Earlier this week, Sir Alex Ferguson announced he’s retiring after 27 years as manager of the world’s most-famous club, Manchester United. In March 2012, Ferguson sat for a wide-ranging interview with Philippe Auclair for Issue Four of the Blizzard—the Football Quarterly. That interview is reprinted in full below. Slate recommends investing in a subscription to the Blizzard—a pay-what-you-like hard copy subscription also entitles you to free digital downloads of each issue. You can also pre-order Issue Nine, which will be released on June 3.
“How do you interview Alex Ferguson?” That was the question I’d been asking myself over and over since, more than a year after I’d submitted a hopeful request to the Manchester United press office, I’d been informed that I should present myself at the Carrington training ground on a given Friday—barely after dawn, it seemed. Sir Alex is an early bird, one of those napoleons for whom a six-hour stretch in bed is a lie-in. He’d more or less given up on one-to-ones by then. His weekly press briefings, uttered in a Scottish drawl that was barely audible from the back of the press room, could send occasional visitors into a funk. If to sit down with him was a privilege, of course, to prepare for the occasion was an ordeal. Memo to self: Ask questions that haven’t been put to him a thousand times before. Make sure you remember Aberdeen’s Cup-Winners’ Cup-winning starting XI. Pick a cab driver who won’t take you to City’s training ground instead. When it starts, don’t sit there, gasping like yesterday’s catch on the fishmonger’s slab. Don’t mess it up, for goodness’ sake.
Not one player of Ferguson’s squad had yet parked his car in front of the entrance to the Carrington complex when Manchester United’s then-press officer Diana Law took me to the room where the interview would take place. The coffee I’d been given tasted like an infusion of ashes; mine, probably. Then He walked in, all smiles, fresh from his morning’s work-out in the club gym, bursting with energy and, yes, geniality. Perhaps his eye had caught the bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin 1er cru I’d brought along as a peace offering on the advice of my France Football colleague Marc Beaugé, a United fan who’d made it his Christmas custom to send a bottle of the best to the great man. Or perhaps it was the penchant he didn’t hide towards the Gallic half of the Auld Alliance, the land of Burgundy wine but also of Eric Cantona. Or perhaps Alex Ferguson just loves talking about football. In any case, the man who spoke to me for close to an hour, not checking the face of his watch once, couldn’t have been more amenable, more charming and more willing to provide copy to his questioner.
Your autobiography was entitled Managing My Life—but didn’t quite explain how you did it—how you managed to live with the pressure of being the manager of the most famous club in the world. ... How do you do it?
Possibly, the fact that I’ve been here for [so long] has helped. When I first came, the club was not as big as it is now, so, therefore, I’ve integrated many things over the years. I seem to be able to cope because of everything that’s brought me to this point—to the point it becomes normal.
Do you have to behave like people in a submarine who close ballast after ballast ... [he laughs] ... and compartmentalise their lives, making sure you can switch off from one area to move to the next?
What I do—the reason why I have survived—is that I’m able to get to that state of ... vacuum, where I can dismiss everything. You understand? What people say to me becomes peripheral, because I believe I, and everyone else, need “thinking time,” that escapism which enables you to think. If you don’t have that time to think, the whole day will catch up with you, so ... take today. I was here at five to seven, I spent 45 minutes in the gymnasium, then I started my meetings with my staff with a clear mind, football-wise. Normally, I’d be with my staff right now, but we have a free day today—the players have a day off. So I’ll go through all my non-football meetings this morning, then concentrate on the football. I have always done that— evacuate things, then concentrate on the football. Then comes the football issues. They can be quite diverse: youth football, reserve football, to the first team, and there’s always some issues to take care of, in every department. I have hands-on control over all that. Now, what I’ve found over the years, there is the delegation part, which is vital to me now, because [of my] age, I can’t go careering around doing all things, you know. I have a very, very good staff who get on with their jobs, and all I need to do is be an overseer of that, to make sure it is working properly. But, going back to that “release,” the mental side is so important, because, by thinking, by getting time to think, you’re able to be alone ... sometimes, as a manager, you are alone, and I’m quite happy being alone, by myself, so I have time to think. There are some times I’m in my office in the afternoon, I’ve done all my work, I’m looking out the window—and I’m thinking, and it’s great to think. And no-one goes through that door for an hour, because they think I’m busy! You know what I mean? [laughs] It’s a strange situation sometimes ...
Can you ever live in the present? Can you actually take the time to savour what is happening in front of you on the pitch?
Erm ... [long pause] ... I think it’s more difficult. The media make it more difficult. I don’t think the media are actually that interested in what happens in a game of football. I think they’re more interested in what’s happened after the match, what the coach’s opinion is of this defeat, or this victory, the profile of the stars, rather than the semantics of the football match itself. I find it a wee bit disappointing, because, when you get down and talk about the actual game, sometimes, it’s far more interesting ... the visiting manager will pop in my office and have a drink, and we can talk about the game—what happened in the match—in a rational, controlled way, which is fantastic. You don’t get that a lot, which is a disappointment, because it is far better to discuss what happened during the game than [what happened] after it.
When you were playing with Rangers, did you already know you wanted to be a manager? At what point did you discover your vocation?
The minute I became a full-time professional footballer, I was going to become a manager. I’d served my apprenticeship as a toolmaker in a typewriter factory. When I completed my apprenticeship, at the age of 21, I worked one year as a tradesman, and the opportunity to go for football full-time came then. At 22 years of age, I made up my mind that I was going to go completely for it. That meant that, the year after I became a professional footballer, I went for a B-Licence at coaching, and, at 24, I got my full badge. So, every year thereafter, until I became a manager, I went to coaching seminars—every summer.
Were you already playing like a future manager, picking up tips about tactics and so on when you were playing?
Yes, I was doing a bit of that! When I got older, some former players recalled that I was always up at the blackboard, discussing tactics, you know. And they thought it was very boring of course ... “what a bloody nuisance” and so on [laughs]. ... I did this because I took a deep interest in it, because I knew this was my career now, I wanted to stay in it. I saw things and thought to myself, “I would have done this, I wouldn’t have done that,” and, “I hope I get a chance. In the same situation, would I be making the same mistakes, would I go a certain way in terms of training, preparation ...?” Take an example. People talk about diet. I became a manager at 32, in a small team, East Stirling. There were eight players when I first went—and no goalkeeper. So I took on free transfers, players out of contract to build up a squad of 13-14 players. After a few weeks, we were doing very well, and we were playing a local derby against Falkirk, of which I’d been player-coach before that ... so I went to the board and said, “I want to take the team for lunch this Saturday.” And they said [horrified voice], “Oh no, we can’t afford that.” I said, “I’ll pay for it.” It came to £24; that was in 1974. I went up to the hotel on the Friday morning and told them what I wanted—a lemon sole, toast and honey. And they looked at me as if I’d holes in my head. “What? No potatoes, no soup?” I said, “Nothing. Lemon sole, grilled, no butter, maybe a little bit of oil, honey, toast, tea, and water.” The players arrived, sat down ... what the fuck’s this? [laughs] I said, “Just eat it. You’ve probably had a fried breakfast this morning anyway, so eat it. I did that as a player. That’s all it took. Years later, the players would have porridge oats the day before the run, then pasta came into it, carbohydrates, protein, all these things, but I was thinking about these things way back in 1974. My ideas about preparation of the players were already in place. I did the same at Aberdeen. They used to have fillet steak before the game. A fillet steak takes two hours to digest—I put a stop to that. They didn’t like it, they missed their steak—who doesn’t like a steak? But this is the kind of thought process I had to have. In a sense, I’ve been a manager since I was 24 years old.