As Manchester United legend Sir Alex Ferguson turns 80, Sportsmail's writers share memories

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As Sir Alex Ferguson turns 80 on New Year’s Eve, Sportsmail’s writers have reflected on their experiences with one of the most iconic figures in the game of football.

From a weeknight encounter at Blackburn Rovers, a party into the early hours in Sweden and a number of media clashes over the years, Ferguson’s character is remembered by all who have encountered him.

Here are some of Sportsmail’s favourite memories of the legendary manager.

Manchester United legend Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates his 80th birthday on New Year's Eve

Manchester United legend Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates his 80th birthday on New Year’s Eve

Martin Samuel

Sportsmail’s Chief sports writer

I first met Sir Alex Ferguson at half-time at Blackburn Rovers, probably a Tuesday night, in what I imagine was his final season at Aberdeen. I was introduced to him by a journalist who, like me, was on the Sunday beat. You’d go to midweek matches to see what you could pick up for the weekend. All the managers and coaches spoke, they all shared information.

A chat with a manager at Doncaster Rovers could give you a story about what was going on at a bigger club, like Leeds or Sheffield Wednesday. They did a nice cup of tea at Ewood Park, and there was a room where journalists could mingle with scouts or managers at the game. Those were the days.

I was at Blackburn because it was the only match on that night; Alex said that was why he was there, too. I didn’t believe him then, I don’t believe him now, but I was struck by the work ethic of a man who would make a 660-mile, 11-hour round trip from the north-east of Scotland to check on a player rather than take a scout’s word.

Ferguson pictured back in 1968, lining up in his kit for Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers

Ferguson pictured back in 1968, lining up in his kit for Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers

Not long after that, Alex became the Manchester United manager. I remember the Football Writers’ Association organised a lunch to welcome him to the city. It was held at the Portland Hotel, which at the time was about Manchester’s best.

It never ends well when a fancy restaurant tries to do peasant food. They had decided on Lancashire hotpot as a fitting welcoming dish. A bit of scrag end of lamb sat congealing in a bowl for about 20 minutes. Then some potatoes, onion and vegetables. Finally some stock was poured over the top.

The entire mess was stone cold. At the end of the meal, Alex stood up to speak. ‘Well, if that’s Lancashire hotpot,’ he began, ‘no wonder you haven’t won the bloody league in 20 years…’

Over time, we had some ups and downs. More downs than ups at the start, a few almighty rows. There was one in Brazil that from a certain camera angle looked like we’d come to blows. We hadn’t. But the row continued outside the press room and halfway around the Maracana Stadium.

The following morning I was getting calls from breakfast television because it had made the news, and my newspaper wanted me to write about it. That stuff never interested me. Alex stood his corner, I stood mine – so what? The football was what mattered. ‘The greatest sight in football,’ said Teddy Sheringham, ‘is Manchester United chasing a game.’ He was right. I was there at Tottenham, the day they were 3-0 down, then 5-3 up. You don’t forget afternoons like that.

And the Nou Camp, and away at Juventus, and all those fine, fine players he nurtured and gave to the world. Few have given me as much joy as Cristiano Ronaldo, and Alex helped make him. I’ll always be grateful for that.

Ferguson has developed an array of footballing greats, including Cristiano Ronaldo

Ferguson has developed an array of footballing greats, including Cristiano Ronaldo

I was at Newmarket one day with three generations of the Samuel family and bumped into him. Strangely, we had a better relationship after that. Maybe he realised we weren’t so different after all, and I’d been around a bit by then. If I asked him a question I got more consideration, less snarl.

And one Friday I sat at Carrington training ground and listened with a small group as he offered views on contemporaries and football issues that were at once greatly insightful, but also utterly scurrilous and, sadly, off the record. I wish there were more moments like that, but it’s the art that matters. And his United teams were pure art.

We met in his office and he was fascinating and instructive.

Ian Ladyman

Football Editor

There is a story never convincingly denied that Sir Alex’s last day in football was to have been May 13, 2012. Had Sergio Aguero not won Manchester City the Premier League title on that most dramatic of Sundays against Queens Park Rangers, Ferguson would have walked away.

