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From the Vault: The day Alex Ferguson joined Manchester United 26 years ago

6th November 2012

Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates 26 years as Manchester United manager today. As the club plan to unveil a bronze statue of Ferguson, we look back to the week he joined the club

Sir Alex Ferguson took over as the Manchester United manager 26 years ago today. That number might not sound worthy of celebration, but the phrase “26 years” is burnt indelibly into the minds of United fans. For 26 years after the 1966-67 season, they waited for the club to be crowned league champions.

Matt Busby, Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell, Tommy Docherty and Ron Atkinson all tried to bring the title back to Old Trafford, but it took the appointment of Ferguson to restore the club to their former glories. On the Sunday after Ferguson moved from Aberdeen to Manchester United, the Observer ran two pieces on the appointment.

Five men lost to one man’s United by Frank McGhee

Frank McGhee, a sports journalist who had followed United for 36 years, recalled the club’s turbulent past and explained why no manager had ever been able to emulate the success of Matt Busby. McGhee argued that each of his successors had lacked the “arrogant ego” required to dominate as dressing room and bring success to the club. As time has told, Ferguson has no worries in that department.

The manager Manchester United really need, have desperately lacked and would love to have is unavailable and disqualified for one reason. He is 76 years old. But if they can’t get Sir Matt Busby, it is obvious that they must look for someone with almost all that marvellous man’s qualities – reaching for the lot would be asking for a bit much.

The indications are that in Alex Ferguson they may have come fairly close to hitting the target, even though the most they can hope for is an inner rather than a bullseye.

None of Ferguson’s predecessors came anywhere near because, in one way or another, they all lacked at least one of those qualities and it may surprise those who don’t know the man, even some of those who think they do, that the most important is the arrogant ego Busby so successfully concealed beneath layers of warmth, kindness, knowledge of and love for the game that perhaps even he didn’t realise it was there.

It was there right from the day in October, 1945, he decided he would accept the proper job as United manager “only if they would let me have all my own way. As the manager I would want to be the boss.” Shortly afterwards, the then chairman, James Gibson, a famous autocrat, suggested he should sign an available player from Newcastle United. Matt said “no, he is not good for us” and when the chairman, by then in an apoplectic rage, ordered the signing Matt said: “I’ll remind you of two things, Mr Chairman. I’m here to manage the club and part of management is giving you advice. The second is that I lived long before I ever saw you.”

James Gibson never interfered again, nor did any other director, particularly the one who leaned forward in the posh seats during a match and in loud-voiced ignorance asked Matt why he wasn’t adopting different tactics. Matt caught up with him quietly in the gents, to advise with soft menace: “Never dare say anything like that to me when other people can hear you.” He then put on the agenda for the next board meeting the item “interference by directors”.

Has Alex Ferguson that sort of self-confidence? Ron Atkinson, for all his front-as-big-as-Blackpool, possibly hadn’t. Busby would never have agreed to sell a player he wanted to keep and surely Atkinson must have wanted to keep Mark Hughes.

Wilf McGuinness, the first successor, certainly didn’t possess the required self-belief. He was the lance corporal who continued to call Busby “boss” and thereby unwittingly forfeited the respect of the other privates in the barrack room. Two men who could have had the job at around the same time, Jock Stein of Celtic, and Don Revie of Leeds, would never have committed a similar error.

In fact, when Revie was asked by Jack Charlton how he wanted to be addressed after elevation from dressing room to manager’s office he said: “From now on it’s boss, ok?” Frank O’Farrell, the man who did get the job next, was a thoroughly decent, likeable and knowledgeable Irish Catholic, an extra qualification that incidentally did him no harm in the eyes of a devout left-footer, Busby. By the same token Matt would never favour a Catholic over a Hottentot if the other guy was a better player. The only man he required to hold a cross was his goalkeeper. Ferguson undoubtedly fits that requirement also.

