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On the threshold of true greatness - Fergie

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Should Manchester United win the Champions League final on Wednesday night, the manager Sir Alex Ferguson, famed for his 'hair dryer' treatment of players and his awkward victory jig, will join the pantheon of football's finest coaches.

*I've told you before, I wanted MARMITE sandwiches!!"

Should Manchester United score a goal on Wednesday night in the Champions League final against Chelsea, the massive global television audience is likely to witness one of the more captivating rituals that professional football has to offer. A grey-haired man with spectacles and a mouthful of gum will lurch forward in his seat, his head ducking and shifting as if he were a boxer. He'll then make two, or possibly three, attempts to get to his feet and, if the goal is crucial, he'll stick both arms in the air and perform the kind of unco-ordinated jig more normally associated with eccentric family members at a bibulous wedding reception.

It's hard at such moments to believe that this 66-year-old former factory worker and publican can strike fear in the hearts of athletic footballers. But that is what Alex Ferguson does and has been doing for the past 34 years. Of course, it's not his only talent. For the most successful football manager in British history also has a canny tactical mind, a willingness to make tough decisions and an apparently bottomless appetite for success, among many other managerial attributes.

Yet it's that ability to inspire fear and, from it, respect that has been a consistent feature of Ferguson's extraordinary career. At United, his notorious blasts at players who displeased him became known as the 'hair dryer' treatment, so-called for the tonsorially stiffening effect of the Glaswegian's close-range, expletive-filled tirades.

A combative centre forward with several Scottish clubs, including Rangers, the team he supported as a boy, Ferguson became manager of East Stirlingshire at the youthful age of 32. As Bobby McCulley, one of the club's strikers, later recalled: 'He terrified us. I'd never been afraid of anyone before but he was such a terrifying bogey-man from the start.'

McCulley's team-mate Jim Meakin remembered that Ferguson would get very wound up during the game. 'He would come in and kick the half-time tray all over the place. When he was talking, none of us dared open our mouth.'

The tray and much else in the dressing room, including a medical treatment table, have been familiar to Ferguson's boot ever since, as David Beckham can testify. After losing an FA cup match at home to arch rivals Arsenal, Ferguson kicked a football boot that flew up and hit Beckham above his left eye. Only the intervention of the other players prevented a fist fight. According to Beckham, his wife Victoria threatened to confront Ferguson but he stopped her on the grounds that 'I wouldn't want to get into a scrap with my wife'. Fergie v Posh: that match could have sold out Old Trafford.

The fiery outbursts aside, it's a long way from the bottom of the Scottish Second Division in 1974 to the top of the English Premiership in 2008. For the game has changed beyond recognition. Perhaps the most dramatic development has been the shift in player power. In the Seventies, the manager was king, largely controlling the fate of his players. Nowadays, the position is almost reversed. Big players are effectively free agents, able to move club almost at will or undermine the manager's authority.

Yet few have dared challenge Ferguson's leadership and the list of major players who have left Manchester United against Ferguson's wishes is vanishingly small. It could, however, soon been one larger. United's greatest player, Cristiano Ronaldo, has hinted that he may leave the club to go to Spain. It will take all of Ferguson's considerable powers of persuasion to avert that outcome. Though Ronaldo has shown his mettle in front of baying crowd of tens of thousands, saying no to Ferguson is of a different order of mental and moral fortitude.

By contrast, there are many who have fallen foul of the manager and soon found themselves elsewhere, regardless of their stature. The all-star ex-Man Utd XI includes such luminaries as Beckham, Paul Ince, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

It was after showing Stam the door in 2001 that the suggestion that Ferguson had 'lost it' began to gain momentum. He had announced that he would retire at the end of that season and then changed his mind. United ended the campaign without a trophy and though they won the Premiership again the following year, a comparatively fallow period gripped the club. Some newspapers suggested that it was a union of yesterday's men when Ferguson joined Tony Blair on an election podium in 2005.

Ferguson had known such times before. His first years at United were close to disastrous. Having taken unfashionable Aberdeen to Scottish and European glory, he was expected to transform United's long record of underachievement. But in 1990, a banner was rolled out at Old Trafford: 'Three years of excuses and it's still crap. Ta ra Fergie.'