That was always the thing about Ferguson. Much is made of his management skills, his manipulation of officials, the authorities and the media. But fundamentally, Ferguson was a street fighter, and it was probably that quality that most set him apart. If a more competitive animal has stalked the halls of English football over the last 50 years, he is yet to make himself known.

Ferguson needed to leave football as a winner, just as he had left Aberdeen as a winner when he joined Manchester United in 1986. So when City – of all clubs – denied him in 2012, Ferguson did what he always did in such moments.

Ferguson bowed out at United after winning the Premier League title for the club in 2013

Ferguson bowed out at United after winning the Premier League title for the club in 2013

Ferguson pictured alongside his wife Cathy after receiving his CBE in 1995

Ferguson pictured alongside his wife Cathy after receiving his CBE in 1995

In the dressing room at Sunderland – where United had won to almost clinch that year’s title – some of Ferguson’s players wept openly. But exhibiting a sense of timing that always came naturally, the United manager simply told them next year would be their year.

Ferguson outflanked City to sign Robin van Persie from Arsenal and United won the 2012-13 edition of the Premier League by the length of Manchester Deansgate.

He was a hard man, Ferguson. Tales of his humanity and his empathy abound. I know several managers who have benefited. When Chris Wilder left Sheffield United last spring, for example, his mobile pinged the next morning. Sender? Ferguson.

Underpinning all of that, though, ran a streak of ruthlessness and at times selfishness that anybody who has ever worked with, for or against the great man, will testify to. To Ferguson, Manchester United always came first. If you got in his way, he’d walk through or over you without a backward glance.

My personal memories are vast and mixed. I came to Manchester in the first place because of him. Twenty years later, I am still here. Despatched north to try to patch up the Daily Mail’s poor relationship with Ferguson in December 2001, it went badly at first.

Over time, relations improved and I was treated with the same sense of bemusement, amusement and occasional contempt as was everybody else in the Press seats.

They say Ferguson was brilliant with the media. He wasn’t. Not always. And I certainly didn’t see the best of him in that regard, such was his largely unwarranted distrust of the Press by this stage.

When United were winning, his Friday briefings could be mundane. It was when things were tight for his team that his use of the back pages and TV and radio bulletins would become masterful. With Ferguson, just about everything he ever said or did was motivated by a clear and logical reason.

Once upon a time, 10 years ago, he wrote to me to explain why I was banned from his press conferences. It was an annihilation in print, a character assassination designed to provoke a response or, better still, an apology.

Ferguson certainly had a ruthless side and the media were often on the receiving end of it

Ferguson certainly had a ruthless side and the media were often on the receiving end of it 

Ferguson didn’t get the latter as journalists can be stubborn, too. But we met in his office and it remains the most fascinating and instructive 30 minutes of more than two decades writing for this newspaper.

He would not thank me for revealing precise details but, dressed in his training shorts, white knee socks and flip-flops, this was Ferguson with his guard down. To sit and listen to him that morning at Carrington was to learn a little of the pressures of management and indeed the traps – real or imagined – even someone like him saw everywhere when dealing with the modern media.

At the end of that conversation, he stood up, thanked me for ‘having the balls to come and see me’ and welcomed me back to his weekly press gatherings.

Three weeks later, he banned me again. 

Chris Wheeler

Sportsmail’s Manchester United correspondent

Ferguson with the FA Cup and Premier League trophy after the 1995-96 season

Ferguson with the FA Cup and Premier League trophy after the 1995-96 season

Is it really 10 years since we sat with Sir Alex in a Seattle hotel, a few months short of his 70th birthday, and asked him if the landmark occasion was prompting thoughts of retirement?

Ferguson fixed me with those pale blue eyes and admonished my impertinence. ‘Absolutely none,’ he replied sharply, shutting down the subject. ‘Not at all. I’m not even thinking about it.’

Even if it was on his mind, Sir Alex wouldn’t have admitted it. He would have wanted to tell the world on his terms, not ours. That was July 18, 2011, on the second stop of Manchester United’s five-game tour of the US, and by no means the only uncomfortable moment with him abroad.

Try boarding United’s team flight and walking past a seething Ferguson sat in the front row after his team have lost in Europe and the media’s arrival is delaying take-off. Or the awkward moment on tour of South Africa the following summer in 2012 when he denied making a bid for Van Persie in a press conference in Cape Town, only to be told that United’s own website had already confirmed it.

