by Kevin McKenna

The Govan Messiah

November 26, 2013 | by Kevin McKenna

The managers of our grandest football institutions must soon be compelled to publish their collected memoirs in the manner of prime ministers, presidents and five-star cabinet secretaries. They would be made aware of this responsibility long before their tenures ended and would be provided with the appropriate paraphernalia. An encrypted Dictaphone would be the least of it. There would be a discreet personal secretary well-schooled in collecting and filing private and public correspondence and a suitably perjink publishing house would supply a permanent editor. As much as possible the manager would be encouraged to write down his own thoughts and remembrances rather than to deploy the dubious skills of an insipid and obsequious football chronicler. Such a semi-official process would ensure that an appropriately significant expanse of time would have elapsed between retirement and publication. Thus memories and opinions would be allowed to breathe and character analysis would bear scrutiny long after the tabloids had scattered their peremptory labels. As such the manager would be advised to delay taking up his UNICEF peace ambassadorship just yet. 

Of course only the memoirs of a gilded few football bosses would be deemed important enough to sit alongside those of such as Thatcher, Benn or Healey. In my own lifetime I can think of no more than seven or eight: Jock Stein, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Bill Nicholson, Alf Ramsay and Don Revie; perhaps Brian Clough and certainly Alex Ferguson. It is easy to become facile and supercilious when attempting to quantify the impact men such as these had on British society let alone the world of sport. One is tempted to say that the influence and reach of each ‘transcended’ the worlds of sport and politics. They are all ‘working class heroes’ who, though lacking in a ‘formal education’ (whatever that is), were possessed of ‘street wisdom’. What we really mean when we discuss their achievements in our salons and on cultural away-days is that of course they’re not as bright as us but they carry a certain appeal for the masses. It’s like expressing wonder at the cognitive behaviour of dolphins or at the tender voices of Millican and Nesbitt, Hughie Green’s singing miners.

Being former footballers themselves, they would thus have been compelled to cancel Maths and English to pursue their dreams of immortality in the Glory Glory Game. So we’ll never know if Stein, Nicholson and Ramsay would have excelled in academia or in company boardrooms although, like many children from working class backgrounds in the immediate post-war era, they would have found it virtually impossible to have accessed either. What we do know is that these men became masters of a skill-set that, in normal life, gets you the top job at Ford Motors or Unilever. Moreover they had to deploy it strategically in an environment more competitive and capricious than the Bolshoi Ballet. The ability to coax magic and consistency from sullen and broken youths while jousting with boardroom hucksters and juggling the supporters’ moonbeams would have taxed even Kissinger or Mandelson and all their sepulchral insinuations and blandishments.

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Along the way they plucked aphorisms from their imaginations which, when collected, might have eclipsed the wit and wisdom of Dorothy Parker. ‘It’s not religion that’s the problem here – it’s the lack of religion,’ Jock Stein once said about Glasgow’s sectarianism. His great friend Bill Shankly needed just two sentences to sum up the Scottish psyche: ‘If you’ve got three Scots in your side, you’ve got a chance of winning something. If you’ve got any more, you’re in trouble.’ Brian Clough, old Big ‘Ed himself, said: ‘I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.’ Perhaps it’s overstating it to compare them with the money-changers and captains and kings of the Bilderberg Group but in careers spanning decades they provided leadership and hope to millions who were refused admittance to the traditional and exclusive seats of learning.

This royal line of football kings probably ends with Sir Alex Ferguson, who stepped off the carousel earlier this year after an unbroken playing and managerial career spanning more than 50 years. He had been a more than useful footballer with Falkirk, Dunfermline and Rangers before embarking on a managerial career, the bulk of which encompassed 34 years of astonishing achievement with Aberdeen and Manchester United. During this period he saw off the administrations of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown most of whom, at some point in their premierships, had cause to solicit advice from him.

Perhaps, when another few years have elapsed, Ferguson will make a proper attempt at publishing his memoirs which may yet include his post-football years. For I fancy that the Govan knight’s contributions to the life of the nation may not yet be over. This is not to do down Alex Ferguson:My Biography which was published recently with due fanfare. It’s Amazon’s most pre-ordered book and will doubtless break more records over Christmas and beyond. Publication was accompanied by a speaking tour of the kingdom which, in the quaintly archaic argot of the red-tops, was described as ‘whistle-stop’. Written with the assistance of Paul Hayward, one of England’s more eloquent football scribes, it was completed within a few months of the announcement of Ferguson’s retirement to ensure maximum sales impact. The publishers needn’t have worried though, as Ferguson’s candid and, at times, damning judgments on the characters of some of British football’s most primped and pampered superstars would always have guaranteed massive interest.

