Last night was one of five evenings that Sir Alex Ferguson will spend with fans to promote his new autobiography. 1,700 people packed out The Lowry, after tickets were sold out in a record breaking four minutes, with the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, David Moyes, Mike Phelan and Albert Morgan in the audience. Moyes took to his seat a few minutes before it started and chatted with fans whilst others took pictures of him.
Dan Walker from the BBC was the presenter for the evening and before Ferguson made his entrance we were treated to a clip showing the highlights of his United career.
Ferguson then walked out on to the stage and was met with a standing ovation, which then turned in to chants of “every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson” which spread across both tiers. A reasonable amount of time passed and you’d expect the noise to die down, but it continued long past Fergie taking his seat. In the end, Fergie tried waving his arms about, to quieten people down. Eventually, we were quiet.
He started the evening by talking about the early days and accepting the Manchester United job. At Aberdeen he felt he had done all he could do and early on believed that United were the club for him. When he was offered the job, there was some hesitance from his family as they were obviously settled in Scotland. He joked that his son Jason, a United fan, packed his bag straight away though!
Martin Edwards talked to Fergie ahead of his first game about the players he had available and several of them were out injured. He remembered the plane journey home, after losing 2-0, and thinking “Jesus Christ. This is going to be bloody hard work.” He admitted to feeling nervous ahead of his first games, but believed this was normal.
Ferguson also talked about his favourite non-United player in the Premier League, who was Gianfranco Zola. He reflected on his ability to beat players, remembering a particular occasion with Gary Pallister. He talked about how our defender went sliding in on him but Zola managed to shimmy around him, leaving Pallister going so far he “needed a ticket to get back in” the ground.
He then talked in some detail about bringing through the young players and about how John Rudge’s wife was highly critical of the manager’s decision to play so many young players when we met Port Vale in the League Cup in 1994. Neville, Beckham, Butt, Scholes and Gillespie were all the starting line-up, aged 19, and had just 16 appearances between them. Even with a 30-year-old Brian McClair, the average age of the team that lined up was just 22-years-old. Ferguson laughed about how Port Vale were getting to witness history but at the time felt they were being insulted.
He hailed the impact Les Kershaw, recommended by Sir Bobby Charlton, had on their youth set up. United had been battered by City in the Youth Cup before Fergie got the job and straight away they realised that had to be addressed. Fergie singled out goalkeeper Gary Walsh for praise, claiming they could have put ten past us if not for him.
Ferguson also reflected on that opening game of the season in 95-96 when we were beaten by Aston Villa. He blamed himself for going in 3-0 down at half-time, claiming he didn’t get his tactics right. He wasn’t happy with how he opted to line-up the defence against Dwight Yorke and… what’s his name again? Ferguson relied on the audience to remember the name of Savo Milosevic. This was a rare occurrence though with Fergie’s remarkable memory surprising me on several occasions. He remembered the first pass that Eric Cantona ever played (when joking that he could make even simple things look incredible) and the exact details of the goal United had disallowed in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, as well as who was the referee that night (out of interest, it was David Ellery).
Ben Walker then said he had a question relating to a quote from Diego Forlan about how scared he was of the manager, but before he could read it out, Ferguson revealed how he had just been invited to Forlan’s wedding. He is unable to go though. After hearing the quote he joked that he couldn’t have scared Forlan that much if he managed to get an invite to the wedding.
He briefly reflected on Liverpool, after being asked about his famous quote about asking them off their perch (or “fucking perch” if we are to be more accurate”). “Did I say that?” he asked with a smile. There was no mention of Benitez, or Gerrard, or Allen, or anything else that might make the press as upset as they were last week. When asked about how he felt about the criticism he’d received in the papers this week, his message was clear: “I wrote this book for the fans, not the press, so they could understand some of the decisions I had to make.” There was no mention of the Glazers all evening though, something the fans are desperate to understand, and they were likely the reason behind why we couldn’t have a brief Q&A from the audience, the only feature that could have improved what was otherwise a brilliant evening.
Ferguson talked in some detail about his decision to retire and insisted that even if United had won the league the year before, when we were champions for “20 seconds” as he joked, he wouldn’t have retired. The decision to leave United came after his sister-in-law died in October and he didn’t even tell his own brother until the day before he told the players, forced in to an early revealing after his decision was leaked to the press. He said his brother was stunned in to silence on the other end of the phone and accused Ferguson of not trusting him after keeping it a secret. He told his sons in February and was keen to make amends for the first time he announced his retirement. He got the players together and informed them of the news, although last night didn’t go in to any detail of how he did this. Ferguson claimed he felt some guilt about the players he had signed in the summer. He singled Robin van Persie out as someone who had asked how long he was planning on staying at the club for, and Fergie had told him he had no intentions of retiring. That was the truth, but things obviously changed. If United hadn’t won the title last season, he reckoned he still would have retired, but it took some time to give a definitive answer on that one.
When talking about his favourite game as United manager, he immediately responded by talking about that night in Barcelona in 1999. He said that after the semi-final he felt as though United were going to win the European Cup and believed they deserved it after never giving in. Fergie recalled how the decision to sub off Lothar Mattheus changed the game but that didn’t stop a Bayern Munich sub rubbing the trophy before extra-time. “Served him right!” Fergie joked, in reference to what followed.
Martin Keown told Walker that he has very vivid memories of the FA Cup semi-final replay in 1999, when Ryan Giggs scored the best goal the competition has ever seen. Keown could see Giggs coming towards him and decided that if he could get to him before he got in to the box, he’d chop him in half. Unfortunately for him, Giggs got in to the area first, meaning Keown had to pull out of the challenge. He told Walker he stills wakes up in a cold sweat as a result. “Good!” replied the manager.
Ferguson remarked how in that season they gave the players t-shirts to wear in the dressing room. With one league game, the European Cup final and the FA Cup final still to play, they were given shirts with “3 to go” on them. Once the title was won, “2 to go”. Once the FA Cup was won “1 to go” and then “winners” once the Treble was complete.
Walker showed himself up when addressing the manager on how many games he had been in charge of the club for. The fact that it’s a nice memorable 1500 only adds to that. “I should have done my research,” he joked, to which Ferguson replied “typical BBC.”
Looking to the future, Ferguson talked about how he would continue to go to the games as a fan, before joking he probably had to go now he was a director. He reflected on the “agony” of watching us suffer bad results this season, but was quick to talk about the bad results we’d had in the past, particularly in the 96-97 season. United lost 5-0 to Newcastle, before losing 6-3 to Southampton in the next league, then 1-0 at home to Fenerbahce four days later, then losing at home to Chelsea three days later. Fergie didn’t mention it, but we also lost to Juve a couple of weeks later and were knocked out of the League Cup by Leicester the following week. “We only won the league by seven points that year,” he said with a smile.
All of the audience were treated to a signed copy of Ferguson’s autobiography as he left to another standing ovation after 70 minutes of talking. You could have heard a pin drop during that time, with everyone hanging off his every word, as he proved to be charming, interesting and funny. There was no criticism of former players and no major digs at rivals, but detailed accounts of some of the best moments of our lives. He has his flaws, but Ferguson is a remarkable man, and it was a privilege to be one of the few who got to hear him speak last night.