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Sir Alex Ferguson: “Inspiration is just as important as education”

Sir Alex Ferguson on the reaction to his autobiography, nurturing stars – and meeting Reese Witherspoon at the Oscars

“Retired? Who’s retired?”

Sir Alex Ferguson bounds across the room and sits himself down, only a slight grimace betraying the after effects of a recent hip operation. “I’m busier than ever,” he smiles.

I ask if his hip is slowing him down. “I’m fine once I get going. Still use the gym. I was on the bike this morning. It’s important to keep fit.”

Looking spry and much younger than his 72 years – 73 on Hogmanay – Sir Alex Ferguson CBE welcomes some old pals to his suite of offices on the outskirts of Manchester and is much taken by some coasters they’ve brought him depicting trams and buses that used to serve his old community of Govan. Amid organising teas and coffees, he regales his office staff with a list of buses that used to terminate at Govan Cross.

I never pass a Big Issue vendor on the street because these people aren’t begging

“There was the 23, the 49, the four…” Bus routes, destinations and stories spill out and soon flow into stories of his youth. “There was a genuine sense of community in my day,” he reflects. “Neighbours helped one another. You’d come in at night and there would be a note on the table from Mrs McMillan… Jean McMillan from next door, ‘I’ve borrowed a cup of sugar’, and you’d know you’d get it back when they could afford it, and we’d be the same. People helped each other. It’s different today but people still help out in different ways.”

He retrieves a November copy of The Big Issue from beneath a mountain of correspondence on his desk, smiling in some bewilderment at the still constant flow of communication he receives from all over the world. “I never pass a Big Issue vendor on the street because these people aren’t begging. They’re trying to get back on their feet.

“Sometimes if they’ve only got one or two copies left I just give them a tenner and say hello to them because they’ll want to sell their last copies and get some more cash but I do like to read the articles. What is it they say in here?” He consults the magazine, “A hand up not a handout? Excellent!”

More stories of Govan tumble out. He picks up some photographs of friends who played alongside him in his beloved Harmony Row football team when in his teens. Presented with old school photographs, he rattles off the names of all those seated, arms folded; pupils (all male) looking sternly at the camera. He has an almost photographic memory, and over a two-hour chat drags up detail after detail that would test the recollection of any one of his MBA students at Harvard where he’s a Fellow of the Executive Education Programme at the Business School. Who’d have thought Sir Alex would go from Govan High to lecturing at Harvard? He smiles as he drains his coffee cup.

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

“Aye, and I’m loving it. I was over in Boston recently talking to professors from the faculty  and I was making the point that inspiration is just as important as education. I was educated by my teacher Elizabeth Thomson at primary school but I was also inspired by her.

“And Johnnie Boreland, my Boys’ Brigade captain, and Mike McGovern who coached me at Harmony Row were the same. They all inspired me to adopt a work ethic and I’ve never lost it. And let’s face it, these Harvard professors are all bright people. So are their pupils and the top executives they bring in from all over the world to hear what I’ve got to say; the President of Mexico was also lecturing there the last time I spoke.

“So we talked a bit about how you pick the stars of the future and nurture them, something I’ve done all my life in football. I was very aware that the first time I clapped eyes on Paul Scholes I thought, too small.

“But that’s when nurturing talent comes in. And you’re rewarded hugely. It’s a fantastic challenge but I’m speaking mostly about leadership and I’m comfortable doing that.”

He deflects compliments. “I’ve always been blessed with a good memory but Patrice Evra? There’s a man with a brain. He could speak five languages and was a great help in the dressing room. Lovely guy. His father was a diplomat. It showed. Even better, see Diego Forlan? When he was with us he was also a great linguist and could speak about five languages fluently.

“Earlier this year when he signed for Osaka, I was told that he prepared about a week in advance and then gave a five-minute interview to the media in Japanese! Now that’s impressive.”

Alex Ferguson on the pitch in 2009 by Gordon Flood

So are you taking it easier in retirement? Still up at the crack of dawn?

“It’s perhaps my one concession to retirement. I don’t need to get up quite so early although I still wake early. I suppose retirement sees me just as busy but the pressure’s not as consistent as when I was managing United.”

He clearly enjoys the breakneck speed at which he attacks his world. “I was invited to the Oscars. That was great. What genuinely surprised me was the number of people who recognised me. I thought I’d be able to be anonymous over in Los Angeles but it was great speaking to the actors.

