Widely considered one of the greatest managers of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson holds the distinction of being the longest-tenured manager in the history of one of the most popular football clubs in the world, Manchester United. During his 26 years with the club (1986-2013), Ferguson won an unprecedented 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cups, and 2 UEFA Champions League titles. This, coupled with the 12 trophies he had won as manager of St. Mirren and Aberdeen previously, makes him the most successful coach in the history of the beautiful game.
Published soon after his retirement in 2013, My Autobiography might not be the first book of its kind – in 2000, Ferguson co-authored another memoir, titled Managing My Life with Hugh McIlvanney – but it is certainly (as of yet) the most complete. We tried to pack its most interesting bits into several brief and, we believe, intriguing sections. So, get ready to learn everything you need to know about Sir Alex Ferguson and his times – from his humble beginnings in Scotland through his most successful years as a Manchester United manager all the way to his last campaign and his final bow.
Despite being born in a working-class family in the relatively unimportant district of Govan – a part of the city of Glasgow – Sir Alex Ferguson grew to become arguably the most famous manager in football history. “Alex Ferguson has done really well in his life despite coming from Govan,” claimed a newspaper article written in the later stages of his career. In the opinion of Ferguson himself, the preposition of the sentence is wrong. “It’s precisely because I started out in the shipbuilding district of Glasgow that I achieved what I did in football,” he writes, smirking away the backhanded compliment. His working-class background, he goes on, wasn’t a barrier to success, but a motivation and part of the reason he excelled – just as it was for many of his players. Per aspera ad astra, or “through hardships to the stars,” believed the ancient Romans. The motto of the Ferguson clan in Scotland, Alex informs us, is the related and, arguably, even more inspirational dulcius ex asperis – or, “sweeter after difficulties.” For a reason, it seems.
Even though primarily known as a manager, Alex Ferguson was quite a good football player as well. He debuted as an amateur striker at the age of 16 for the Scottish second-division football club Queen’s Park – while still working in a Glasgow shipyard. His professional football career began seven years later when he signed with first-division Dunfermline Athletic. During the following season (1965-66), Ferguson tied for the league lead in scoring by tallying 31 goals, and a season later, for a then-record £65,000 fee, he was transferred to his hometown club Glasgow Rangers. Ferguson played for two other clubs (Falkirk and Ayr United) before retiring in 1974 at the age of 32. During his playing career, he scored a respectable 218 goals in 415 games and won two Scottish Division Two titles. But that, of course, is not why his autobiography sold millions of copies.
In June 1974, barely retired from his playing days, Ferguson got an offer to become part-time manager of East Stirlingshire. In the four brief months that he held that job, he quickly earned a reputation as being both a disciplinarian and an extremely talented coach, so he was invited to coach St. Mirren in October. He remained there until 1978, a period during which he transformed the club from a lower-half Second Division side to a First Division champion in 1977 – despite concurrently running two pubs as well! Even so, he was sacked by the club, partly because Ferguson had breached his contract by talking to Aberdeen to become their next manager.
That happened in June 1978, and during the next eight years with Aberdeen, Ferguson managed to win three Scottish Premier Division titles, four Scottish Cups and, most amazingly, the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983. And he achieved this last feat by impressively knocking out Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals and beating Real Madrid 2-1 after extra time in the final! Unsurprisingly, this attracted the attention of several English clubs and, after much speculation and a few offers, on November 6, 1986, Ferguson was appointed manager at Old Trafford. The rest is well-known history.
Probably only die-hard Manchester United know that Fergie did not get off to a great start with his new club. In fact, it was everything but: despite several big-money signings, Ferguson’s Manchester United was quite inconsistent, finishing 11th, 2nd, 11th and 13th place during his first few seasons as a manager. After a disappointing early-season run of 6 defeats and 2 draws in eight games and a humiliating 5-1 away defeat to fierce rivals Manchester City, most Manchester United supporters wanted Ferguson out during the 1989-90 season.
Slogans such as "Three years of excuses and it's still crap... ta-ra Fergie" could be seen hung around Old Trafford, and offensive songs were chanted almost routinely at the stadium. They say that Ferguson was even supposed to be sacked after the third round of the FA Cup – since everyone expected the longtime-winless Manchester United to lose to the in-form Nottingham Forest and bow out of the competition. Surprisingly, they won the game and went on to win the cup as well. It was Ferguson’s first major trophy as a Manchester United manager. He would go on to win 37 more in the following 22 years.
Ferguson won half of his trophies at Manchester United in the 21st century. However, after winning the UEFA Champions League title in 1999, he seriously pondered retirement. He was sure he had reached the pinnacle of his career and he was not getting any younger. But then, on Christmas Day 2001, Sir Alex’s family decided that they would not allow him to retire. “You’re not retiring,” said Ferguson’s wife Cathy to him, waking him up from a post-meal nap. “One, your health is good. Two, I’m not having you in the house. And three, you’re too young anyway.” “As I weighed this announcement,” Ferguson remembers, “I felt no urge to resist.” The discussion ended with him shelving his plans for retirement and remaining at the club’s helm for yet another eleven years.
