It’s the summer of 1978 and Aberdeen’s players are introduced to their new manager. Dressed in a smart suit and combed-over hair, Alex Ferguson, recently sacked by St Mirren, rocked up in Pittodrie for the biggest job of his career so far.
‘Nobody knew who he was!’ recalls former Aberdeen defender Willie Garner to Sportsmail. ‘But Fergie came in all guns blazing. Credit to him, he got on peoples’ nerves by the first game.’
Fast forward exactly 35 years – and 16 league titles, 15 domestic cup wins and seven European trophies later – nobody could escape the appellation of ‘Fergie’.
Legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson turns 80-years-old on New Year’s Eve this year
Sportsmail hears stories from those who worked under the Manchester United legend
Speaking to players and coaches who worked under the Scot during his career, as Ferguson celebrates his 80th birthday on New Year’s Eve, everyone was immediately impacted by the iconic Scot within a few weeks of meeting him.
‘He was not quite a friend, but someone you could trust,’ Louis Saha tells Sportsmail while recalling his first meeting with Ferguson after signing for Manchester United from Fulham in 2004.
The striker found out how quickly Ferguson could turn, however. And that’s when the infamous ‘hairdryer’ treatment kicked in.
Ferguson was known for his ‘hairdyer’ treatment which saw him lambast his own players
Saha got his first taste of it just two games into his United career. It was February 2004, the French striker netted twice in the first-half away at Everton – but missed two sitters to further extend United’s 3-0 half-time lead.
During the interval, Fergie came for the striker. ‘He was really on my case and lashed out,’ Saha recounts. ‘I barely understood his accent! I entered another dimension of management about what the result means. I realised I had to do more.’
Mikael Silvestre was another player who felt Fergie’s wrath just two games into his working relationship with the Scot. ‘The first one: you’re f*****d,’ he tells Sportsmail.
The French defender made an error which cost United two points at home to Southampton, giving the ball away on the edge of his own box and Matt Le Tissier scored to earn the Saints a 3-3 draw.
‘If you do that again, I’ll send you back to France,’ is what Ferguson told Silvestre in the changing room after that 1999 encounter.
Louis Saha (left) and Mikael Silvestre (right) both got the hairdryer treatment after two games
Fergie hairdryer treatment looks, from the outset, a dictatorial tactic used to instil fear into his players. In fact, it turned out to be the perfect mind game to instil order and on-pitch discipline – but also bring the best out of his players.
‘You progress when you have the hairdryer,’ Silvestre says. ‘Most of the time he will be right, even when he was wrong! In the end you get better. So the players that took it well, reacted – and made sure it wouldn’t happen again.’
‘It was done in such a way that I understood it, Saha adds. ‘If you shout at senior players like (Ryan) Giggs or Roy Keane, it means a youngster can get a b******ing as well!
Saha (left) felt that the tough love from Ferguson (right) made everyone improve as players
‘He just wanted me to progress and I could take on those things within a group or individually. I was eager to improve and took the hairdryer treatments as a blessing.’
While it came infamous at Man United, Fergie was using mind game tactics – such as the hairdryer – from the very first moment he stepped into Aberdeen. Within days of starting at Pittodrie, the Scot signed a host of players from former club St Mirren, telling the existing Dons players that the new signings were better than them.
‘I think that was to wind us up – and it worked,’ Garner claims. ‘He got the best out of us because he was comparing us with players that we didn’t think were as good as us. It was deliberate.
‘Then when we got on a good run and became very successful, the team got more and more confident as well. He did that his whole career – he knew the buttons to press and he knew how they were going to react.
Ferguson also lambasted his Aberdeen players in the same way between 1978 and 1986
‘I remember he always said: “You’ve got to deal with the monster. If you can’t deal with the monster, then you can’t deal with anything else.” And that time he was the monster. If you can deal with him, then you can deal with going to places like Celtic Park and Ibrox.’
Only once did the Aberdeen players feel the full wrath of Fergie that many experienced at United. The Dons beat Rangers 1-0 in the 1983 Scottish Cup final in extra-time, just three days after beating Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in Gothenburg.
