Ice cold Alex keeps heat on nervous hacks

IS there a more accomplished juggler of carrot and stick in football management than Alex Ferguson?

Sure, Jack Charlton could be humming ‘Dublin In The Rare Oul Times’ one minute and inviting the Dunph to step outside the next but there was almost always a comical dimension to even his most explosive moments. As for Brian Clough, by turns inspirational and intimidating, well, he was simply sui generis, comparable to no-one but himself.

Certainly, of those still occupying the hottest seats in football, Ferguson is in a league of his own when it comes to an ability to alter the temperature in the room, for good or ill.

We had a ringside view of it in the Aviva Stadium press conference room after last Wednesday night’s stroll in the park for Manchester United. Having just seen his side score seven, there obviously wasn’t much to get Ferguson’s back up until, that is, a colleague made bold to ask him for his considered view on Wayne Rooney’s recent extra-curricular activities. Suddenly, it was as if someone had set the air-conditioning to arctic.

Silence. A penetrating stare. A slight flushing of the cheeks. The terse reply: “I’m not going to talk about that.” And then more silence. Having encountered the merest hint of the ice-cold in Alex, we all briefly pondered the wisdom of pushing the point before someone decided that, under the circumstance and all things considered, perhaps the wisest thing to do was to ask him about his favourite goal of the night. Good call! And the room instantly warmed up again as Fergie marvelled – “No backlift!” – at Javier Hernandez’ blast to the net with what had been his first touch of the ball.

Meanwhile, at the back of the room, a very young man was biding his time to ambush one of the most famous personalities in sport. The winner of an RTÉ children’s competition to be a sports reporter for a day – memo to self: remember to apply some time – he’d already managed to scoop all us old pros by getting the only quote of the night out of Wayne Rooney, who’d otherwise blithely ignored all our pleadings and outstretched tape-recorders as he floated through the media mixed zone and on to the team bus.

Now, the young boy was hoping to ask the gaffer himself a question but, with time running out and Ferguson already rising from his chair, things had clearly reached the now or never point. Bravely, the kid held up his microphone and, having finally attracted Ferguson’s attention just as he was about to leave the room, confidently shouted out a question about the manager’s longevity at Old Trafford.

Again, there was a long pause as Ferguson spun round and identified the source of the question. And then, with a grin breaking out on his face, he replied: “If I had your cheek, I could be in the job for another 25 years.” Exit Fergie to laughter all around and mission accomplished for the delighted cub reporter.

I’ve seen Ferguson charm the birds out of the trees on other occasions too, notably when I once interviewed him on stage at this paper’s Junior Sports Star awards ceremony, and again last year in Trinity College when he picked up an honorary gong and proceeded to magnetise a room full of students with vivid memories of a working class childhood in Glasgow and fascinating insights into everything from football to history and literature and much more besides.

On the other hand, the guys and girls whose job it is to report on Manchester United week in and week out can have a very different experience of the boss. One of them, a fine sportswriter for one of the English dailies, was telling me on Wednesday of how, on United’s recent US tour, the manager had flatly declined to take questions on Nemanja Vidic’s future at the club. The very next day, it was announced that the defender had signed a new deal and, when an American journalist asked Ferguson about it, he cheerfully replied that, of course, he’d known all about it the previous day but simply hadn’t fancied giving the travelling media a headline.

Another English journalist is currently persona non grata for Ferguson’s press conferences at United’s training ground, having earned himself a lengthy ban for daring to write a book about the man.

But then even dear old Motty, as mild-mannered an inquisitor as you could imagine, was monstered for asking a question which Ferguson didn’t like, while the Beeb as a whole continues to occupy a special place on the manager’s blacklist.

All of which would be neither here nor there if Alex Ferguson wasn’t the outstanding British manager of his generation and a figure, therefore, of endless fascination to media and public alike.

Damien Richardson, who managed the Airtricity League side which was taken apart by United last Wednesday, made an astute observation about his counterpart in the run-up to the game. To maintain success as a manager you need to be able to do one of two things, Damien said, either reinvent yourself or reinvent your team.

The genius of Ferguson, he went on, is that he has been able to do both.

But, as we seem to have found ourselves asking repeatedly over recent years, for how much longer can Fergie continue to pull off that juggling act?

By his and United’s lofty standards, the last two seasons have been disappointing, first with Barcelona handing out a football lesson in the Champions League final in Rome and then with Chelsea divesting them of their Premiership crown.

The potentially fiery breath of ‘noisy neighbours’ Man City breathing down their necks will only add to the sense of renewed pressure to succeed at Old Trafford this year but if this season should prove to be a last hurrah for Alex Ferguson – and thus far, nobody, including himself, has managed to get that prediction right – then, one thing’s for sure, the press conference rooms of football will be far, far duller places without him.

For good and for ill.

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