He stayed, though, got rid of the drinking culture, nurtured a generation of homegrown talent and often mercurial foreign players such as Eric Cantona and set off on a run of domestic domination. It peaked in 1999 when United won 'the treble', a unique achievement featuring Ferguson's only European Champions League trophy.

Now Ferguson has once again defied his critics and built another formidable team and with it the opportunity to gain the second European title that will cement his name in the pantheon of international greats. If he succeeds, it will be in no small way down to his unyielding attitude. In his autobiography, Managing my Life, he writes that he has 'always craved the pressure of responsibility, of being asked to make things happen on the football field'.

But it would be wrong to characterise the man as some kind of football monomaniac. It's one of the ironies of our national insecurity that Arsène Wenger is portrayed as a Continental sophisticate, a man of intellectual hinterland, though all the evidence is that he eats, sleeps and lives football. Whereas Ferguson, who is often seen as an old-school ranting obsessive, takes an active interest in fine wine, serious books and politics.

Born in Govan, the shipbuilding district of Glasgow, Ferguson sets great store by his working-class roots. His house in Wilmslow is named Fairfields after the shipyard at which his parents worked. And two of his mates from nursery remain among his closest friends. Though it's not unusual these days to be a multimillionaire Labour supporter, Ferguson, a former shop steward, is also a union man, as well as a staunch opponent of the religious sectarianism that has often scarred life in Glasgow.

A Protestant, he is, like his father before him, married to a Catholic. He spotted Cathy Holding in 1963 at a strike meeting while he was working as a toolmaker and playing part-time for St Johnstone. His face was encased in plaster at the time, owing to a fractured cheekbone, forehead and broken nose, courtesy of a clash with a centre half in a reserve game against Airdrie. But Cathy obviously wasn't deterred. They have three boys, one of whom, Jason, worked as a football agent for some United players, quitting shortly after a Panorama investigation suggested that there was a conflict of interests.

Along with loyalty, Ferguson puts a high premium on family. It was the reason he cited for retiring - to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren - and it was the reason he gave for staying: Cathy told him she didn't want him round the house. 'That wife of mine just bullies me,' he joked recently about why he plans to continue managing United. 'She kicks me out the door at 7am. I will not risk her wrath.'

There are signs, as he moves deeper into his seventh decade, that Ferguson is mellowing. He's eased back on the psychological games he used to like to play with other managers and he's announced that his longest-serving players, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, will play in the final, a decision that borders on the sentimental. His after-match interviews with Sky (he refuses to speak to the BBC in protest at radio commentator Alan Green) have grown almost avuncular in their manner, at least by comparison with the glowering standoffs he used to produce for the cameras. But all of that may just be because United are doing well.

It is even more difficult to imagine United without Ferguson than it is to remember them before he arrived. Recently, he made sure some of his younger players found out something of the club's pre-Ferguson era. He called in his friend and club director, Bobby Charlton, to tell the team about Matt Busby, the club's other managerial Scots hero, and the Munich air crash.

It was 50 years ago that Busby and Charlton nearly lost their lives and eight United players and three staff died. And 40 years ago, Busby and Charlton lifted United's first European Cup. Wednesday night will be poignant with history, though Ferguson, for all his respect for tradition, will be intent less on honouring it than making it.

And if that happens, we shall no doubt see the most uninhibited display of that signature jig yet witnessed in public. But if it should not? Well, let's just hope there are no loose objects in the dressing room. Long article ain't it?: Here's the L-Down on Ferguson...
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Regrets? Ferguson still has a few

the times

THERE is only one thing that all in football will not have envied Alex Ferguson yesterday, and that is his hangover.

The Crowne Plaza hotel in Moscow's World Trade Centre is nobody's idea of a palace fit for a king, but the sovereign of the English club game celebrated his second Champions League crown there at a victory party that began not far from the time he usually rises for work back home in Cheshire.

Surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, his overriding emotion would have been joy, but, tucked away inside, no doubt relief, too. This was a big one for him. The stakes were high.

Ferguson's position at Manchester United is unchallenged and unchallengeable. After a second successive league title with a group of players widely believed to be among the finest in Europe, there are no circumstances in which his prolongation would be questioned at board level and little doubt that this is a professional still performing at the peak of his powers, even if at home he is now plain Grandpa.

