Friday 24 March 2017

The Gaffer still going 50 years on

Geelong Advertiser, Wednesday 19 November 2008, p. 47.

It is 50 years since Sir Alex Ferguson pulled on his boots as a 16-year-old and made his debut for Queen’s Park in the Scottish Second Division against Stranraer at Stair Park, known locally as the Clayhole. The ‘Spiders’ lost two-one but the boy scored with ‘a smashing drive’, though a perceptive reporter noted he was ‘a bit slow’. He went on to play with St Johnstone, Dunfermline Athletic and then signed for Glasgow Rangers in 1967. Earlier that year he came to Australia with a Scotland squad denuded of the players of the Old Firm, Celtic and Rangers, and Leeds United.
Celtic was to win the European Cup on 25 May in Lisbon, the first British club to do so, while Rangers contested the Cup Winners final against Bayern Munich on 31 May, and Leeds United, which had Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer and Eddie Gray in its side, was in the final of the European Fairs Cup, the predecessor of the UEFA Cup. Criticism in Australia of the omission of these players was understandable but somewhat myopic. When the tour was planned it could hardly have been predicted that three of the six finalists in the top European competitions would include two from Scotland and one from England, even though England had won the World Cup the previous year. But the Scottish Football Association downgraded the status of the tour, and refused to award full international caps to the players taking part, something that still rankles with Ferguson because that is the closest he got to a full international cap as a player.

Three games were played against Australia, all resulting in Scottish victories, with Ferguson scoring the only goal in the first match at the Sydney Showgrounds on 28 May and both goals in the two-nil win at Olympic Park on 3 June. The intervening match was played in Adelaide at Norwood Oval and Ray Baartz got Australia’s only goal of the games, but Jim Townsend and Willie Morgan scored for Scotland. Ferguson was playing for Dunfermline Athletic when he left on the tour which took in Israel, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Canada, but at the start of the next season he signed for Rangers. When he left Rangers in 1969 he joined Falkirk, after turning down a move to Nottingham Forest.

Ferguson’s last season as a player was in 1973–74 at Ayr United, where he played 18 games and six as a substitute, scoring nine league goals. At Ayr he came under the influence of the ebullient Ally MacLeod, later to manage Aberdeen and Scotland, a path Ferguson himself was to follow on Ally’s recommendation. MacLeod handled spiky characters splendidly and got the best out of a collection of players who lacked the brilliance of some previous Ayr United teams. George ‘Dandy’ Maclean and Ferguson were two of his entertainers with whom he had some immortal struggles. He and Ferguson—‘a real barrack-room lawyer’—had some blazing rows, but professional respect and slightly bizarre senses of humour kept them going.

Ferguson got his first taste of management at East Stirling, but within three months he had moved to St Mirren, where he won promotion to the Premier Division in 1977. He was sacked from that job in 1978, but when Billy McNeill returned to Celtic from Aberdeen that year, Ferguson became manager of Aberdeen. In eight years he won the Scottish Premier League three times, four Scottish Cups, the UEFA Cup against Real Madrid in the final in 1983 and the European Super Cup the following year. That record led to his joining Jock Stein as assistant manager of Scotland and taking over when the big man died of a heart attack after a match against Wales in 1985.

So Ferguson was in charge of Scotland against Australia in a two-legged qualifier for the World Cup. Scotland beat Australia by two goals to nil at Hampden Park on 20 November 1985 with goals by Davie Cooper and Frank McAvennie. Despite some shenanigans involving Mo Johnston and McAvennie, the Scots held on for a scoreless draw in Melbourne in the second leg on 4 December. Ferguson wrote in his autobiography, ‘The game was no triumph for us but the 0–0 result was perfectly satisfactory … the truth is that Jim Leighton ensured our passage to the finals with four outstanding saves.’ The day after the game, the CEO of the Scottish Football Association, Ernie Walker, told Ferguson that Mo Johnston had been banging on his door in the middle of the night, stark naked and with a similarly disrobed female in tow. Johnston did not go to Mexico with the Scottish team!

The next move for Ferguson was to secure his managerial status when he replaced Ron Atkinson at Manchester United in 1986. The initial years were not propitious for the then trophy-starved club. Many argue that had Mark Robbins not scored a critical winning goal against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup in 1990 Ferguson’s tenure would have been cut short. United won the Cup that year, and the first of ten Premier League titles in 1993. A Cup and League double followed in 1994, then the incredible treble of League, Cup and European Champions League with two goals in injury time in the final against Bayern Munich in 1999. That year Ferguson came back to Australia with a full strength United team though the matches were overshadowed from an Australian perspective by a severe injury suffered by Simon Colosimo in the second game at Stadium Australia in Sydney on 18 July. United striker, Andy Cole, was blamed for that by the locals, and Carlton’s plan to sell the young Colosimo for a large sum to a European club was aborted and the player’s career was blighted for the best part of two years.

After flirting with retirement in 2002, Ferguson rebuilt United to win back-to-back Premier League titles in 2007 and 2008 and a second Champions League title in 2008 on penalty kicks against Chelsea in Moscow. That was on the 50th anniversary of the Munich air crash which had destroyed Sir Matt Busby’s United ‘babes’. Fergie is still firmly in control at Old Trafford and once again is in the process of reconstructing a team to challenge for more silverware. Whether he is the greatest manager ever in British football is something that can be argued about, but for longevity and resilience and the capacity to change with the seismic shifts in the economics and culture of the modern game he has no peer. Beleaguered British prime minister Gordon Brown could do worse than put this long time Labour supporter in the House of Lords as Lord Ferguson of Govan, where he might sort out the nation as he has done football.

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