O’Farrell was, however, never in Busby’s class as a manager of men, a motivator or a communicator. “He came as a stranger and he left as a stranger,” was the caustic comment of Denis Law, one of the quartet completed by Duncan Edwards, George Best and Bobby Charlton who rank as Matt’s all-time favourites.

Neither O’Farrell nor any other successor could match Busby in public relations. Most significant was O’Farrell’s failure to cope with Best and, to set the record straight, Georgie never did anything wrong at Old Trafford under Busby without being punished and invariably apologising – before doing it again, of course.

Matt was wise and warm but never soft.

A sports reporter on the Manchester Evening News travelled just once in Matt and Manchester United’s company on a trip to London in 1950 and watched in awe as great players of that era, Johnny Carey, Jack Rowley, Charlie Mitten, etc., walked around the manager in wide, wary circles.

That same reporter, then on the Daily Mirror, didn’t see him again for four years. It was outside Hampden Park, with thousands of strangers milling around, that Matt said instantly: “Frank McGhee. How are ye son, good to see ye.” He remembered with his uncanny knack of putting names to faces and in that moment captured an affection he has never lost. Respect, admiration and friendship all blossomed over many years. He had to hurt many players by dropping, selling and discarding them over those years but it provides its own tribute that so few ever resent it.

It is unreasonable to expect any successor to have quite the same knack or anything like the deep love for United Busby shows, though undoubtedly Tommy Docherty will insist that he came as close as possible to matching it. But, for all his enthusiasm, bounce and near-genius for motivation, Tommy was, in show business terms, a talented lightweight patter comedian in the shadow of a great star of awesome mag-nitude. Still, at least Tommy always gave a convincing impersonation of being willing to seek advice from Matt. Pity he was always also destined to provide the source of his own downfall. He did a great deal for United, then threw it all away.

At times he provided something like the football Busby had led Old Trafford fans to first expect and then demand. The next manager, Dave Sexton, unfortunately, didn’t – even though Matt’s hopes for him were intially the highest. “Dave could be the one we’ve been waiting for,” was Busby’s own accolade at the time.

It must be psychologically significant that in their 15-year search for a successor, the pendulum has swung so contrastingly. From the tail-wagging friendly puppy of McGuinness to the sober, serious O’Farrell. From Docherty’s wisecracking ebullience to Sexton’s simmering, brooding silences. Like O’Farrell before him, Dave’s academy was the West Ham one, and for the Old Trafford school that meant too much blackboard, not enough jungle.

Atkinson provided another contrast. As extroverted as Docherty, he never somehow struck the same accord as Tommy with the people who really own this club, no matter what the record in the directory of directors niay say. The fans were never given by Atkinson what they see as their occasional right, the championship. Busby did it five times, came second seven times and that is what they have been seeking so hungrily ever since. That is what is required of Ferguson. He needs to be another Busby and maybe this chunk of newsprint will give him some idea of what is required.

The joker who hates defeat by Patrick Glenn

The second piece in the Observer on Sunday 8 November, 1986, was written by Patrick Glenn, a Scottish football writer who had tracked the young manager’s career north of the border. Glenn’s experience of Ferguson showed that the manager had the competitive desire required to handle his new job – and his final sentence about the silence at Old Trafford has proved oddly prescient.

When Martin Edwards offered Alex Ferguson the Manchester United job last Thursday, it was as if the Big Fisherman himself had held out the key to the Pearly Gates. The very idea of Ferguson’s non-acceptance was absurd.

His irresistible competitiveness – at times, it borders on the psychopathic – has long been sustained by apparently endless energy, and to have refused the biggest club in Britain would have seemed to Ferguson a self-betrayal deserving of hara-kiri.

Now, he can leave the ceremonial sword in its sheath and get on with giving players, journalists, cleaners, directors, tea ladies, secretaries and all who come and go at football grounds a mixture of hard times, merciless ribbing, perhaps the formation of a quiz league embracing every subject possible and, most importantly, the unmistakable impression that here is a man who knows the most direct route towards his destiny.