The supporters adore him, too, and at 66 he still finds a way of connecting with men almost half a century his junior.

So Ferguson has only one judge, one person casting a critical eye over his career, weighing up his achievements and demerits.

And had his team failed in Moscow, the face greeting him in the mirror yesterday morning would have been that of the scowling underachiever.

Ferguson had the best team in Europe this season, as he did in previous years when he did not lift the European Cup. To return to Manchester empty-handed would have meant another year in which he knew that he could have done more.

If it seems churlish to review a United career in which 20 significant trophies have been won in terms of the few that got away, that is only what Ferguson does every day.

In the days preceding the final he spoke time and again of the success in Europe his United team should have had.

If Chelsea had won, the ultimate disappointment of the 2007-08 Champions League campaign would have been among his greatest regrets.

Some will say he got lucky, that Chelsea hit the woodwork twice and John Terry missed a penalty that would have won the game, but what Ferguson does is not luck.

He demands respect from his players and in turn gives them strength
. Late in the game, a touchline cameo highlighted what sets him apart.

During a break in play, Avram Grant, the Chelsea first-team coach, pulled Didier Drogba to one side for instruction. Drogba absent-mindedly supped from a water bottle, looking the other way as Grant spoke, giving no indication that he was listening or cared what this man thought.

Grant was actually holding the front of Drogba's shirt to stop him drifting away. And sure enough, with four minutes of extra time left, when his team needed him, Drogba committed an offence of such insolent stupidity that he may well have cost his team the game.

Compare that with Ferguson, at the heart of his group as the match moved into extra-time, the cog around which the wheel turned, the audience rapt.

So while we know how close United came to defeat, Ferguson's part in victory cannot be understated. Holed up, keyed up, in his little bunker between the Luzhniki Stadium's running track and its touchline, heading imaginary balls, burying fantasy tap-ins, he will always be United's 12th man, the one who knows that Anderson, at 20, has the temperament to be a sudden-death penalty taker, that Ryan Giggs has the legs for his 759th match.

He is the man who maintained greatness at Old Trafford for long enough that Paul Scholes got his winner's medal after all. And there is no suggestion it will end here.

Each day at the training ground, Carlos Queiroz, Ferguson's assistant, observes his friend at work. That a quintessentially British manager should have a Portuguese citizen, born in Mozambique, as his right-hand man is a clue to one of Ferguson's other strengths: his capacity to embrace new ideas while never letting go of the worthiest of the old.

"You see the best of Alex, not when Manchester United are winning, but at the times when we are having our worst nightmares," Queiroz said.

"When we lose games and things are not going in the direction we expect, he comes in each morning with a smile and bursting with confidence that we can do right for the club. That is the amazing side of him.

"The day after we lost to Manchester City, or to Bolton Wanderers, I thought things were going to be sad, but he arrived singing and with a fantastic sense of humour. In those difficult moments, he helps us relax and do the job we must do, overcoming our mistakes.

"He just supports us and helps us stay strong. He only has positive words for the staff and the players. He never lets us down, always leading from the front, driving us forward. For me, there is no doubt that he is the best manager of his generation."

And showing no signs of tiring, either, despite those who, with a yearning for the happy ending, would have him walk away now, at the top. The civilian red army had barely bounced down the stairs surrounding the stadium when Ferguson was talking, almost ominously, of the future.

There was something of the old Soviet double-speak in the way he spoke of his veteran pair, Giggs and Scholes. They would be around next season but were to be "phased out".

Before the final he talked of how proud he was of the achievements of his team, but said that the moment the game ended, even in triumph, this remarkable season would be consigned to history.

He will no doubt be seen smiling and singing around the place for a good while yet, but behind closed doors he still has to answer to that grumpy little assessor within. The one that is never satisfied; the one that, long before the party was over, was already asking him: so what about next year, next year, next year?
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Why Fergie is the finest boss we'll ever see

Daily Mail

Moscow is a city where plenty of great public figures have been 'phased out' - often by firing squads - but when Sir Alex Ferguson used that phrase to describe the decreasing contributions of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs the words were suffused with love.

