“You’re lying on your bed and you are on your own,” Sir Alex Ferguson says as he remembers being in hospital exactly three years ago this week when, after suffering a brain haemorrhage, he came close to death. “It can become lonely and frightening,” the greatest manager in the history of British football continues as he relives that raw memory.
Ferguson and I are just starting an interview which is shaped by so many layered and rollicking recollections. Memories of the ghostly shipyards of Glasgow and his teeming life as a boy in Govan ripple through him. He relives the pain and sectarianism he experienced at Rangers, the fire and transformation he generated at Aberdeen and the early abuse and enduring glory of his 27 years at Manchester United. Memories of his father, with whom he fell out until football reunited them, merge into an evocation of everything his wife Cathy has done for him.
We are joined by his son, Jason, who has made a moving and absorbing documentary about Ferguson’s life. Jason will describe the harrowing events of Saturday 5 May 2018 but, first, we are in the grip of Ferguson’s “terrifying” fear that he could have lost his memory and his voice.
“That was a big worry for me,” he says. “It happened after the operation when I lost my voice. That was the most frightening part. I knew I was alive but, on my own, I started thinking: ‘I wonder if they’re telling me the truth?’ The operation was a success but you’re in that loneliness. It can be frightening. When I lost my voice I thought: ‘They never told me this [might happen].’” Ferguson could not speak for 10 days. A permanent silence would have haunted him, but losing his memory would have been devastating. The documentary opens with the 79-year-old sounding uncertain as his son begins with a quiz: “A quiz?” Ferguson says. “Test … test my memory?” After confirming the name of the street he was born on and his wedding date, Ferguson looks confident when asked who scored the first goal of his managerial tenure at United.
“John Sivebæk,” he says firmly as he remembers the Danish full-back’s winner against QPR on 22 November 1986. He reels off his sons’ birthdays and smiles when asked to name the travel agent that Aberdeen used when they shook up Scottish and European football from 1978 to 1986. “Harry Hines,” he says as the laughter bubbles inside him. “Harry ‘Disaster’ Hines.” “What do you remember about Saturday 5 May, 2018?” his son asks.
There is a long pause. “Nothing,” Ferguson says.
A Ferguson interview is extremely rare and it comes with a stipulation. He will not answer questions about Manchester United today, about the Glazer family or Ed Woodward, or anything about the aborted European Super League he has already dismissed as a terrible misjudgment.
I still try, later, but the absence of any railing against the sins of contemporary football allows us to delve deeper into the past. “As a manager I depended on my memory,” Ferguson says. “You see games today where some managers take notes during the match. I never did that. I always depended on my memory and when I went to the dressing room that was very powerful for me. I can’t understand why a manager would take notes during the game. Put your head down to write and you miss a goal?”
He and Jason began working on a series of audio interviews in 2016 and they spent 18 months recreating Ferguson’s life. Jason knew the material was powerful and he met Andrew Macdonald, who had producedand various feature films, and John Battsek, who has a venerable record in outstanding documentaries.
“Bizarrely,” he says, “John and Andrew set up a call to suggest, after dealing with them for a year, I should direct it. That threw me. There was trepidation around the fact it’s such a big thing and I hadn’t made a film before. I asked for 24 hours to think about it and then I went back the following night and said: ‘I’m really up for it.’ I started the first draft of a treatment and went to bed at 1.30 in the morning. Around 6.30 the phone rang. It was my mum, telling me that dad had had a fall.” In the film we hear a police recording of Jason calling 999. “Is the patient breathing?” he is asked. He says yes but tells the operator: “He’s not good.”
There is hesitation when he is asked for his father’s name. Then, with his voice cracking, Jason says: “Alexander Ferguson.”
Did that long pause, and the strange use of his father’s full name, mean Jason was trying to protect their privacy amid acute distress?