Despite Eric Black netting four minutes from the end of extra-time to seal a dramatic win, Ferguson was not happy. He told a post-match TV interview that his players’ performance was a ‘disgrace’ – and refused to let the players’ wives back on the team bus heading to the party.
Ferguson publicly slammed his Dons side that won the 1983 Scottish Cup final against Rangers
That event was unique as it brought about a rare moment from those who worked with Ferguson – an apology.
‘He lambasted the players,’ Garner remembers. ‘They didn’t like that but they could see he was just a winner. If the performance wasn’t good and you still won the game, he was going to tell you.
‘It’s the mentality of being a winner and you’re always to follow people like that. He doesn’t really apologise, but later on he did say his choice of words weren’t right. The players were a bit sickened by that, but it was then forgotten.’
Aberdeen’s opponents also got the full whack of Fergie’s mind games. Three years after the Rangers win, the Dons were in another cup final against Hearts – who had thrown away the league title on the final day of the season to Celtic the week before.
Fergie (right) managed to rile up Hearts players like Sandy Jardine (left) before the 1986 Scottish Cup final
The Edinburgh club hired a sports psychologist for that week to help the Jam Tarts players to get over it – but Ferguson found out.
‘He made sure we planted it right back in their heads,’ Garner remembers. ‘He made sure that we arrived at Hampden Park first and then he got all the boys in the dressing room.
‘He said: “Right, we’re going up to the foyer and when Hearts arrive, every single one of you pick out a player and just walk up and say ‘Unlucky last week.'”
‘They were trying to get last week out their heads! The Hearts guys thought: “Oh, thanks for that!” We scored within four minutes and beat them 3-0.
‘I was working with him as his assistant right up with him to that cup final and I had no idea about the psychologist. It’s something that we had and he thought: “how could we get one up on these people?” He was thinking about everything.’
Ferguson would go on to rile up iconic coaches like Kevin Keegan (above) and Arsene Wenger
Ten years later, Ferguson would perform his greatest mind trick of all as Manchester United manager, by forcing Kevin Keegan into a frenzy as his Newcastle side went for the title.
The infamous ‘I will love it if we beat them’ speech was deemed the turning point in the title race that saw the Magpies throw away a 12-point lead at the top of the table as the Premier League trophy head back to Old Trafford again.
Premier League titles: 13
Champions League trophies: 2
European Cup Winners Cups: 2
FA Cups: 5
League Cups: 4
Scottish Premier League titles: 3,
Scottish Cups: 4
Scottish League Cups: 1
Scottish First Division titles: 1
Club World Cups: 1
Intercontinental Cups: 1
Super Cups: 2
Community Shields: 10
‘He’s pressed a button and Kevin’s reacted to it,’ Garner claims. ‘He was masterful at it. He’s had a dig at loads of people – him and Arsene Wenger had a to and fro, (Rafa) Benitez too.’
The media were not exempt from Fergie’s mind games. At Aberdeen, he refused to give the main Glasgow press any interviews from him or his players over the phone – they had to make the 400-mile round trip to show they cared enough.
They definitely made the effort when the Dons won three Scottish league titles, four Scottish Cups and two European trophies under Ferguson’s stewardship. ‘Unprecedented for a provincial club,’ Garner speaks of that achievement. ‘You had to be very successful to do that.’
In Manchester, Ferguson’s relationship with the media was similar. ‘Unless it was a north-west friendly media, the guys coming up from London were kept at arms length,’ says former Sky Sports tunnel reporter Nick Collins to Sportsmail.
Collins, who preceded Geoff Shreeves as Sky’s top-flight touchline interviewer, had only one hairdryer moment with Fergie during his many years working with him.
When United drew 0-0 to Aston Villa on New Year’s Day in January 1997, the Scot slammed Collins to his face for approaching man-of-the-match Roy Keane for a post-match interview without his permission.
Collins recalls: ‘Whether he thought “you’re going against my orders” or whether he just wanted a scapegoat but he came at me, pointing and shouting with all sorts of industrious language. I’m no wallflower but this was a real vicious tirade!
