To mark the 25th anniversary of Sir Alex Ferguson being Manchester United manager, Daniel Taylor has re-released his book This Is The One. This book saw Danny banned from Ferguson’s Friday press conferences four years ago and apparently news of the re-release didn’t go down too well either…
Scott The Red: How did the book get you in to trouble with Fergie?
Daniel Taylor: You tell me! He has never read it. He asked his press officer to read it on his behalf and the press officer delivered him a report which basically says ‘no problems whatsoever.’ But I guess Fergie’s Fergie isn’t he? He banned me anyway and, once that happens, you try changing his mind.
Either way, it’s not the big deal people think. I’d rather be in, obviously. But all it really means is that I just have to watch the Friday press conferences on MUTV. It doesn’t apply to Champions League or post-match. It’s purely the Friday thing. I don’t understand it properly, but he’s clearly got a bee in his bonnet about it. I emailed the club to say the book was being re-released for his anniversary and when they got round to telling him he went potty apparently. It’s all a bit strange.
STR: Do you reckon you’ll ever be allowed back into his press conference?
DT: It’s been four years now, so I doubt it. The press office think it’s absurd but they would never dare challenge him. They asked me to write to him at one point and when I handed them the letter it was three months before they passed it on. They just don’t want to tackle him.
But listen, Fergie banned MUTV once because one of their presenters said he preferred 4-4-2 to 4-5-1. He banned Sky for asking too many questions and let them back only on condition their reporter didn’t sit on the front row. The man doesn’t operate by normal rules and, yes, it can be exasperating from this side and not what you imagined it would be like when you started in journalism. But this is the monster/genius and it’s still an enjoyable ride. Maybe one day Ferguson might realise he actually gets great press, the weekend just gone being a prime example. But the good still outweighs the bad when you’re covering United and you don’t lose sight of that.
STR: How much stick do you get from rival fans about writing a book on Fergie?
DT: Only a couple of weirdo City fans who seemed to think it meant I was his secret lovechild or something. I couldn’t quite understand the correlation because you’d hardly say Patrick Barclay, Ollie Holt or Michael Crick were close to Ferguson. But Twitter’s full of strange people, isn’t it? I’d quite like to do a City book, to be honest, but the problem is there’s been such a large turnover in personnel over there historically nobody ever sticks around long enough. With Ferguson, there’s 25 years of great material. There’s a story to be done about the City takeover and the rise of the club but I believe someone’s got there before me anyway. And Manchester, the patch, is just too busy anyway these days.
STR: What advice would you give to a journo attending his first Fergie press conference?
DT: It’s always quite amusing seeing a newbie trying to get ‘in’ with him. You can shake his hand, introduce yourself, wear your best suit, the lot – he will just look straight through you and, to be honest, if you’re under the age of 50, he really doesn’t want to know. It’s a trust thing. He’s suspicious of faces he doesn’t know, especially if they have a southern accent (“another one from London coming up here to make his fucking name”). The best thing a new journalist can do is sit there quietly and learn what is, and what is not, accepted. Because the ‘rules’ are complex and if you don’t know them you won’t last long.
STR: On to the manager. What do you think his greatest achievement has been?
DT: The thing that always impresses me the most is just his sheer endurance, the way he defies age. People think he’s old-school and, in a sense, he is because they don’t make them in that mould any more. But then you look at the way he has always moved with the times, the way he has beaten the system and is still maybe three or four years off retiring, and you can’t really find anyone comparable. The bloke’s 70 next month and you can forget sometimes that he had a pacemaker fitted a few years ago. He’s in one of the most gruelling jobs in football, with all the stresses it must bring and, let’s be honest, he likes a glass of wine with his dinner. Yet he seems immune to fatigue. I know how knackered I can feel coming back from tours halfway across the world, or flying straight back after European nights, but the man is pretty much always first in at Carrington, usually before sunrise. A bowl of porridge, maybe half an hour in the gym then into his day’s work. That’s a rare form of energy.
STR: What do you think his lowest moments have been?
DT: He’d probably say it was those moments in late-89 and early-90 when it looked like he might be sacked and the fans were turning on him. That quote stands out from that time, when he was talking about finding it hard to look people in the eye in case it was a United supporter, simply because he felt he was letting everyone down so badly. I was speaking to Pete Molyneux the other day, the supporter who held up the ‘Ta ra Fergie’ banner and it feels faintly ludicrous now thinking back to that time – crowds just over 30,000, a struggling team, Liverpool cleaning up and the beginnings of a proper mutiny against Ferguson.
