by Hugh MacDonald

Wee Yin and Big Yang

October 28, 2009 | by Hugh MacDonald

THE TITLE OF Greatest Living Scots-man has fallen into parlous disrepair since the days of Hume and Carlyle or even Reith and Fleming. It may be time to restore the competition to its former glory. And the best, most typically Scottish way to begin is with an argument. There will be those who make claims for Gor-don Brown, but surely he is a Granita cheese-eating prime minister manqué? There will be supporters of Sean Connery. But he won his Oscar playing an Irishman. Badly. The world of arts may press the claims of Alasdair Gray or James MacMillan, but while their talents are huge their support is shamefully narrow.

And this is where the argument begins. . . and ends. The only contender is Alex Fergu-son, peer of the realm and the Govan boy who done good. Football is the new black, the new rock n roll and the new mass medium. The only Scot who is a major player on Planet Football plc is Oor Eck.

And he is indisputably ours.

Ferguson is Scottish in his accent, his concerns, in his faults and in his strengths.

He is often carnaptious but seldom fly. He is often unduly aggressive but often unbelievably generous. He tilts at the big names but remembers the little people. He can be the epitome of the very Scottish, classically Presbyterian wrathful God. He can, too, be charmingly human in his foibles.

What then makes him The Greatest Living Scotsman? Break the title down.

His greatness is a given. Ferguson has taken Manchester United from creaking, drink-sodden disorder to a top-of-the-world game. The squad has won everything that matters under his command. He is the leading figure at the biggest club in the world. Yet his achievements at Aberdeen are more astonishing still. During Ferguson’s reign Aberdeen routinely beat the Old Firm and threw in for a flourish victories against Bay-ern Munich and Real Madrid in a successful European Cup Winners Cup campaign.

The fact that he is living can hardly be contested, particularly by those such as Sven-Goran Eriksson who have been singed by the great man’s fury.

But what about this exile’s Scottishness? This is the key to understanding Ferguson. It is revealed not in television interviews, though his accent provides a clue to his origins. And it is only touched upon in newspaper interviews or profiles.

Books provide the key to trapping the wraith and the wrath of Ferguson and placing him as a product of a very particular Scot-land.

The biographies and autobiography, though, can not be definitive. This is a multifaceted, difficult man who cannot be explained away. He can only be described. Michael Crick’s The Boss is a forensic indictment of Ferguson. It makes the usual mouth music concerning Ferguson’s football greatness but then looks at his shortcomings. Crick is mostly concerned with temper, resentment and Ferguson’s eye for cash. It is an unvarnished account of a traditional Scot on the make.

Bernard Bale’s The Fergie Legacy is softer, more judicious. This is a carefully written account of Ferguson’s career and the effect he has had on the new generation of football managers. Gordon Strachan, Alex McLeish, Bryan Robson, Mark McGhee, Eric Black, Neale Cooper, Steve Bruce and many other coaches played under Ferguson. They are gracious in their acknowledgments to Fergu-son but only rarely acute on his faults. Bale does, though, place Ferguson surely in the Scottish football world where everybody knows everybody, but only on a superficial level.

The most revealing account of Ferguson’s life is his autobiography with Hugh McIlvanney, Managing My Life. It is Scottish in its tone and Caledonian in its concerns. It reveals what is important to Ferguson and who and what are not.

It reinforces impressions formed by watching Ferguson in action. I have only met the great man twice. Once was at a dinner in The Herald boardroom. (I was there to deliver the first edition.) He was charmingly civil and drily witty. The second time was at a press conference to launch the autobiography. This occasion was slightly more fraught. He had been severely critical of Strachan, a one-time player and confidante, and Brian Kidd, his former assistant at United. I asked if he had any regrets about that criticism. The temperature seemed to drop a few degrees in the hotel suite as my fellow journalists anticipated a blast from Ferguson. It did not come. He answered the question with a straightforward sincerity. The gist was that he wanted to be truthful in the book and that he had simply stated what he felt about various personalities. This very limited access to Ferguson has only served to increase my fascination.

Swimming or, perhaps more accurately, paddling in the shallow pool that is Scottish sports journalism it is impossible not to form an impression of him. Ferguson has been part of Scottish football for at least half a century. He won a schoolboys’ cap at 15 and he will reach pensionable age this year. This career has put him on a collision course with sports journalists. For decades, I stood in the paddock and with a morbid anticipation awaited a shower of flaming debris as Fergu-son fell in and out with colleagues.

Despite the mist of high-flown praise and the fog of tabloid war, his claim to a peculiarly Scottish greatness remained recognisable to those of us who walk these mean streets and vexatious vennels. It is thus possible to draw a portrait of the man by reading both his admirers and his enemies.

There is, surprisingly, unanimity of view. Ferguson is seen as intelligent, funny, loyal, and charming but capable of terrifying anger and vicious retaliation. Supporters laud his generosity of spirit and time. Those who have crossed him curse him for his tenacious ability to hold on to a grudge.

But the key to understanding Ferguson is to know where he came from and to what he aspires. And this, somewhat surprisingly, leads the seeker for the real Ferguson back to books.

