography is written in a style that matches his personality. The tone is brisk and conversational, and passages often sound like transcripts of an informal chat. There is frequent use of the Scottish colloquial ‘wee’, meaning ‘small’ or ‘little’. Whiffs of chewing gum, Ferguson’s chewie of choice during games, rise off the pages. But there are moments when the narration seems hurried, making abrupt shifts. For example, in the chapter ‘Lean Times’, the narrative jumps without warning to a refuelling stop in Newfoundland during a tour of the US by the team. Along the fence of the small airport is a lone young fan with a Manchester United flag. Is the paragraph random? Yes. Is it interesting? Yes. That’s how it is with the book. There are gems, but their arrangement is at times disorderly.

Ferguson reminds you of the man in your building whose window you were afraid to break while playing cricket. But the book confirms that behind this stern image is a softer man, one who values friendships, enjoys jokes and even feels vulnerable, seeking at such moments the ordinary comfort of a cup of tea with a trusted colleague. Ferguson writes about sitting in his office at United’s Carrington headquarters, hoping someone would swing by. But no one would, because he was deemed too busy and important. ‘Sometimes I’d hope for that rap on the door,’ he writes, ‘I would want [assistant coaches] Mick Phelan or Rene Meulensteen to come in and say: “Do you fancy a cup of tea?”’

At one point, Ferguson quotes a line once written about him: ‘Alex Ferguson has done really well in his life despite coming from Govan.’ My Autobiography is in large part the story of Ferguson’s journey from that shipbuilding district of Glasgow, Scotland, to the famous football arenas of the world. Ferguson is not shy of his origins. He is grateful to them. Affirming that adversity is a blessing is his family motto: ‘Dulcius ex asperis’ (sweeter after difficulties).

Though his family’s background was blue collar, Ferguson found success in almost every role. He had a decent playing career from 1958-74 as a forward, including a stint with the renowned Glasgow Rangers. Along the way, he got into the bar business. It provided him not just income, but a wealth of friendships and experiences. Once he got into coaching, he soared.

One of the things that comes through in the book is the extraordinary support he received from his wife Cathy. Ferguson credits her for shouldering all domestic responsibility, leaving him free for football. He also admits to being an old-fashioned father, barely involved in the upbringing of his three sons. It cannot have been easy for Cathy, and a chapter by her would have made the book complete. But there isn’t one.

The book suggests that Mrs Ferguson wasn’t unhappy for her man to be out of her hair. When he planned his first retirement, at age 60, one of the things she said to him was, “I’m not having you in the house.” Ferguson’s final retirement, though, was for the opposite reason. Cathy had lost her sister, to whom she was close, and Ferguson wanted to be around his bereaved wife.

Football fans will most enjoy the chapters on the raft of famous players who passed through Ferguson’s hands at United. These include Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and, of course, David Beckham, who was part of the legendary Class of 92 with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Phil and Gary Neville and Nicky Butt. Ferguson acknowledges Beckham’s love of football and work ethic, but he is disappointed with the player’s addiction to fame, saying that at one point Beckham felt he had become bigger than everyone at United.

Ferguson was old-fashioned as a coach, too. He believed a coach must have authority. So much so that he would not allow players to call him ‘Alex’. ‘David thought he was bigger than Alex Ferguson,’ he writes in an insightful paragraph. ‘It doesn’t matter whether it’s Alex Ferguson or Pete the Plumber. The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts. You cannot have a player taking over the dressing room.’

Ferguson also reveals how Beckham never admitted mistakes. This was admirable, in a way, because he retained an unshakeable belief in his abilities. But the obvious drawback was that he did not own up to errors.

But Beckham is history. The raging debate in football today is whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the better player. Ferguson, disappointingly, does not offer an answer, but seems inclined towards Ronaldo, seen by many as the more complete player of the two. One wishes Ferguson would have deliberated more on this subject.

There are some amusing anecdotes. Ferguson, a wine connoisseur, once told Roman Abramovich, the owner of rival team Chelsea, that the wine at Chelsea was crap. The next week Abrahmovich sent Ferguson a case of Tignanello, ‘a great drop’, Ferguson writes, ‘One of the best.’ The same cannot be said of this autobiography. But it is a pretty good drop.