You’ll probably have noticed, given the torrent of coverage, that Alex Ferguson talks about himself in the third person quite a bit in his new book.
David Beckham “thought he was bigger than Alex Ferguson”. Alex Ferguson employed backroom staff who “were 100 per cent Alex Ferguson”. Alex Ferguson looked in the mirror and “put on the Alex Ferguson face”. Alex Ferguson liked to see Alex Ferguson in his teams.
In lesser managers – O’Leary or Keegan or Paolo Di Canio’s Paolo Di Canio – this kind of affectation might be seized upon as a sign of vanity or even weakness; the appointment of a second self to cop the flak.
“Unfortunately, Kevin Keegan isn’t quite up to the job and Kevin Keegan has got to admit that.”
With Alex Ferguson, however, the creation of another Alex Ferguson might well be the one way he can set up a fair fight. The only person to stand a chance in an argument with Alex Ferguson is Alex Ferguson.
And Alex Ferguson knows this well. As he puts it when swatting away the efforts of Rafa Benitez, who emerges, in the book, as his chief irritant of recent times: “The mistake he made was to turn our rivalry personal. Once you made it personal, you had no chance, because I could wait. I had success on my side.”
Ultimately, that monumental stockpile of success brooks no quarrel. So the only person qualified to take Alex Ferguson to task is Alex Ferguson. But there is not much sign of that happening in Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography.
Picking around the tittle-tattle and score-settling in a strangely listless memoir – maybe not so strange given the haste with which the socialist bundled his career for the Christmas market – perhaps one throwaway line, in the course of a warm enough dissection of Arsene Wenger, sums the whole thing up.
“I’m not saying managers see everything, but we see most things, so Arsene’s stock defence after a game of, ‘I didn’t see it’ was not one I used. My preferred line was: ‘I’ll need to look at it again.”
Even when splitting hairs, the parting must be combed to Fergie’s side.
But not necessarily out of his eyes. On one hand, Wenger is criticised for “his weakness” in overlooking his players’ excesses. Yet, at Old Trafford, the same thing is a critical component of the success that justifies everything.
“I always protected my players and Roy was no exception. It was my job. For that reason I can’t apologise for the times I stuck up for them when there were sound reasons to lurch the other way.”
Ah, to Roy.
It will, you imagine, madden Ferguson that Keane, with a shrug and a smirk and a cackling Ian Wright and a neat putdown about loyalty has shaped impressions of his book before most people have read it.
In fact, Ferguson places great emphasis on loyalty in the book – “the starting point for the bond on which great institutions thrive.”
But blue-chip bonds are there to be cashed in. Loyalty played its part in the successes, but eventually loyalty’s legs went too. Loyalty is no Peter Pan.
So Ferguson portrays Keane as a borderline lunatic, who terrified him with his temper and his moods and his “wee black beads” of eyes. And I think we can leave Roy to ably fight his own corner – theirs is a special, two-headed monster of a dispute and no referee would like to get in that ring.
But anyone looking for a roadmap to greatness is taken on a series of these unpleasant detours.
Seemingly for an offence no greater than thinking he was bigger than one of the Alex Fergusons, Becks is cut down to size. The man who “surrendered what he was good at” for fame.
And there is a particularly bitchy chapter on Ruud van Nistelrooy, in which the player who scored 150 goals for him, on the way to some of the successes, is laid bare as a petulant, selfish, trouble-maker who wasn’t all that good anyway.
“At first I believed Ruud’s range of attributes was wider than it turned out to be.”
“You __” yells van Nistelrooy at Ferguson, when he leaves him on the bench in the Carling Cup final.
And here is the response. Ruud made it personal. Ferguson could wait. He had success on his side.
In a way, My Autobiography is a little bit like the Seinfeld finale, 15 years ago, albeit without much trace of the humour. When all the malevolence and selfishness and cynicism that made the show great for so long was put on trial in that final chapter, a lot of people found it a bit much and didn’t like it.
As Roy might say; I just don’t think they needed to do it.
Still, it was one of the most-watched shows in history. And, if success is the measure, Ferguson will be proved right again here too, when this book sells and sells.
But now that he has stopped lifting trophies, most observers fascinated by one of the game’s giants were hoping more for a measure of the man.
Maybe that’s what we’ve got. Maybe Alex Ferguson should have talked Alex Ferguson out of this one.
Originally published in the Irish Examiner