Former Ayr United player and Australian visitor retires
Quite a surprise at the amount of media coverage of the retirement of a former Ayr United player given that he hasn’t turned out for the club since 1974. Also there has been little recognition of his visits to this country as a player in 1967 and as national team manager in 1985. These episodes were significant moments in the career of a man who went on to rewrite the record books as manager of Manchester United, which has hogged the major share of the panegyrics on his retirement.
As a boy Alex Ferguson wanted to play for Glasgow Rangers and after a spell at Queen’s Park and stints at St Johnstone and Dunfermline Athletic he joined the club in 1967. That year Celtic won the European Cup, Rangers reached the final of the European Cup-Winners Cup and Leeds United won the Inter-city Fairs Cup, the three major European trophies of the time. Earlier that season Scotland had been persuaded to send its international team to Australia, a major coup for the relatively new Australian Soccer Federation. Ferguson was still at Dunfermline when the team was selected. When the time came to leave for a nine-match tour in May 1967 which took in Israel, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the clubs involved in European competitions withdrew their stars. So the Scottish Football Association downgraded the international matches to ‘B’ rather than ‘A’ status and Fergie never received a full international cap. This has always rankled with the man and he devoted much of a chapter of his autobiography to the issue. Nevertheless he scored nine goals in seven games on the tour including both Scotland’s goals at Olympic Park in a two-nil win over Australia on 3 June 1967.
When he returned to Scotland Ferguson was transferred to Rangers where he scored 25 goals in 41 games. A change of manager occurred and Fergie was transferred to Falkirk and then as his career wound down Alastair MacLeod persuaded him to join Ayr United in 1973. MacLeod kept Ayr in the top division in Scotland with brilliant man-management and a unique incentive scheme. He 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 Fergie were two of his entertainers with whom he had some immortal struggles. He and Ferguson—‘a real barrack-room lawyer’, according to MacLeod—had some blazing rows, but professional respect and slightly bizarre senses of humour kept them going. Ally left Ayr to manage Aberdeen and won their first trophy for seven years then took over as manager of Scotland. He recommended Ferguson as his successor at Aberdeen. That was where Fergie began piling up the trophies which led to his appointment as manager of Manchester United.
Always willing to learn, Ferguson buried the hatchet with the SFA and became assistant manager of the Scottish team under the legendary Jock Stein of Celtic. When Stein died following at heart attack at the end of a World Cup qualifying match in Wales in 1985, Ferguson took over as national coach. Scotland faced a two-leg play-off against Australia. My father-in-law died in November 1985 and my son was already in Scotland playing with the Victorian Country Under-13 team. So I took him to Hampden Park where he tried to outshout 60,000 Scots as the home team won the first leg two-nil. Frank Arok, the Australian coach, wanted the return game played on a bumpy pitch in Darwin at mid-day, but the ASF needed the money and decided it should take place on the bowling green surface at Olympic Park in the evening.
I sent Fergie a dossier on the Australian team and I still have his thank-you letter acknowledging it, but after the game when Australia just could not score against the Scots I realised that I had to reconsider my allegiance. So Scotland, not Australia, went to the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 and we had to wait another twenty years to qualify. Meantime Fergie was appointed manager of United, and the rest, as they say, is history.