Classic Fergie. He would fight tooth and nail on behalf of his club, even if it meant being somewhat economical with the truth, and we came to respect that.

In Cape Town, he was in full siege mode after losing the Premier League title to Manchester City on the final day in 2012 – a bitter setback that steeled him to dig in for a glorious last stand.

He banned one journalist for revealing that Rio Ferdinand was injured for the opening game of the 2012-13 season – a true story that incensed him when Everton took advantage by playing Marouane Fellaini up front, and he headed the winner. The order went out that reporting team news on match days was forbidden, a draconian measure even by Ferguson’s standards.

Ferguson was known for considering his press conferences as a duel in his time as a manager

Ferguson was known for considering his press conferences as a duel in his time as a manager

When I wrote that Antonio Valencia had his foot in a protective boot on the morning of a League Cup tie against Newcastle, that was me banned as well. Banishment became a rite of passage for us. A badge of pride even.

His relationship with the media – both written and broadcast – was complicated to say the least. He has made no secret of the fact that he saw his press conferences as a form of gladiatorial combat.

What went unseen were the many occasions he reached out to journalists in times of trouble, both personal and professional. The messages of support or kind gestures that flew in the face of a more fiery public persona.

But as the great man turns 80, it will delight him to know that he made us far more uncomfortable than we ever did him. 

Jeff Powell

Daily Mail sportswriter

The first of my Long Night’s Journeys Into Day with Fergie – apologies to America’s Nobel Laureate playwright Eugene O’Neill for paraphrasing the title of his masterpiece – came in Sweden nigh on 39 years ago.

Aberdeen had just defeated Real Madrid’s aristocrats of European football in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. 

Having dictated a few hurried paragraphs to London in an amazed attempt to do justice to one of the earliest of his many miracles, I tagged along with a couple of Glasgow colleagues as they walked from the Ullevi Stadium to the team hotel.

Ferguson with wife Cathy and three sons Mark, Darren and Jason celebrating winning the European Cup Winners' Cup and the Scottish Cup after the 1982-83 season with Aberdeen

Ferguson with wife Cathy and three sons Mark, Darren and Jason celebrating winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the Scottish Cup after the 1982-83 season with Aberdeen

‘Be warned,’ they said. ‘This will be a very Scottish celebration.’ As we arrived, Alex was presiding over exultation in the bar. He glared across the room. My pals winced for me in trepidation. He walked over, stern of countenance, relishing the moment.

The evening of May 11, 1983 in Gothenburg was wet and chilly but suddenly that mischievous smile lit up the place. He said: ‘I trust you can hold your bevvy.’

We had bumped shoulders on several occasions during Aberdeen’s seemingly impossible disruption of the Rangers and Celtic domination of Scottish football.

‘One of the few English writers who’s come to see what we’ve been up to,’ he announced to one huddle of players. Alex McLeish pushed a whisky into one hand, Willie Miller a beer into the other. Gordon Strachan growled at this intruder from south of the border: ‘Behave yourself’. Then chuckled.

‘Can you believe ma wee team?’ Fergie asked. Tongue in cheek. He knew exactly how massive they were, these braw laddies who had put away the Real deal with John Hewitt scoring the winner in extra time.

As the great man turns 80, Ferguson can reflect with pride on a glittering career in football - here, he is pictured celebrating United's dramatic 1999 Champions League triumph

As the great man turns 80, Ferguson can reflect with pride on a glittering career in football – here, he is pictured celebrating United’s dramatic 1999 Champions League triumph

Alfredo Di Stefano, still one of the greatest footballers of all time, had gone from orchestrating Madrid’s regal reign over the early years of the European Cup to managing his successors on the pitch.

‘One of the finest ever to kick a fitba,’ said he who would be knighted for services to the game he loves and lorded over. ‘It’s been a privilege to share this night with him. Like me, he hates losing. But he’s a gentleman in defeat.’

Thus began for me what would indeed be a long journey. One bearing fascinated witness to the ascent of the greatest manager football will ever know. One enlivened by cherished moments of challenging company.

Cheers, Sir Alex. As usual, as you do with most everyone else, you’ve beaten me to it. To our 80th birthdays. By two months.

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