Ferguson is a throwback to a Scotland where education mattered and knowledge was seen not as power but as a necessary accessory to any life. Thus Ferguson will display gleefully his general knowledge by snapping out answers to questions on a TV show playing in the background while also carrying on a conversation about the merits of a particular player. More importantly, he has a reverence for books. It is no surprise that his chosen ghostwriter was McIlvanney, a man who shares much of Ferguson’s background both in social terms and in their love for stories and legend. Both, too, have succeeded in England while retaining an almost sentimental view of their homeland. The autobiography (with McIlvanney as amanuensis) was revealing in the passion with which Fer-guson held on to slights and the affection with which he recalled his early days, his family and his home town of Govan.

The truest signposts to the dark interior of Fergieland, however, can be found in his comfortable Cheshire home. Ferguson’s impressive library is stocked with a variety of books, mostly non-fiction. Two subjects dominate: Scottish history and the Kennedy assassination.

They offer the clearest guide to the Fergu-son psyche. He has a deep, personal interest in Scottish history, with the Clearances as his specialist subject. It is born of an uncomplicated nationalism and of Ferguson’s wider feelings about injustice. He is a socialist of the type we Scots breed and understand. He is for the team, for fairness. But he is for the best for all, not least himself with his racehorses and his taste for fine wine. Ferguson’s unseemly battle over the stud rights to his racehorse, Rock of Gibraltar, was driven not just for a desire for money, though the millions accruing are hardly insubstantial. It was about fairness. Ferguson believed he was not getting what he was due. As PG Wodehouse remarked: “It is never difficult to differentiate between a Scotsman with a grievance and ray of sunshine.”

The Kennedy obsession is perhaps more illuminating. Ferguson has always been concerned with conspiracies, particularly those aimed at himself and his team. Some of these theories are absurd. But just because he is paranoid does not mean he is always mistaken. Ferguson has been the victim of a concerted campaign by the London press to remove him from the most glamorous and influential of footballing posts. He is also rightfully livid over England’s cavalier disregard for one OF his company’s major assets, Wayne Rooney, who was the subject of a World Cup gamble by Eriksson.

This is the Greatest Living Scotsman in action. Fuelled by a justified resentment and a feeling of being patronised, Ferguson took on the might of England. He did not send Rooney home to think again, but he provided observers with a grandstand view of two of his personality traits, very Scottish ones. Fer-gie is thrawn. He is also hard. He did not get that rubicund nose eating strawberries; with one whiff he can smell incoming criticism. He lashes out and then lets his victims get on with it. One will not hear Fergie talking on BBC radio or being interviewed by Match of the Day. Nation may speak unto nation but Gary Lineker has nae chance of speaking to Fergie. The casus belli, as Govanites are wont to describe it, is the BBC’s impertinence in questioning the agent activities of his son. Fergie also likes the BBC commentator Alan Green as much as he likes being beaten in the last minute by Liverpool with a disputed penalty.

His love for historical books also reveals that, like all Glasgow hard men, he has a sentimental streak. He has been married to the same woman for 40 years. He regrets not spending more time with his three sons. He adores his grandchildren.

His loyalty knows no bounds. Ferguson will spend time and money on people and causes he believes in. It is hard to dislike a man who still goes on holiday with friends from his youth. Like the best of Scots, he is also mercifully free of any sectarian feeling. He is the product of a marriage between a Protestant and a Catholic, married a Catholic and the only grudge he holds is one against bigotry.

His essential Scottishness is also reflected away from books. It is there in his humour and his drive: the wee yin and the big yang of his personality. The wit is mordantly Glaswegian, used both as a defence and as a devastating attack. He was once berating a player over dithering and losing the ball. The player replied that he did not expect to be tackled. “Where did ye think ye were?” exploded Fer-gie. “The Sahara desert?”

The drive is the key. What makes Fergie run? He must know now that it will be almost impossible to replicate his great successes with Chelsea holding so much financial ammunition and the Glazers, the new lords at Old Trafford, tightening purse strings. Surely, it is time to learn the piano, enjoy his glass of wine and potter in the garden with his grandchildren.

This seems impossible. It would be easier for Fergie to translate the Bible into Sanskrit. He is a product of forces beyond his ken. He is a Scot of the latter half of the Twentieth century. He knows he must work for everything, not to expect things to come easily, to keep something back for a rainy day, to do his best always, never to embarrass his family, to keep his shirt tucked in and to wear clean underwear, because you never know when you might be knocked down by a bus and taken to the infirmary.

He is a paragon of what has been called the Protestant work ethic but it is more accurately described as the Scottish condition. It is in danger of disappearing. And so is Fergu-son. He qualifies for a state pension, at Hog-manay. And when he goes such is the number of tasks that he takes on, no one person can or will replace him at Manchester United. And no one will replace him as a tarnished but distinctive Scottish icon.

The Greatest Living Scotsman? Nae danger. But when will we see his like again?

From this Issue

DIARY

by Tessa Ransford

Wee Yin and Big Yang

by Hugh MacDonald

Blog / Discussion

Rusticated… (II)

by Brian Morton
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