Campbell: If Gordon Was a Footballer, Where Would He Play? Ferguson: Central Midfield. Campbell: Tony? Ferguson: Striker
Read, Steve, New Statesman (1996)
Alex Ferguson and Alastair Campbell have been friends for many years. One is the greatest manager in British football history, who has a passion for politics. The other helped Labour win three successive election victories, and has a passion for football. As Campbell's diaries showed, he and the Manchester United manager speak regularly-about politics, sport, pressure, the ups and downs of living with the 24-hour media, and a shared obsessiveness about winning. In the week after Campbell agreed to be guest editor of the New Statesman, as Sir Alex prepared at the team hotel in London before the Carling Cup Final, we asked them to allow us to eavesdrop on one of their conversations
Alastair Campbell: This is primarily a political magazine, so let's kick off with politics, and we'll come to the stuff people are really interested in later. On a scale of one to ten, how political do you think you are?
Alex Ferguson: Well, I guess I'd have to be a ten on football. Football has been the big thing in my life for so long. In this job, it is in your mind all the time. There is so much you have to focus on. With politics, I'm interested in it, I follow it, I read political history and I have strong political views. So I would say around seven and a half. It's probably the other way round for you, isn't it?
AC: Not this year, it's not.
AF: That's true, Burnley have had a hell of a season. It should have been a United-Burnley final tomorrow.
AC: Don't remind me. Losing the semi-final was absolute torture. Where do you think your politics come from?
AF: My background and my upbringing. My dad was on the left, and so were most people where I came from. I grew up in a very working-class area of Glasgow and I was always very conscious of the sense of community, people and families supporting each other. I grew up believing Labour was the party of the working man, and I still believe that. Then, when I was working in the shipyards on Clydeside, I realised how important it was that people had proper representation and I got involved as a shop steward in the union. I led an unofficial walkout over pay. There was another thing that politicised me even more as an adult, and that was when my mother was dying in November 1986, just a couple of weeks after I took over at United. She was at the Southern General in Glasgow, and it was absolutely dreadful, cladding hanging off the pipes, doctors and nurses overworked, and so little dignity attached to it. All my life I've seen Labour as the party working to get better health care for ordinary people, and the Tories really only caring about the people at the top. The NHS is definitely better after 12 years of Labour.
AC: You've come a long way since then, though, and your success has coincided with the TV explosion and the introduction of phenomenal wealth into football, so you're seriously rich compared to most of the people you grew up with. Is it possible to have that wealth and still hold those political views?
AF: Of course it is. I still keep in touch with friends from those days, and I always will. It's true I've earned a lot of money. But I've worked hard, pay my taxes and put a lot back in different ways. I think part of Tony Blair's success as a leader was showing success and Labour could go together.
AC: What do you think politics and sport can learn from each other?
AF: I think you can learn something about your own world from anyone else's. I read a lot of history, and in most history books there won't be a mention of sport, but there are always insights you can learn. Like that book you sent me last summer, the one about Abraham Lincoln ...
AC: Team of Rivals.
AF: Yes, my God, what a brilliant book. I read it on holiday and even though it was so long, I couldn't get enough of it. And of course the big story was slavery and the civil war, but what was fascinating was how he held together all these big personalities, the ones who had tried to stop him becoming president, to make sure they stayed roughly on the same track. …