Not love for two of his finest servants but love for the club, the machine, the tradition that began with Sir Matt Busby's first league title in 1952 and has been richly evident in Ferguson's 22 years at the wheel. Giggs and Scholes are Old Trafford family. But the red menace rolls on.

The cold truth at the core of Manchester United's latest Champions League triumph is that the moment is already dead. Ferguson killed it about eight hours after John Terry wept.

Ronaldo had only just skipped off the pitch in a Russian soldier's cap when the great dictator scanned the next horizon. He told us: "Tomorrow morning I'll be thinking about next season. It drains away very quickly - that drug, that final moment, that save, it vanishes for me. I will be thinking about the future and looking into the players' eyes to make sure their hunger is still there. I won't be retiring."

You can't find the end of Ferguson's ambitions. There's no train that goes there, no bed of laurels plumped up for his arrival. The road to satisfaction stretches out to infinity like the vast plains of Russia itself. Secretly, joy and pride course through him like cars in a grand prix.

But it's anathema to him to declare any mission accomplished. He has a deep terror of sending the message round his empire that it's time to stand still and drink in the view. His is the mind of an army general who has come to understand the most basic human dynamic.

Go forward, keep moving, begin afresh. ANYTHING less is a kind of slow death because Ferguson, who has his paranoias, sees enemies in every hedgerow.

Roman Abramovich's wealth, he considered a personal affront. Arsene Wenger is his bete noire because he's trying to build more Arsenal teams more beautiful than United. These are the domestic obsessions that drive him on.

But today we're looking at him on another stage. Europe - the real testing ground for dug-out royalty. Bang goes another whispering campaign. Silence descends on those who murmur that Fergie is a great coach in England and an under-achiever on the Continent. The charge is laid out cold on the table. And it can never rise again.

Subtract Bob Paisley's third European Cup win with Liverpool in 1981 and Ferguson is demonstrably the greatest manager in the history of club football. He won his first European trophy in 1983 with Aberdeen. His fourth has arrived 25 years later. No manager has seized European silverware a quarter of a century apart. With two 'Champion Clubs' Cup' wins, in 1999 and now, Ferguson has drawn level with the great Real Madrid managers of the 1950s and 60s, as well Inter Milan's Helenio Herrera, Ottmar Hitzfeld and, perhaps most pertinently, Brian Clough, who remains the supreme alchemist of small-town clubs.

Still stuck on one are a host of household names: Busby, Jock Stein, Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Fabio Capello, Marcello Lippi and (Ferguson will enjoy this bit), Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez. Bill Shankly and Wenger score a zero.

The surpassing of Stein and Busby, two of his heroes, carries special resonance, particularly in the year of Munich's 50th anniversary. It's time now, in a solemn ceremony, to move old Bob aside and say that not even Paisley's European Cup wins of 1977, 1978 and 1981 can stand comparison with Ferguson's record: his 10 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two European crowns, not to mention his sterling work at Aberdeen, Ferguson's Nottingham Forest.

After a pulsating and ridiculously late final that saw some fans reach their hotels at 5am, Ferguson told us: "I said we wouldn't let down the memory of the Busby Babes. We had a cause and that was very important because people with causes are very difficult for people to batter against. So I'm very, very proud. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself but the thing about me is that I don't get carried away."

One of the most compelling figures in British life, Ferguson is sure to undergo a fresh round of character-examination. People outside football will pore over his nature for clues about his longevity, his ruthlessness and his ability to go on mastering a squad of young multimillionaires, some of them from cultures where fierce Glaswegian pensioners cut no ice.

Ferguson's is an epic victory for the force of personality, as well as management prowess. The best reason to genuflect today is his enduring love for football as self-expression - as a way to attack life itself, with mischief and audacity.

On Wednesday night he picked a team to assail Chelsea. They did, for around 42 minutes, but then Chelsea's power and physicality fell on them like a piano. From then on, it was all about instinct, spirit, survival, history.

All the qualities Ferguson has built into Manchester United for 22 seasons shone through at precisely the moment they needed them most. Their identity is his identity.

The team is his character, multiplied 11 times. So now let's keep it simple and say he's the best we've seen, and the best we ever will, in an age where managers are hostages to superstar players. He's the boss of bosses.
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