“That’s pretty astute, and the only reason I can give for it. I’ve never referred to him as Alexander Ferguson before. It’s not to throw out Sir Alex Ferguson, but can we contain this a bit longer?”
Jason remembers “machines and wires everywhere at Salford Royal. They’d actually prepared him for surgery at Macclesfield. Then two neurosurgeons beckoned me towards a side room and I was like: ‘Oh, fuck.’ They said: ‘Look, he’s 76 and he’s had a massive bleed on the brain. Just prepare yourself for the worst.’”
He was told his father had a 20% chance of surviving. But Ferguson, from his boyhood in Govan to his domination of English football, has always been a fighter. He came through the operation but he still put his head in his hands and said:
He began scrawling the same word over and over: “Remember … remember …remember … ” Ferguson shakes his head and smiles.
“But the speech therapist came in every day and she was phenomenal. She had me writing down all the names of my family and my players. Then she started on animals, fish and birds to see if I could remember the names. Gradually my voice came back. But the more important thing was my memory was OK. She got me writing letters. I wrote a letter to Cathy which, at that point, was a scribble.”
As Jason recalls: “He’d written to my mum, to me, my brothers and all his grandchildren. They were, basically, goodbye letters.”
Ferguson recovered, slowly, but he leans forward when I ask how long it was before he felt normal again? “I wasn’t allowed a glass of wine for nine months,” he says with a lovely old growl. “It was tough.”
Hopefully he poured himself a glass of one of his most expensive wines when he was finally allowed a drink?
“It was a good one, don’t worry. But there were times I couldn’t drive – and even when I was allowed to I couldn’t drive on motorways or at night. A lot of these restrictions lasted almost three years. But I was on the right way back.”
Glasgow remains the foundation of Ferguson’s life, and of the documentary, which features gritty archive footage of the shipyards where his father worked. We linger over his Glaswegian roots and the fact he and his dad stopped talking to each other from 1961 to 1963. Ferguson played for St Johnstone and he says: “My father had a plan for me as a footballer which I didn’t agree with. It created that abyss between us.”
Ferguson “went off the rails a bit” and, as he was not always being picked for the first team, he started going out on Friday nights. When his dad challenged him to show more discipline Ferguson protested. He was only playing for the reserves.
His father was furious. “Go your own way!” he said. Ferguson went into town, got drunk and ended up spending the night in jail.
“I surrendered,” he suggests. “Football was going nowhere.”
Near the end of that bleak period, he tried to escape another reserve-team game. He persuaded his brother’s girlfriend to phone the manager and pretend to be his mother and say he had flu. The St Johnstone manager rumbled them and contacted Ferguson’s mother who went “berserk”.
Ferguson rocks with amusement: “That was the Friday before the game. We didn’t have a bathroom in our house, just an inside toilet, so I went to the swimming baths with my mates and got home at seven. You see smoke simmering and my mother going crazy: ‘You get to that phone box and apologise [to the manager].’ I always remember the number: Stanley 269. I put a handkerchief over the phone so it sounded like I had flu. He absolutely saw me. He said: ‘You’re playing [against Rangers] at Ibrox tomorrow. I’ve got players injured.’”
Ferguson sinks back in his chair and smiles: “I scored a hat-trick that changed my life.”
It also healed the rift with his dad. “I went home that evening and it was only a few hundred yards to the house from Ibrox. My mother’s all excited and dad’s sat, as usual, at the fireplace with his book. He was always reading. She goes: ‘Have a word with your dad.’ I say: ‘What did you think, Dad?’ Aye, OK.”
Ferguson laughs. His father’s natural reticence soon gave way to enthusiasm. Father and son were reconciled.
He was signed by Rangers, the club he revered as a boy, and became the most expensive footballer in Scotland. But his two years at Rangers, from 1967-69, were soured by sectarianism and Jason stresses that this bruising experience hurt and motivated his father.
“I knew how proud he was playing for Rangers, and the sadness he felt with how it ended after a cup final loss where he was made a scapegoat. It became his driving force.”
