Everything was going nicely and according to plan. Getting the right speaker for the Irish Examiner’s Junior Sports Stars awards was, to paraphrase Churchill, a challenge wrapped in a headache inside a last-minute panic attack.
The speaker had to be high profile, but more importantly, had to be an inspirational speaker for the country’s most promising young sporting talent. Almost by definition, it would be somebody with a very packed and busy schedule and they would have to be certain of their availability for the specific day — and be willing to do the business for a fee that we generously described as “modest”.
The bar had been set high; previous speakers included Olympic gold medallist Steven Redgrave, footballer and manager Kenny Dalglish, and most memorably Pádraig Harrington, who spoke with an openness, honesty, and insight that was truly inspiring.
How to follow that? Sports editor Tony Leen had as usual been working his extensive contacts. Then he struck gold. Word came back that Alex Ferguson was interested in doing the gig, if Manchester United’s match schedule for Feb 2008 allowed.
When the expression of interest was followed by confirmation, we were all very happy indeed.
Then, with days to go before the awards in Dublin Mansion House, Aer Lingus struck. At least threatened to strike, and caused havoc with our plans to get Ferguson to Dublin. We were told he wouldn’t fly Ryanair, and as he had a limited time for the awards lunch that Wednesday afternoon, it looked as if we would have to fly him to Belfast, then have him chauffeured to Dublin against an extremely tight schedule.
But two days before awards day the threatened strike was called off, and the most famous football manager in the world, with the most fearsome reputation of any football manager in the world, walked into the Round Room of the Mansion House beaming warm civility and disarming charm.
The complete and total absence of the familiar gum-chewing, puce-faced, ranting Red was not the only thing that some found surprising, as they chatted, got autographs and had their photographs taken with as down-to-earth and friendly an individual as they could have hoped to meet.
Surprising, too, was the conversation. As the waiter offered a pre-lunch glass of red, talk about football didn’t figure. Instead it was an unlikely journey through his surprise to hear they make damn fine pinot noir in Oregon, to his huge interest in the history surrounding the room in which he stood.
He didn’t need anybody to tell him that it housed Ireland’s first Dáil in 1919 and spoke knowledgeably about Grattan’s parliament of the 18th century, Cathal Brugha, Michael Collins, and other aspects of Irish history, for which he evidently held a deep interest.
He was reading historian Diarmuid Ferriter at the time, and was delighted that he had the opportunity to address the young award winners in such an historic setting. If his very friendly, amiable personality and turn of conversation surprised, his talk to the teenagers before him did anything but. It was everything one would expect of a great leader and super achiever, an engrossing textbook case study in the art of motivation and inspiration.
But before he left to catch his early evening flight home to Manchester, after mingling and chatting for a couple of hours, he had one last surprise to offer up. When someone mentioned it was fortunate the Aer Lingus strike never went ahead he asked why was that.
“Because we were told you wouldn’t fly Ryanair,” came the reply. And then, for seconds that seemed like hours, came the nearest thing to a Ferguson “hairdryer” moment that day.
“Who said that?” he demanded. “That’s nonsense, complete nonsense. I wouldna’ have had any problem flying Ryanair. No problem whatsoever.”
And with that he was gone, with a grin. Reappearing a few days later on the box was the other Ferguson, the gum-chewing, puce-faced, ranting Red.
Sir Alex Ferguson retires. #thankyousiralex— MU Spokesperson (@MU_Spokesperson) May 8, 2013