I thought I’d be able to be anonymous over in Los Angeles but it was great speaking to the actors

“Reese Witherspoon was really nice. Quite a wee lassie. Only about five-foot-one. It turned out that her forebearer came from Paisley just down the road from Govan and one of her antecedents was John Knox Witherspoon who was a Scottish Presbyterian minister and a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence. Small world!”

I ask Sir Alex if he won an Oscar… “No. But I met Lupita Nyong’o who won best supporting actress for 12 Years A Slave. I went with my wife and we had a brilliant time.”

Cathy, whom he married almost 50 years ago, is credited, alongside their three sons, with persuading him to reverse his earlier retirement plans back in 2002.

I ask him if he is pleased with the outcome of his autobiography, which created a big reaction – not least from his ex-captain at Manchester United, Roy Keane. “Yes. I enjoyed writing it. It’s now sold over one million copies in hardback and has been published in 33 languages. I’m told it’s doing particularly well in China and France.

“In fact, Patrice Evra phoned me and told me that as part of their preparation for the Brazil World Cup in June, the French manager Didier Deschamps made the whole French squad read the book. Evra said it was great as five minutes after they started to read it, they’ve never slept better,” he laughed. “I’ve just issued an updated second edition where I’ve added a couple of chapters covering the past year.”

And how about his charitable work? “As a Unicef ambassador and through Manchester United’s 13-year ‘United for Unicef partnership’ I’ve visited many projects. To hear how young people, especially orphans, suffer is always shattering,” says Sir Alex.

I still watch a lot of games but I do miss the banter of the dressing room

“But I focus more on the UK these days. I’m committed to a lot of Manchester charities and to the development of Harmony Row Youth Club in Govan. I’m the patron of the club and we’ve already raised £1.6m to build a state-of-the-art pitch. I have my own charity and I still do a lot of public speaking trying to raise money for good causes.”

So in retirement, does he miss football?

“Well, I’m an ambassador for Manchester United and I’m on the club’s board of directors so I still watch a lot of games but I do miss the banter of the dressing room; the players, obviously, but also the backroom staff. All lovely people: cleaners, cooks, admin people, kit staff. Really decent, honest people.

“I don’t see them as much now as I used to but I’ve also been appointed as an ambassador for Uefa, I chair a forum of elite coaches that meet every year and I’m a member of the technical study group of the Champions League and the European Championship. So I’m still involved in football at the highest level.

Sir Alex Ferguson gives a lecture

“Right now we’re looking at the possibility of introducing sin bins like they have in rugby – a 10-minute suspension during the match. But we want to be careful that somehow it isn’t exploited if it’s introduced.

“We’re also looking at wiping out bookings when teams reach the latter stages of a cup competition. We lost Darren Fletcher from the 2009 Champions League final against Barcelona and also missed Keane and Scholes for picking up cards in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich. Now, they’d all played in all the previous rounds so it wasn’t fair they missed out. We’ll see on that one.

“We’re also looking at allowing 11 substitutes on the bench for big finals in Europe. That way you can recognise the contribution the squad’s made and allow a wider range of substitutions.”

He laughs: “Mind you, it wouldn’t work in the Premiership. Too many chairmen would moan about the increase in bonuses they’d need to pay!”

Sir Alex seems to be relishing retirement – if you can call it that…

“I really am. And I can go and watch the team now without getting so worked up. I mean we lost at the weekend to City but we did okay. Lots of great football. If it had been 11-a-side, who knows. I’m enjoying my football, I’m enjoying my family, my friends and I’m enjoying my retirement.”

Ferguson on… The Ryder Cup (and that speech)

“When Paul McGinley first approached me about going up to Gleneagles, we agreed that what was said in the dressing room stayed in the dressing room. That’s the way I’ve always operated. But it’s okay for me to tell you I talked mainly about how to cope with being a favourite, just like we usually were at United.

“I also spoke with the caddies and players’ wives about different things. I was really impressed by the amount of detail McGinley put into the organisation. He took an additional assistant to mentor those players who hadn’t been selected that day so they still felt involved. That was good leadership.

“The banter was great. Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell are season ticket holders at Old Trafford but Ian Poulter supports Arsenal, Thomas Bjorn supports Liverpool, Lee Westwood supports Nottingham Forest and Sergio Garcia is a huge Real Madrid fan. He kept thanking me for transferring Cristiano Ronaldo! But really my main contribution was to encourage everyone to be calm over the seven days.

“Outside of football, the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles was the greatest sporting challenge in which I’ve been involved.”

Words: Ron Culley
@iblogtoglasgow
ronculley.com