Ferguson was asked early on by a Rangers director if his marriage to Cathy had been in a Catholic church. When he heard that it had been held at a register office the bigoted director was placated – but Ferguson still sounds irate. “I let my wife down when he asked me that question. I should have told him to bugger off. Cathy was a devout Catholic, I was Protestant. Getting married in a register office was simple and sensible. But I should have stuck up for her.
“The players were great because they had no interest in that kind of thing. So it was a blow when Rangers decided to let me go. For four months I never played. I was training on my own and then I got transferred to Falkirk.
"I understood what it meant to live up to expectations.”
Half a century later how did Ferguson feel when Rangers won their first league title in 10 years this season? “The only time I really support Rangers is when they play Celtic. The big one. Jason is a Celtic fan. I love phoning him up when Rangers have beaten them. The funny thing is that the one team I always look for on Saturday night is Queen’s Park, my first club. I had a great learning experience as a 16-year-old lad playing for them. People think it’s an amateur team but you had to be tough to play for Queen’s Park. That was a great foundation for me.”
What does Ferguson think of Steven Gerrard’s work as manager of Rangers? “Oh, he’s done magnificent. He really has, both on and off the field. A press interview can lose you your job in management. But Steven’s press conferences are fantastic. He’s cool, he’s composed, he gives the right answers. He’s really top because it’s an art.”
There is wonderful old footage of Ferguson’s years at Aberdeen when he broke the Old Firm’s rule. After becoming Scottish champions Aberdeen won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983 and beat both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. But they didn’t have a training ground. They used a local park, where they had to clear dog mess off the ground, and the beach. “I had to phone the coastguard to find out the times of the tide and you relay that to the players to say what time we would train. I would be down there with Archie Knox [his assistant] and the players had balaclavas and thermals on because, on the beach, it was -25C with the wind chill.”
Ferguson became Manchester United’s manager in November 1986 and the documentary is powerful in capturing the abuse he suffered in his first three years at a club which now reveres him as a towering figure. His family was also badly affected.
Jason admits that “everything was bigger [than Aberdeen]. The club, the stadium, the media. This was the first time I’d experienced my dad’s team losing and the adverse reaction was quite difficult.” He and his twin Darren joined their older brother Mark in the kitchen with their dad. Mark told his father: “It’s not working. You’re not going to succeed here. It’s killing us.’”
Ferguson assured his sons, who all wanted the family to return to Aberdeen, that he would turn the situation around. Mark thought his dad was “deluded”. What did Jason think at 16? “It didn’t make sense that he could be so confident this was going to have a happy ending.”
It must have been difficult for Ferguson as his wife Cathy was also unhappy in Manchester. “I recognise that,” he says, “but we were making great strides in the youth department. Matt Busby had rebuilt the club [in the 1950s and 60s] with fantastic young footballers. I wanted to do the same. People have an opinion of Manchester United in terms of the great players like [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Roy] Keane. But the spirit of that club in my time was through the young players – Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, the Nevilles. I knew we were on the way. I just needed support from the board.”
And time? “Absolutely. But it was so refreshing this group of supporters came to the training ground every day. One was a former postman, Norman Williamson. He was a fanatic, and he kept telling me: ‘You’ll be all right, son. You’re doing the right thing.’ It was great having him as a sounding board. He and his friends were fantastic.
“We started watching the youth team and at first there were 50 spectators – fathers, uncles, pals. Then there were a thousand watching the kids on Saturday mornings and going to Old Trafford in the afternoon. I was on the right road. I just needed a break. But, the whole of December 1989, I never won a game. We lost every game or drew. So the FA Cup [third round] draw comes out. Nottingham Forest, away. God! Arguably the best cup team in the country under Brian Clough.
“We went there and supporters today would find it hard to name the team because we had so many injuries. But you know who won the game? The fans. Their defiance was unbelievable. Right through the game they chanted and urged us on and we won. It changed everything.”