Ferguson’s unshakable commitment to whatever cause he espouses has been evident since, as a teenager, he led his fellow apprentice toolmakers’ industrial action at their factory on the south side of Glasgow. Later, he would become chairman of the Scottish Professional Footballers’ Association.

He is an almost inconsolable loser, whether in football, his beloved quizzes or in life itself. In his earliest days as manager of St Mirren, still in the Scottish first division, he took his team to Clydebank to face his closest rivals in the chase for promotion to the premier division. It was a complete sell-out and, when Saints went 2-0 down, Fergie could be seen leaping from the dugout in a clear attempt at throttling the linesman nearest to him. It was Christmas Day.

Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh swears that Ferguson has not forgiven him his lapse almost 20 years ago during a round of ‘Quiz Ball,’ a popular television game for football clubs at the time. They were both on the Falkirk side and Roxburgh was asked which jockey had won the previous year’s Grand National.

Totally ignorant of horseracing, he became more nervous as he heard Fergie stage-whispering and trying to throw pieces of paper his way. Desperately, he blurted out “Lester Piggott”, crediting the world’s greatest flat jockey with victory in the worki’s most famous steeplechase. From the other end of the table, he heard Ferguson groan loudly, “Aw, Jeeesus Christ!”

On the Saturday Falkirk had a League match at Brockville and as Roxburgh took the field– and here, he is convinced Alex had actually used a loud hailer to organise the fans – the entire crowd in the covered enclosure rose at once and chanted, “Les-ter Pig-gott, Les-ter Pig-gott”.

As St Mitten manager, Ferguson used a van with a loud-hailer to tour the working class areas of Paisley, exhorting people to come to matches. When he took over at Love Street, after just months experience with East Stirling, crowds were down to less than 1,000. When be left, 10,000 was commonplace, not counting matches against Celtic and Rangers.

Nobody with his sense of urgency could accomplish what he has without littering his trail with incident and controversy. Tales of flying tea-sets in dressing rooms at half-time are both plentiful and authentic. He has been knovm to batter on a referee’s door during the interval of a match with his team leading 3-0 and on the way to clinching the league championship.

But for all the volatile aggressiveness, he is an incurable joker. During Scotland’s World Cup preparations in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he discovered an attractive lounge with a beautiful, white grand piano. He asked the manager about it and was told that it played automatically. For a fee, they could arrange to make it look as though he was playing.

The deal was done and that night Fergie took the entire backroom staff out to dinner. When he offered to play the piano (“I’ll admit it’s been some time,” he said) the disbelief was obvious. But, with every action exaggerated, it came out as pure Semprini.

Teddy Scott, Fergie’s colleague at Aberdeen, couldn’t recover. “I thought I knew everything,” said Teddy. “During his time with us, he has told me everything, described in detail every daft goal he ever scored and all the easy chances he ever missed. He never keeps quiet, but I never knew he could play the piano.”

Now he will be playing to one of the most demanding audiences in the game and that will make him totally satisfied. Despite his semi-love of Aberdeen FC, he was never at one with fans who, he would say “sit on their hands”. Alluding to a woeful lack of vociferous support during a big European match one night, he said: “There was more noise at my granny’s funeral.”

With him at Old Trafford, silence will be a golden rarity.

Aiming for the championship

Ferguson began his career at United with a 2-0 defeat at Oxford United and a goalless draw at newly promoted Norwich City. His first win came at Old Trafford against QPR on November 22, 1986. In his programme notes before that game Ferguson wrote: “Taking over a club of the magnitude of Manchester United is an awesome prospect. But ultimately a football club is a football club and I shall simply try to run things at Old Trafford in what I believe to be the right way.”

“I am not really interested in what has happened here in the past. I don’t mean any disrespect to the great achievements of Manchester United over the years. It’s simply that now there is only one way to go, and that is forward. The aim at this club must clearly be to win the championship.”

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