‘He tried to manage the media in the same way he managed this team, he wanted to rule with an iron fist at times when he couldn’t.’
Sky Sports reporter Nick Collins also recalls the tough treatment he got from Ferguson (above)
But Silvestre takes Collins’ description one step further. ‘It’s like an iron fist in a velvet glove,’ he says. ‘Because people only see the hairdryer and the aggressive nature but most of the time he was fair, gentle and funny.’
Everyone who worked at Ferguson’s Manchester United has described it as a family. It was Ferguson at the top, with his PA Lyn Laffin – who passed away last year – alongside him.
‘He was the father figure and she was like a mother towards us,’ Silvestre adds. ‘He made sure that she was taking care of us.’
From the very first moment Silvestre stepped through the Old Trafford doors, he had the support of Ferguson and Laffin both on and off the pitch.
United’s former players insist Ferguson had a lighter side and was more than the hairdryer
‘My wife and I – she was my girlfriend at the time – rented a place where the heating system was too noisy. He said: “Just move, we’ll find you another place. Don’t worry.”
‘But when you sign for a flat for six months or a year, it’s not easy to get out of it. But he and the club helped. It’s a small example but it helps your everyday life – sleeping is important!’
Saha felt that support too. ‘He’s not just about the hairdryer,’ he adds. ‘He loves his family, loves all his players and was always joking.
‘He joked with 15-year-olds in the academy – how could you do that when you’re like a grandfather to him?’
The Scot was able to interact with players of all ages, from the first-team to the youth sides
A crestfallen Saha, who struggled with injuries during his Old Trafford spell, went into Ferguson’s office after yet another hamstring injury – and apologised to his manager for getting injured.
Such is the respect that Ferguson instilled on his players, they felt being unavailable for matches – through no fault of their own – was a way of letting him down.
‘I felt really down, it was the sixth or seventh time I got injured. I knocked on his door and I was heartbroken. I went into his office and asked him to treat me as a rookie and play in the reserves.’
‘He made me feel alive again within one minute,’ he adds – as Ferguson and his assistant Carlos Queiroz put him on a two-week programme to get him back up to speed. ‘He showed loyalty and all those words really hit me at the right place.’
Saha (left) revealed Ferguson (right) made him carry on his career positively after injury woes
Ultimately, everyone who worked at Old Trafford was treated with respect, from the £250,000-a-week star to the canteen ladies working in the kitchen.
‘To earn respect, you have to give respect and he would treat everybody the same,’ remembers Silvestre. ‘He would value everybody’s work – it doesn’t matter if you’re working in the canteen or you’re Wayne Rooney, he treated everybody the same, good or bad.’
‘Sometimes managers disregard the staff,’ Saha adds. ‘They think they are bigger and they don’t say hello to those guys. It was completely the opposite.
‘He said hello to everyone: the cleaner, kitchen staff, the manager, the players, their families and kids. As players, we would have to act the same way or you’re out. He was an example as a manager, coach but also a man.’
Ferguson respected everyone who worked for the club and made his players, like Rio Ferdinand (middle) do the same
And the media would get to see the lighter side of Ferguson too. When a floor manager in one of Sky Sports’ production teams suffered a heart attack, the Manchester United manager was one of the first people to send him a message.
‘He’s the ultimate control freak,’ says Collins. ‘But beyond the facade there’s a human heart beating there.’
That human heart embraced popular culture, particularly from the United States, which he brought into his role as a football manager.
The main image in his Manchester United office was the iconic ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’ snapshot showing workers high overlooking the New York skyline in the 1930s.
‘It’s there for a reason,’ Silvestre remembers. ‘That’s the skill you need in any business, especially when it’s yours.
‘You need to be working harder than anyone else, even when you’re the boss. That’s what he did all his life and that’s why he was so successful.’