Fergie quickly grew to regret his decision to tell his players that he was not going to be with them the following year. There wasn’t the same performance on the pitch anymore: the 2001–02 season was “a fallow year” for the team. Some changes had to be made, so Manchester United spent heavily on Ruud van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastián Verón, and got Laurent Blanc on a free. The last one came in place of Jaap Stam, who was transferred out to Lazio for £16.5 million.
Many football fans believed at the time that Stam was let go because he had revealed in his autobiography, “Head to Head,” that Manchester United approached him directly without PSV’s permission. Ferguson dispels the myth: Stam’s memoirs had nothing to do with his transfer. He just feared that the player was too old (30) to recover properly from a recent Achilles injury and that the price tag was more than right. “But it was a mistake on my part,” he writes regretfully.
In addition to the error of transferring out Jaap Stam, throughout the book, Ferguson lists a few other transfer errors, mostly in the opposite direction – the chief among them the signings of Eric Djemba-Djemba, José Kléberson, William Prunier and Ralph Milne. He also mentions a few players on whom he missed out by the breadth of a hair: Paulo Di Canio and Ronaldinho are the names that stand out in this regard.
Finally, there are some players who Ferguson lost, but then gained others of similar merit as a result: after missing out on, for example, Manchester United landed Paul Ince, and after failing to persuade Alan Shearer to join him, Sir Alex did sign “the bargain of the century,” Eric Cantona.
Still on the topic of regrets, none seems to hurt Ferguson more than David Beckham’s career which, he believes, should have been even more stellar – for he had never seen anyone with his stamina, dedication, talent and desire to prove people wrong. Not even Cristiano. Ferguson thought of Beckham as a son, and it is precisely because of this that their notorious falling out in February 2003 – during which Sir Alex kicked a boot at Beckham in the dressing room, causing him a minor injury – couldn’t be mended by anything but a transfer to Real Madrid. Ferguson did his best to prevent Beckham from falling prey to his celebrity status, but he implicitly admits to have failed in his attempt. “There was no footballing reason for him to go to America,” writes Ferguson, commenting on Beckham’s decision to join LA Galaxy after Real. “In LA, he probably thought Hollywood was his next step in life.”
One day after the title-winning victory against Aston Villa during Ferguson’s last season as manager of Manchester United, Wayne Rooney, Manchester United’s record goalscorer, asked to leave the club. According to Ferguson, Rooney wasn’t happy with being left out for some games and subbed in others – decisions Sir Alex ascribes to Rooney’s age at the time. It wasn’t the first time, though. Three years before, on August 14th, 2010, feeling the club wasn’t ambitious enough, Rooney informed Ferguson that he would not be signing a new contract at United. He even scolded his manager for not pursuing Mesut Özil, who had joined Real Madrid from Werder Bremen during the transfer window. “None of your business,” said Ferguson as one would only expect from him. Rooney eventually stayed – and won a couple more trophies with United.
Throughout his career, Ferguson saw many coaching rivals come and go, possibly none of them as enduring as Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger, as “special” as Chelsea’s José Mourinho, and as antagonistic as Liverpool’s Rafael Benítez. In the autobiography, Ferguson reveals his feelings about all of them, ranging from warmth and admiration for the Portuguese (with whom he developed a tradition of sharing wine after their games), understanding and even compassion for Wenger (who supposedly never recovered after losing the Pizzagate game), and hostility and incomprehension for Benítez, who, according to Ferguson, had made the mistake of making the Manchester-Liverpool rivalry “personal.”
One of the most iconic images of Ferguson is him pointing to his watch at the beginning of injury time – something he would do regularly, especially in games of importance. “I pointed to my watch to strike fear into opponents, who knew we often scored in the last minute,” says Ferguson in his autobiography. So, in a way, he used reverse psychology on his opponents. And it worked!
“If I needed a result to epitomize what Manchester United were about,” writes Ferguson at the beginning of his autobiography, “it came to me in game No. 1,500: my last. West Bromwich Albion 5, Manchester United 5. Crazy. Wonderful. Entertaining. Outrageous.” Even though Ferguson was a bit annoyed that his players threw away a 5-2 lead, after the game, he could say nothing more to them than a poignant: “Thanks boys. Bloody great send-off you’ve given me!”
Described by The Guardian as “a piece of oral history,” Ferguson’s Autobiography is fascinating, intriguing and inspirational – and that holds true even if you are not a football fan.
If you are, then it’s nothing short of a must-read, regardless of what you think and how you feel about Manchester United.
He is Sir Alex Ferguson for a reason.
Alex Ferguson’s story is evidence that, in his words, “origins should never be a barrier to success. A modest start in life can be a help more than a hindrance.” Never forget that.
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