Ferguson -- the greatness and the flaws

Sir Alex Ferguson is not known for taking a temperate view in the face of disapproving comment and it is fair to say that author Patrick Barclay will not be expecting a case of the Manchester United supremo’s favourite red win to arrive on his doorstep after his biography of Britain’s most successful football manager is published later this month.

In Football - Bloody Hell!, the widely respected Times journalist attempts to make an evenhanded assessment of Ferguson’s qualities and achievements and inevitably some of his observations are less than favourable.

“I think it is quite a balanced book although some things do not reflect on him so well as others,” Barclay told The Sports Bookshelf.  “I tried to be fair and if he reads it -- and I think he will -- I think there will be a grudging acceptance that it is fair.”

To a certain extent, Football - Bloody Hell! sets out to be an antidote to Ferguson’s 1999 autobiography, Managing My Life, which was a comprehensive and powerfully written record of an exceptional career but which had time for only one point of view.

Managing My Life was an admirable book which was interesting and written with the considerable benefit of Hugh McIlvanney’s collaboration but is an account written from the perspective of the most one-eyed man in Britain,” Barclay said.

“You could not find a better sports writer than McIlvanney but you could have hired William Boyd or any of the finest living writers in Britain and you would still have ended up with a highly partial account.

“So my intention was to write a two-eyed account of his life that tries to be as fair as possible.”

Unavoidably, this has required Barclay to scrutinise some of the more difficult areas of Ferguson’s career, not least the thorny subject of football agents in relation to his management.  Ferguson at times has expressed an undisguised disdain for agents yet has a son, Jason, who became one. He has not spoken to the BBC since their refusal to apologise for a 2004 documentary which portrayed his Jason as someone who exploited his father’s influence and position to his own ends.

Barclay, whose work across a spectrum of the English broadsheet press -- he wrote for the Guardian, the Independent, the Observer and the Sunday Telegraph before joining the Times in February 2009 -- has earned him wide respect in the game, says that he “couldn’t care less” if Ferguson decides to shun him as he has the BBC.

“The story of Jason Ferguson’s relationship with the club is in the public domain and largely tells itself and I agree that there is an apparent contradiction with Sir Alex’s expressions of disapproval of agents,” he said.

“But I took the view that I could not afford to be constrained if I was going to produce the best possible work and I’m not too bothered if Sir Alex does not like it.”

Barclay describes his own relationship with Ferguson as “non-existent” although it was not always that way and for a while he believed he was writing his book with the United manager’s blessing.

“I first saw Ferguson when he was 18 and was playing for St Johnstone against my own beloved Dundee on the day in 1962 that St Johnstone were relegated and Dundee won the league.  I was a 13-year-old fan,” he said.

“Of course I was not working for a newspaper, although I did have a job as a delivery boy and I remember I did not get back to do my evening round until 8pm because of the traffic congestion.  Luckily, everyone was so happy because Dundee had won that I didn’t get admonished.

“I did not come across Ferguson in my professional life until he was a manager.   Although I never worked in Scotland, I covered Scottish football for the Guardian and got to know him to an extent as manager of Aberdeen and Scotland.

“I actually drank champagne from the Cup-Winners’ Cup on the journey home from Gothenburg after the victory over Real Madrid, which seems quite unbelievable when you consider his relationship with the press today.

“I can’t imagine him offering a journalist a drink from a cup these days unless it contained hemlock.

“I got to know him reasonably well and he was nice to me and that carried on as I progressed in my career in that he would grant me interviews from time to time.  I’ve found him to be intelligent and amusing and, when he wanted to be, very considerate. He was considerate with people that he went back a long way with.”

With that in mind, Barclay wrote to him early in the project, hoping that if he made Ferguson aware of what he was doing, and even gaining approval, it might head off problems further down the line. 

“I sought his acquiescence because I did not want people that knew him as well as knowing me to feel compromised, people like Gérard Houllier, Arsène Wenger and Andy Roxburgh.

“At first he was against it but after I had written to him he changed his mind and wrote back in the early part of 2009 saying ‘yes, fine, go ahead.’”

By the late summer of the same year, however, when some interviewees became less comfortable about sharing their views, it became clear that Ferguson had become opposed to the idea again.

“He did not have the decency to tell me, which caused me a few difficulties.” Barclay said. “I was not particularly impressed by that.

“It preceded the announcement that he was writing another biography of his own which will no doubt be another one-eyed book giving his own highly partial view, much the same as his first one.

“Since then I have had no relationship with Ferguson at all.  And while I have an enduring respect for him and consider him almost a hero, I can’t say I would want to spend much time with him.”

Barclay has interviewed widely in order to form a rounded assessment of his subject, letting the project absorb him to the extent that he found it to be the most fulfilling assignment of his career.  “It was immensely enjoyable and I’d love to do another,” he said.

He spent many hours with Michael Crick, the BBC journalist whose biography, The Boss: The Many Sides of Alex Ferguson, also delved into previously unexplored territory.  “I wanted to check that some of the aspects of the story that were contentious did not need revision and Michael and his researcher, Alex Millar, were kind enough to give several hours of their time on several occasions.”

In his conclusion to the book, Barclay acknowledges that Ferguson’s achievements place him at a level in management that no other individual has matched yet cannot entirely nullify his flaws.

“He comes out of the book as someone who has not improved with time as a person but who nonetheless is remarkable and by my definition is a great man,” he says.

“Perhaps his greatest achievement as a manager, when you think of others who have been haunted and inhibited by the shadow of their predecessors, was to go to Manchester United, where one of the greatest of all time in Matt Busby had created something extraordinary, and not only replicate it with the emphasis on youth and on flowing, attacking football but make it even more successful.

“But if you were asked to say which was the more dignified man -- Busby or Ferguson -- there is no argument at all.”

Football - Bloody Hell!, which takes its title from Ferguson's first words to a television reporter, moments after Manchester United's last-gasp win over Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, is published by Yellow Jersey on October 14th.

Follow the link to buy Football - Bloody Hell!: The Biography of Alex Ferguson

Patrick Barclay is also the author of Mourinho: Anatomy Of A Winner.

For more on football, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.



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