How Sir Alex Ferguson became the greatest winner in Britain

How Sir Alex Ferguson became the greatest winner in Britain

This feature is part of The Masterminds

Something was clearly not right. Although his voice began calmly enough, an unusually anxious Kevin Keegan began stuttering, struggling to find the right words as his finger began jabbing towards the camera, punctuating his fluctuating responses. All season long his great entertainers had danced and driven their way into the heart of every neutral with a thrillingly fluid brand of gung-ho football, but their manager was suddenly falling to pieces in front of the whole country.

To the casual observer, it would have seemed plausible enough if his Newcastle United team had just lost a key match, but they had won a pulsating battle against a Leeds side who had hit the woodwork twice before Keith Gillespie’s early headed winner. Before going on camera, the usually upbeat former European Player of the Year had a quick word with Terry McDermott where he had reassured his assistant that he was just going to present a solid united front, but unable to contain his frustrations that had been simmering for months, he finally caved in. A startled Richard Keys and Andy Gray were barely able to believe the spectacular implosion they were witnessing from the Sky Sports studio.

The root of his rapidly rising consternation was not based on the pitch, however. Well, not exactly; prior to the now infamous live TV interview, the integrity of his opponents had been openly questioned by the man masterminding the most improbable of comebacks, Sir Alex Ferguson. With Nottingham Forest having lost to Manchester United the day before Keegan’s stunning post-match destruction but due to play Newcastle a few days later, Ferguson suggested publicly that the UEFA Cup-chasing Midlanders might exert less effort against Newcastle simply because they weren’t Manchester United. That Keegan took the bait so completely is all the more remarkable given the comprehensive 5-0 thrashing that Stuart Pearce and his Forest teammates had succumbed to against the Mancunians, but is also a sign of the insatiable psychological campaign that had been waged all season by the wily Scot.

Many have tried, most have failed, and very few at all have begun to comprehend the sheer complexity and scale of the mental battle that Ferguson made his trademark ever since he took his first step into management over 40 years ago. Rafa Benítez launched a tirade about “facts” in January 2009 to counter Ferguson’s claims of fixture favouritism towards United’s rivals, mentioning the phrase “mind games” three times, despite his Liverpool side sitting four points clear of their great rivals. Although Fernando Torres ran rings around Nemanja Vidić in a stunning 4-1 demolition at Old Trafford in March, the immediate aftermath of Benítez’s extraordinary press conference made his claims that United were nervous seem hollow at best.

‘Mind games’ is the phrase bandied around today, as if it is almost a grown-up type of child’s play, but Ferguson most certainly wasn’t playing. Where others may have attempted to create a vortex of carefully stage-managed psychological warfare to gain an advantage over rivals, his utterances were borne out of a steadfast belief in his cause. His greatness has been built around his ability to use and manipulate the power of belief to wean every ounce of potential out of players, and every ounce of fear and respect out of opponents.

Unlike many iconic managers, his groundbreaking success wasn’t influenced primarily from his specific style of play, but by pure brute force of character. His approach hasn’t always been met with approval, while circumstance and a fair amount of fortune has often contrived to provide him with the stage he has required to weave his brand of magic. But make no mistake, every one of his 50 club trophies and more than 80 personal awards and honours were prised from the grasp of his competitors through the power of his utterly unshakeable self-confidence.

Where did this steely determination and belief come from? Like many successful figures in the sport, he had a working-class background, but that alone is but a slim portion of the makeup of his managerial career. As a striker, he made his name in the Scottish game, not for pure natural talent but through grit, aggression and unparalleled determination.

The fee of £65,000 paid by Glasgow Rangers for his services, whom he had supported as a boy despite his father’s passion for their eternal enemies Celtic, made him the most expensive transfer in Scottish football history in 1967, but once there he had to scrap for every minute of playing time. Even into his eighth decade, he was known to spend 14 hours a day at the training ground or in his office, while his wife Cath joked upon his consideration of retiring in 2001 that she wouldn’t have him around the house.

While this work ethic did mirror that of his father, who grafted in the Govan shipyards for over 40 years despite recovering from bowel cancer in 1961, his interpretation of hard work always went further than just grafting to earn a living. Alex Senior had coaxed him to enjoy his football from a young age, when he roared criticism to his elder son and to Martin using only their common surnames, which instilled a strict obedience and familial loyalty that would never be shaken.

This drive was very nearly spent on an entirely different career had it not been for a tongue lashing from his mother after a tough period of his early playing days. A bright schoolboy career led to an amateur debut at the age of 16 with Queen’s Park, where he scored on his debut, and although he went on to score a goal every other game, he moved on after three seasons to St. Johnstone. He again struggled to maintain a first-team place despite continuing his impressive scoring rate at the now-demolished Muirton Park and was on the verge of giving up on a career as a footballer following a serious injury in a reserve game against Airdrie.

Upon his return to the pitch, the reserve side lost three consecutive matches conceding 24 goals, which was the final straw for Ferguson, prompting him to file papers for emigration to Canada. “On the Friday, my brother’s girlfriend phoned my manager at St