It doesn’t achieve anything here to adopt a disdainful tone in judging its literary merit. It is what it is: a book about football; written by a football man for a football audience and is no less enjoyable for that. Indeed, almost as enjoyable has been observing the reactions and reviews that have followed. Most of these conveyed resentment and hostility that Ferguson had chosen to criticise several of the young multi-millionaires who had passed through the Manchester United dressing-room. Among other criticisms Ferguson has been labelled ‘disloyal’, ‘unhelpful’ and ‘a hypocrite’ for choosing to divulge locker-room secrets and excoriate players, coaches and owners alike. What then would these people have made of the memoirs of Margaret Thatcher and her withering assessments of many of those with whom she shared the responsibility of running the country and waging a war such as Prior, Carrington and Howe? And what would Alan Clark’s diaries have been without his dismissal of Michael Heseltine: ‘The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy all his furniture.’

The chief criticism that might be made of the book concerns the takeover of Manchester United by the Glazer family in 2005. This was secured only after the new American owners imposed £700 million debt on a previously debt-free club, the sum required to leverage the purchase. As my Observer colleague Julian Coman, a lifelong supporter of Manchester United, stated in his review of the book, ‘Ferguson has always maintained that the hundreds of millions of pounds in interest payments to service that debt did not affect his ability to buy top players. Very few fans believe him. Incontestably, ticket prices shot up, becoming too high for many younger supporters. The so-called green and gold anti-Glazer protests of 2010 mobilised much of Old Trafford against the predatory owners. They do not rate a single mention in this account of the period.’

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There are many reasons why Ferguson is the last in a line of absolute rulers who helped form the character of football throughout the last century. These were all benevolent despots who preached the values of Presbyterian rigour, rectitude, industry and good husbandry as the coda for success in football and in life. They wanted their players to marry young and to girls who were reassuringly homespun. They demanded to be admitted into every shadow of a player’s domestic life and sought background reports and regular updates on his family and companions. There was something, too, which was almost Jesuitical in Ferguson’s approach: ‘Give me the boy and I’ll show you the man.’

Ferguson is also a political man whose social attitudes were forged among the rivets and blow-torches of Govan’s shipyards. He has never concealed his support for the Labour Party and, as a staunch unionist, his voice is likely to be heard often in the run-up to next year’s referendum on Scottish independence. He is fond of recalling Jock Stein’s anger at the scab miners who broke ranks in 1984, waving his fist at the lorry-loads of strike-breakers. He may yet have something to say about the way in which the jobs of 850 Govan shipyard workers have been used as bargaining pieces in a grotesque game of Russian roulette between an unaccountable global entity with too much power and a government that sacrifices human labour to the fickle whims of markets and shareholders. Quite what he would make of the manner in which local Labour politicians used the jobs of Govan shipyard workers to blackmail the country over independence is anyone’s guess.

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Ferguson’s time has straddled the last two of the three ages of British football. When he first began to guide the steps of gifted young men footballers still belonged to the same communities as their supporters. They bought the same cars and holidayed in the same resorts. Now they own the resorts and employ chauffeurs. Parents and children could watch their favourite team for the price of a family cinema ticket. Now they must take out loans to buy season books and are fleeced shamelessly for sub-standard club merchandise manufactured in sweatshops by poor people living in flophouses. The same clubs think nothing of raking in yet more millions from the sponsorship of on-line betting firms and payday loan companies, the remorseless Scylla and Charybdis of the low-waged and the unemployed. The clubs in turn use the money gained from the predations of these firms to sustain the millionaire lifestyles of footballers who can scarce deign to acknowledge us idiot punters who yet allow them and their clubs to exploit us and take us for a ride.

The shadow of football continues to extend across the surface of the globe. Powerful countries and entire continents bend the knee before FIFA, the organisation that runs football and which has become a law unto itself. It shelters corruption on the grand scale and virtually ignores racism, sexism and homophobia. And if you have no interest in football then your opinion simply doesn’t count and you are simply swept aside. If you still doubt that then why don’t you ask BT, if that’s your telecom provider, why they have just spent almost £1 billion securing European football rights for the next three years.

Just the other week the gaze of the Sky cameras momentarily alighted on Ferguson as he watched his beloved United from the stands. He is still as alert and eager as a doe. He is young enough yet and possesses the global influence and contacts to build a power base at the top of the game. There are few others who could begin to acquaint football’s leaders with ideas of social justice.


Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography

Hodder & Stoughton, £25, PP416, ISBN: 978 0340919392

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