There are few more feared – and revered – figures in the sporting landscape than Sir Alex Ferguson.
The celebrated Scottish manager was as well known for his dressing room volatility as he was for the tactical genius and work ethic that enabled him to win 13 Premier League soccer titles with Manchester United, earning him the nickname The Hairdryer, such was the ferocity of his sprays at players who hadn’t met his famously high standards.
Ferguson quit the game in 2013 after winning just about every club trophy there was to win – including the thrilling 1999 Champions League final when his Red Devils scored two goals in the final minutes.
After suffering a brain haemorrhage three years ago, which he feared would rob him of his speech and his memory, and with a new documentary now in cinemas directed by his son Jason, Ferguson is now in a more contemplative mood.
But if his famous temper is part of his larger-than-life legend, then that’s just fine with him.
“I don’t mind that there’s sort of a myth,” he says.
Sir Alex Ferguson with his soon Jason, who directed the new documentary, Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In.Source:Supplied
He certainly has no regrets about hurting a few feelings when he felt his players hadn’t lived up to his lofty expectations, and there were no hard feelings once he’d had his say.
“Expectation is the most important aspect of management,” says Ferguson.
“You set your standard high and you try to get your players to reach that every day.
“Maybe there were times where any time we lost a game I could lose my temper quite easily, because that expectation wasn’t met. But the most important thing, and people must remember this and every player who played for me knows this, all my players played without fear. There was never an occasion where they ran on to that park afraid to play.
“They had courage, they had confidence and the expression that I always gave them to enjoy the game was always there. Everyone talked about my losing my temper in the dressing room but never, ever did it come back. Once it was over in the dressing room on a Saturday or midweek or whatever, the next day was a new world and preparing for the next game, which we had to win.”
Sir Alex Ferguson in his playing days as a handy striker for Glasgow Rangers.Source:Supplied
The documentary, Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In, is a fascinating portrait of how the now 79-year-old Scot rose to become arguably the most successful football manager of all time, with 38 trophies in his 28-year stint at Manchester United, as well as taking Scottish struggler Aberdeen to glory in the European Cup Winners Cup and a stint in charge of the national team.
His son Jason, a football media professional making his directorial debut, was determined “to make it a film that wasn’t just for football fans”.
Rather, he wanted to paint a portrait of his father that documented not only his glittering career but also the early setbacks (a drunken night in jail scared him into fully focusing on football and rampant sectarianism in Glasgow helped end his playing career at Rangers), family sacrifices it took to get there and his brave and inspiring comeback after the brain haemorrhage that left doctors convinced he only had a 20 per cent chance of survival.
Jason had started recording audio interviews with his father after he retired – about 70 hours’ worth over an 18-month period – and was astonished at how much he remembered about events that had happened decades previously.
“There were times doing the audio where I was checking what he was saying and he had just incredible recall,” Jason says.”
Jason Ferguson was astonished by his father’s incredible recall about his long and glittering career.Source:Supplied
That made it all the more devastating for Ferguson when there was a very real possibility he could lose his memory, something he’d relied and prided himself upon during his career.
As part of his rehabilitation to help him recover his speech, a speech therapist got him to write down the names of his family, players he’d managed and opponents he’d faced.
“I realised then ‘thank God my memory is OK’ because that was my biggest fear,” he says. “During games whether it’s in football or rugby or whatever, you see coaches taking notes. I never did that. I relied on my memory. So, when I said something in the dressing room I knew it was backed up by good memory. To get to that situation where I am saying to myself ‘have I lost my memory?’, I could never handle that. That would destroy me.”
Manchester United great Ryan Giggs pays tribute to his former manager in Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In.Source:Supplied
Ferguson managed some of the biggest names in the game during his long stint at Manchester United, from players he’d nurtured through the club’s famous academy such as David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, as well as high-profile imports including the mercurial Eric Cantona and masterful Ronaldo.
He also saw the rise of big money in the game, with weekly pay checks running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the rise of celebrity footballers, sponsorships and social media.
He says that players in the last decade of his career “were certainly more fragile and more protected by parents” but despite their vast wealth, he was happy to see they were as hungry as ever.
“I think that success and money can change people, whether it’s in football or business,” he says. “It’s a fact of life. I experienced a big change in the financial side of it with the introduction of more agents – and more greedy agents – but the most important thing is that I don’t think in my time at United, I didn’t see any change in desire of the players. I think on a Saturday morning when a player wakes up, he can only think about winning. He’s there to win football matches and that desire I don’t think has changed a lot.”
Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In is in cinemas now
Originally published asMan U’s Sir Alex embraces his fearsome reputation
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