Would Norman Williamson have been there?
“Absolutely!” Ferguson exclaims. “The only ground he would not go to was Maine Road. He said: ‘I’ll never set foot in that place.’ The day we won our 19th [league title in 2011] he came to training on the Monday morning and hugged all the players. Gave me a wee hug. Norman died that night, a happy man.”
Did Ferguson doubt himself in those early years? “When you lose a number of games and the fan holds up that [“Three years of excuses and it’s still crap. Ta-Ra Fergie”] banner [in 1989], you examine where you’re going. I was sure that training sessions were fine. I thought my interaction with the players was fine. The chairman kept saying everything is OK. Bobby Charlton used to come down the trenches and say: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be OK.’ There was a support system but in print some of the journalists were vicious. There was this writer – a pain in the arse – who worked for the. When we won the FA Cup in 1990, he said: ‘You’ve proved you can win a cup. Go back to Scotland.’ You shouldn’t pay much attention to the media – like some of them say I’m a great genius. Ignore that.
“I remember my first away game as a manager, 1974, [with East Stirlingshire]. We got beat 5-2 by Albion Rovers. I went home that night and, Donald, I told myself: ‘If I don’t get mental toughness in my players, I’ll never make it as a manager.’ That was at the forefront of all my methods of management – to make sure players could cope with the strains and challenges of being a top footballer. I’ve always tried to endow them with that talent of being mentally tough. I’m very lucky. Aberdeen had some mentally tough players. At United, all the best players were mentally tough. Ronaldo is tough, honestly, as old boots. He was always going to be a great player because he had it up there [Ferguson taps his head]. We played a part in that because Eric Harrison, the [youth] coach, made it tougher for the youngsters. He said: ‘If you don’t have mental toughness, you’ll never make United’s first team.”
Ferguson is so relaxed that, even though I am being told by a publicist that we have used our allotted 45 minutes, I suggest we add some Fergie-time.
“Fergie-time!” Ferguson chortles. “Yes.” We agree on another 10 minutes.
I reference the working-class socialist values that define him. Did he feel proud of the supporters who came out in vehement unity against the European Super League and the way in which modern football clubs are now owned? Ferguson is about to answer when Jason puts a hand on his arm. “I don’t think we should go into that,” he says.
The documentary builds to a climax with United winning the treble in 1999 when they scored two goals in the last three minutes to beat Bayern Munich 2-1 in the Champions League final. Did he really believe late in the game that they could still win?
Ferguson made his famous “Football? Bloody hell!” comment in the immediate aftermath and hailed his team’s extraordinary spirit. They would “never give in”. That phrase gives the documentary its title. Ferguson nods when I say the most moving part of the film for me is when he reads the letter he wrote in hospital to Cathy, his wife of 55 years. It’s a letter full of gratitude for her and a little regret that he was consumed by work.
“It was a thank you, really,” he says, “because at the stage I was still not sure which way it was going [if he would live or die].” Jason turns to the final scene in the film, after United have just beaten Bayern: “Within 30 seconds of the final whistle he’s looking up. He’s looking for my mum.”
His father, the mighty Fergie, looks up again. “I only saw the film when it was finished,” he says. “I never got involved in the making of it. But when I saw it for the first time I was crying. It was so emotional and I thought Jason did a fantastic job. It got to me.”
Did it make him appreciate all he had done as a manager? “Absolutely. It made me reflect and think: ‘God, I had a great career.’ I’m very lucky. I got to Aberdeen at the right time, when I was young, energetic, dynamic and understood what Aberdeen needed to do to be a big team. They had to beat Rangers and Celtic. The challenge was simple. Two teams to beat, to win everything in Scotland. Got to Manchester United, one team to beat, Liverpool. Just two teams and two wee challenges, one in Scotland, one in England. It made for a fantastic career.”
© Guardian News and Media 2021