I grew up with two ‘religions’ as a child living in Manchester. Obviously, as Irish Catholics, we went to mass every Sunday, confessions once a month, and did our Rosary every night. But over the past 25 years there was another ‘holy’ figure in lives too – one my devout Galway-born mother has loved and respected as much as, dare I say it…the Pope! (God forgive me).
Yes, the other God-like figure in our family’s world has been the one and only Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United, the greatest football team in the world (feel free to leave some lovely comments won’t you below you Chelsea and Man City fans…).
Actually, regardless of which football team you actually support, it would take a pretty ignorant football fan to negate just what an absolute treasure Sir Alex is to British (and world) football. He is admired by fellow managers the globe over. And it all comes down to his brilliant ability to consistently and masterfully inspire and direct his team, club and fans.
Now, I will not claim I was initially a huge football fan as a kid, but as I grew up it was impossible for my mum’s unbelievable passion and love of watching Manchester United not to rub off on me. I often joke about how my mum has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of “United” – often correcting sports pundits on the telly who have confused their Scholes’ goals from their Giggs’ free kicks. Watch out Gary Lineker!
Indeed, I have grown up knowing nothing but Sir Alex as the manager of United – my Irish grandparents even lived just a few streets from the Old Trafford ground and were themselves, like many Irish, huge United fans. Now, 25 years on from Sir Alex taking on the mantle of manager, I can pin-point key points in my teens, 20s and 30s of where I was by which cup and tournament they had won.
I’m not a clever-socks sports journalist by the way (I’ve largely been a women’s feature writer the last 17 years) but the reason I wanted to put finger-tip to keyboard today and write is simply this: as well as a fan, as a journalist, I will always have a huge, lasting respect for Sir Alex.
Fergie’s never liked us journos (and sometimes I truly don’t blame him) but my own experience of interviewing him is something I will always cherish, despite being incredibly naïve when it happened.
Back in 1997 when I was about 23 and on my trainee placement at The Manchester Evening News I now realise I enjoyed a very rare opportunity. I was given the thankless task of finding people with interesting jobs for the paper’s job advertisement supplement – Just The Job (writing a short weekly interview to break up the columns of ads). From week to week, to puncture my own boredom, I would interview morgue technicians, wheelie bin cleaners and even a wig maker.
Out of the blue one morning I got a call from my big sister Annemarie who worked as cook for St Ann’s Church in Stretford. The priest there, Father Keegan, had a close and long history with Manchester United and my sister had some not so top secret info for me: “Alex Ferguson and Cantona are coming over in 20 minutes to plant a tree in the primary school playground. If you get here quick, you’ll catch them.”
I threw on my coat, flew out of the news room and jumped on the bus to Chester Road with my Biro and shorthand notebook – all Kate Adie-like! I didn’t even tell the editor. I got to the playground and inside the PE cabin, keeping warm, was Fergie and Cantona. I said hello to Father Keegan and told him ‘my insider’ AnneMarie had given me a tip-off. Would Fergie be up for an interview for Just the Job?
I am sure in all his 25 years Sir Alex Ferguson has never done an interview, with no public relations officer overseeing every second either, for a publication such as Just The Job. “Sure he will,” said Father Keegan, marching me over to the cabin. They shared a few words and Fergie nodded and beckoned me over. This was the time of Fergie’s Fledglings, the early Beckham years and just a couple of years before the unforgettable treble…and here I was interviewing THE Alex Ferguson. If I’d been interviewing the Pope my mum would have been less impressed for sure.
Fergie could not have been more open, kind and helpful – even helping me spell the name of the shipbuilding area where he worked as a young lad. I could be wrong but I think he quite like being asked about a topic that had nothing to do with football – just about his life In Glasgow, before his football career and before he became the manager of the biggest club in the world. He was pleased to offer advice to job-seeking readers too – a couple of tips on how to not lose heart and stay focused while they found the job they wanted.
Once the interview was over I said a blushing bonjour to Eric Cantona too. He let me take his and Alex Ferguson’s picture (my mum has the photo of course). I waited while they planted the tree and the little kids all gasped and clapped as they realised who had come into see them. Back at the newsroom I wrote my interview up and the lovely features editor Brian was, to say the least, a bit gobsmacked with the quality of interviewee I had found for that week. “Alex Ferguson? Blimey that beats your wheelie bin cleaners…”
Okay, I better stop getting all sentimental but I hope you get my point. Sir Alex Ferguson is truly a great manager and a unique man. It is certainly worth celebrating his 25 years at Old Trafford. So, here’s a toast to Fergie – long may you reign in ‘extra time’.
Whether you are a Manchester United fan or not, highly recommend Life with Sir Alex, by Will Tidey.
Follow Collette Walsh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ColletteWalsh