By Kelly, Stephen
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 126, No. 4355
When Labour was looking for a bit of star quality in April to pep up its election campaign, someone at Millbank Towers made a phone call to, of all people, a football manager. That man was Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United. Ferguson was happy to answer Labour's call, and chucked in some free advice: "Just keep going on the things that matter - jobs, schools, hospitals, crime - and hold your nerve".
Ferguson is a unique figure in football, a bridge between the generation that spawned Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein, great managers who had grown up in the pit villages where adversity bred backbone; and the generation of young, Armani-suited, superstar bosses such as Ruud Gullit, Kenny Dalglish and Kevin Keegan.
A man of old-fashioned trade-union instincts, Ferguson has had to come to terms with a fast-changing world. Unlike Tony Blair, he has not always been a proselytiser for overthrowing the old and taking risks with the new. He loathed the Premiership when it was created, calling it "a piece of nonsense". But he's made the most of it. As for Sky: "It sells supporters right down the river and hits hardest at the most vulnerable part of society, the old." Yet he's grown to appreciate United's exposure on the small screen and the millions the coverage has poured into the club's coffers.
He probably doesn't like over-priced replica kits, nor executive boxes, nor "plc". But Ferguson is a pragmatist, adept at recognising the need to move on and make the most of it. Perhaps his closest political parallel is with John Prescott.
Ferguson has a sure and instinctive populist touch. He's comfortable in just about any company, whether it's a bunch of deprived inner-city kids in Govan or the likes of Sir Richard Greenbury, chairman of Marks & Spencer, with whom he dines regularly. Greenbury is lavish in his praise of Ferguson, calling him the "best man-manager" he's ever come across.
There's a story that illustrates the claim, which Ferguson is fond of telling, about how he dealt with some errant apprentices at Aberdeen. One of the club's landladies called him to complain about the behaviour of some of the young lads. "Do you know," she said, "last night they were playing hide and seek around the house."
"Hide and seek!" bellowed an astonished Ferguson. "Are you sure?"
Ferguson brought the apprentices into the manager's office, but none was up to admitting anything. Ferguson picked out the most honest-looking and confronted him alone. Under pressure the lad owned up: yes, they had been larking around.
"Right then," Ferguson told all three, "if you are going to play childish games at your age, then I shall give you a suitable punishment. I want each of you to memorise a nursery rhyme and recite it here for me tomorrow morning."
It was classic Ferguson psychology, of which he is clearly proud: subtle punishment without getting the crime out of proportion. Above all it highlights his ability in dealing with players, especially youngsters, with whom he seems to have a natural rapport. No doubt bringing up three boys of his own has helped. He enjoys being with the apprentices: it allows him not just to hone their footballing skills but also to shape their attitudes according to his own strict working-class upbringing. Since Ferguson's arrival at Old Trafford in 1986, Manchester United's players are always smart, always have their feet firmly on the ground and aren't spotted drunk in night clubs.
Ferguson was born in Govan two years into the second world war. His father worked in the local shipyard, his mother looked after the family. For Alex football was a sideline: at 16 he began an apprenticeship as a toolmaker at the Remington Rand typewriter factory in Hillington. It wasn't until three years later that the game offered him a full-time career. Working in Glasgow inevitably meant a schooling in trade unionism. "Trade unionism was an integral part of the community," his old pal Jimmy Reid explains. …