Since I’ve been covering the club (1998 onwards) the start of the 2005-06 season was probably the most traumatic. There was the Roy Keane thing, ‘Play the Pundit,’ the fall-out, Keane being booted out, that night in Paris when the fans were turning on the players. The team went out of the Champions League at the group stage, not even qualifying for the Europa League (probably a blessing in disguise) The football was pretty dour, the fans were blaming Queiroz (remember Ferguson having to defend him in the programme and the chants of “four-four-two” at the Blackburn game?), people were falling out left, right and centre and it all felt very aggro.
Looking back, it can feel like another end-of-the-empire balls-up from the media. But there was a legitimate question to be asked about where it left Ferguson at that point. The Glazers had only just moved in, so nobody really knew what their intentions were and how patient they would be. Hugh McIlvanney, who was close to Ferguson at the time, was suggesting Ferguson should manouvre his own departure before he is “despatched by remote control.” Fortunately, the only thing you could say about the Glazers is that they kept their nerve and supported him. But Bobby Robson went public at the time and admitted Ferguson had confided to him that he was thinking of packing it all in. Which tells you two things: a) Bobby Robson wasn’t the best person to confide in b) maybe, just maybe, Ferguson is vulnerable to the same insecurities as every one else.
STR: Who have been his best and worst signings?
DT: I’d say Solskjaer was the best when you think he cost so little and the service he gave in return. You could argue a case for Schmeichel, Irwin, Cantona and a few others but Solskjaer would be my pick. Plus he didn’t do too badly with Ronaldo, with a nice £68m profit.
As for the worst, can you look any further than Bebe? He came, he saw and he crossed the ball into the opposite stand, eh? I doubt we’ll ever get to the bottom of that one, to be honest. I used to think it was a Panorama documentary in the making. But someone pretty high at the club has since told me they were willing to take the hit just to keep Jorge Mendes sweet, as they knew he would be useful down the line (Mendes not Bebe). Either way, it’s a pretty unsatisfactory story.
Runners-up spot: I’ll always retain a soft spot for Dong Fangzhou. Long live Dong! I went to Antwerp to interview him once. He didn’t speak a word of English, I didn’t speak Chinese and we sat in a traffic jam on the Antwerp ring road in his Nissan listening to acid house. Good days.
STR: How important was Ferguson’s role in convincing Rooney to stay at United last October?
DT: Crucial, and I’d probably say this was the most impressive I’ve seen Ferguson in his press conferences. He dealt with it brilliantly, to be honest. I just think it’s a shame that, by and large, he opts for deliberate blandness in his press conferences. I’m sure he would tell you he has his reasons. But when he lifts the mask and offers his true feelings, there aren’t many more captivating people in sport. And he nailed it, didn’t he?
It was a combination of great speech-making, strategy and maybe a bit of acting, too. There was never one moment when you lost sight of the fact he was top dog, but he also applied just the right amount of pressure on Rooney to make him change his mind. Rooney’s camp made blunder after blunder and, in the end, I think he lost his nerve. Yes, he got his pay rise, but I don’t go with the theory that it was all a stunt to get more money. City definitely thought they had got him through the Marwood-Stretford connection. “The perfect signing – strengthen yourself, weaken your opponent” – that’s how they put it.
STR: What do you make of Ferguson ending his feud with the BBC?
DT: We probably won’t know what actually happened until Ferguson brings out another book and, even then, it will be heavily weighted in his favour. We knew they were talking but it still came as a surprise, especially as the BBC are adamant there was no apology. It’s not as if Ferguson needed the BBC particularly, so I really couldn’t be sure about his motives. They reckon it’s a lot to do with the BBC moving to Salford but that doesn’t quite stack up to me. Why would he particularly care where they are based? Either way, it was unexpected. Not sure about you, but Match of the Day without Mike Phelan and his plaster feels a strange place.
STR: What importance do you think the recent derby will play in the title race this season?
DT: It was a big thing for City’s mindset, I reckon. They beat United in the FA Cup semi-final. Then they won the final and got rid of all the “35 years” stuff. I just think they know they can win things now and don’t have the inferiority complex of before. The killer time for them will be next spring because, if they’re still at the top, they haven’t been in that position before and it’s bound to get edgy. Will their fans start getting jumpy? And, if so, will it transmit to the players? But right now you have to say they’ve been more than impressive and probably favourites. It could be a strange season at Old Trafford if you can’t close the gap. It’s all very new to everyone and I reckon there’d be some fairly grumpy matches.