Silvestre (left) told Sportsmail how hard work was key to Ferguson’s (right) life at Man United
Ferguson also believed America’s 20th century western movies – most notably ‘High Moon’, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance’ and ‘The Searchers’ – were able to teach moral lessons in life and in sport, while his appreciation of the ‘Laurel and Hardy’ comedy duo was well-known.
But despite that traditional side to Ferguson, he knew how to move on with the times. His backroom staff would change constantly.
Archie Knox moved on so Garner came in. Knox came back and joined Ferguson in Manchester but added the likes of Mike Phelan, Queiroz, Walter Smith and Eric Black – people he knew would make a difference.
That trust in several coaches helped him evolve into the long-serving manager he became – so when Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez replaced the likes of Sir Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness as title rivals, Ferguson was ready.
The Scot would always change his backroom staff in order to carry on evolving his team
‘He changed the formula and understood football moved on,’ Saha recalls. ‘With Wenger and Mourinho coming in with different philosophies, he knew he needed something different.
‘He knew he could not have everything, but you need humility, a team, different people and a different project at different times.
‘He was on the ball every time, he wanted to improve, he wanted to know and he transmitted that on his team.’
Silvestre, now running his own agency, Talent Lyfe, claims: ‘He had the capacity to delegate and give the first-team coach and the staff a lot of responsibility and time to implement what they are here for and what they want to do.
‘Every time he changed, it was good. To survive for 26 years, he wouldn’t have been able to do that had he kept the same staff.’
That traditionalism – combined with a knowledge of how to move forward – was accompanied with a complete fascination, dedication and obsession to football.
Aberdeen icon Garner knows that better than most. After leaving Pittodrie as a player in 1981, he returned three years later to become Fergie’s assistant – thereby becoming part of a select group to play for him and become a member of his backroom staff.
Willie Garner (middle row, third left) played under Ferguson (far right) then became his No 2
‘He knew the game, there was no doubt about that,’ Garner claims. ‘When you start working with him, you really find out how good he was.
‘It didn’t matter if it was a Monday or a Friday night, if there was a game on in England or Scotland or Europe then you had to go and watch it. It wasn’t a 9-5 job working with him, but it was the most enjoyable.
‘As his assistant, I ended up in a car with him travelling four nights a week. He would turn up at my house in his big Mercedes and then I had to drive.
‘Within ten minutes, he’d be sleeping. Within an hour, he’d be awake and then the rest – just talking football for the next X numbers of hours. He’s asking “What do you think about this? What would you think about that? What would you do here or there?”
‘You couldn’t really buy that experience, sitting there and having a conversation with him. If you put it in a can, you’d sell it for quite a bit of money.’
Ferguson was known for his passion for watching football – a desire he still holds today
Even though Ferguson has been away from football for eight years now, he still holds that dedication to the game. Saha met up with the Scot last year at United’s Carrington training base in a meeting with former boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and confirmed that.
The Frenchman says: ‘He’s like a kid, he enjoys life and football is a massive part of him. He’s still watching Championship games, looking at every name of players and how they behave at the weekend.’
The word ‘humility’ comes up a lot when speaking to those who used to work with him. And it’s pretty clear that the most successful manager in football still referred himself to the Govan boy who grew up in the docklands.
‘In pre-season he was taking a shower with us,’ says Silvestre. ‘He started telling us about the first time he had a nice steak with his brother Martin, after he made enough money doing football.
‘When you’re playing for Man United with the money you’re making and he’s telling you about the first time he could order a real nice steak, it put everything into perspective.’
Ferguson was described as a humble individual as he achieved football’s impossible mission
‘He’s got immense humility,’ says Saha, who – like Silvestre – runs his own company Axis Stars. ‘It gave him right balance between having talent and power, and that kindness – knowing the people, respecting the people understanding what they need and creating that platform for them.
‘To be that good with 30 players and the academy players, plus knowing the family members, it’s an impossible mission.’
That indeed is true – and it’s probably why the tune ‘Impossible Dream’ came through the speakers when Ferguson waved goodbye to the Old Trafford dugout for the final time in 2013.
Nobody could have done it the way he did, and perhaps nobody can repeat it again.