The Alex Ferguson Story
Making of a Legend
There are cattle pens behind one end at Station Park, Forfar. It is to the Nou Camp, Barcelona, what an ox-plough is to a Bentley. Locals with long memories will sympathise with the brutalised people of Munich, though. A quarter of a century ago, in a Scottish League Cup first-round tie, their club were mugged while clutching victory. In the away dugout the 34-year-old Alex Ferguson announced himself, in his managerial debut.
Ferguson wanted to impose his principles right away at East Stirlingshire, Falkirk's tiny second club. "Stand up, be counted, demonstrate your desire." he told his players before the kick-off. At half-time they returned to the dressing room 3-0 down, unable to look their new boss in the eye. "Already he terrified us," said Bobby McCulley, the team's then 22-year-old forward. "l'd never been afraid of anyone before but he was a frightening person from the start.
The tirade never came. Ferguson told his men they had been smashing
and the scoreline did not reflect their play. "And another thing
- you can win the game." he said. "He was right in that we had been
unlucky, but we thought he was mad." said McCulley.
The germ planted, however, Shire clawed back to draw 3-3. They went through in the replay.
Players and officials still enter through a far gate, and have to walk across the pitch to get to the dressing rooms at Firs Park. When Ferguson arrived, having finished his playing career at Ayr United, the club had just finished bottom in the Scottish League. His wages were £40 a week, the board had freed all but eight players, and those he had, "Stuckie" "The Flyer", "Simmy" and "Big Seldom" (Peter Dunne, who seldom played) sounded like members of a pub team. Five months on, Shire were third in the league and crowds had doubled to 1,200. Not for the last time the head-hunters came calling and Ferguson departed abruptly for St Mirren.
With uncanny symmetry, Munich figured at the outset of Ferguson's managerial career. It was there, while at the 1974 World Cup, that Ally MacLeod, the Ayr manager, bumped into a Shire director and mentioned he had a player in his reserves desperate to get into coaching. Willie Muirhead, the club's chairman, set up an interview and was bowled over by Ferguson's "manner and confidence, sincerity and knowledge". The appointment surprised few of the instructors at the SFA training centre at Largs, where Ferguson, having already acquired his coaching badges, had the previous season taken a refresher course.
"For a player to come back for extra study once they'd qualified was unprecedented," said Jimmy Bonthrone, an instructor and then manager of Aberdeen. "1 decided to offer Alex the assistant's post at Pittodrie, but he got sent off against us playing for Falkirk for fighting with Willie Young and I changed my mind."
Muirhead promised Ferguson a £2,000 transfer budget and went on holiday, asking to be contacted about any signings. A few days later Ferguson telephoned his hotel and reported he had bought a player, inside-forward Billy Hulston. "How much?" Muirhead asked. Ferguson replied: "Two thousand." The entire kitty blown.
Hulston was a catch, a 28-year-old who had spent his career in the top division with Clyde and Airdrie. He had discussed terms with Stenhousemuir but, after Ferguson sent an 11th-hour telegram, he consented to meet the manager. "After speaking for half-an-hour I knew I wanted to sign, but I asked to be allowed to phone Alex Smith, the Stenhousemuir manager, to tell him our deal was off," Hulston said. "Fergie was having none of that. He said he wanted my signature right then and added, 'If it's more money you want, I'11 give you £50 out of my own pocket.' He took out his wallet and put the notes on the table. He was such a strong character, so positive. He decided what he wanted and got it."
The remainder of Ferguson's squad came on free transfers, or were young players being given their chance. "He brought through a couple of teenagers who didn't have a lot of skill but would run all day for him." Hulston said. "I'd think, 'What's he doing playing them?' Yet he knew that a youngster who had the legs to keep going for 90 minutes was a player he had the use of for the whole game."
When Ferguson attempted to kick-start a proper youth policy, he was frustrated by a lack of ambition. He bussed in a group of schoolboys from Glasgow for trials only for the board to refuse to meet the cost of the travel, £40, because they had not been consulted. Ferguson pulled the money - his week's wages - from his own pocket and hurled it on the table, vowing to resign, and was only dissuaded after much peace-making by Muirhead the next day.
Discipline was a hallmark. Striker Jim Meakin was denied permission to attend a wedding which fell on a matchday, went, and was banned for four weeks, even though he was the secretary's son-in-law. Gordon Simpson, a centre-half who wore Shire's armband, like subsequent Ferguson captains, was a man in his own image. Simpson was troubled by a cartilage in his knee which would pop out during games and every time it did, he would grimace and push it back in. "I led by example and complained a lot to referees, both of which he liked," Simpson said. "If we differed. I said so, but calling a spade a spade was always okay with him."
Simpson was the one player Ferguson wouldn't go up against during training games. "He always joined in and would have us playing in the dark until his team won. He was ferocious, elbowing and kicking." McCulley said. "We'd say to each other, 'Just let him score and we can all go home', but it didn't work because if we weren't trying, he knew.
"He owned a pub in Glasgow called Shaw's Bar and I used to go
in after he'd moved to St Mirren. I'd find Fergie inside playing
dominoes with all the old men and slammin pieces down deadly serious
trying to win.
"At Shire, everything focused towards his goals. Time didn't matter to him, he never wore a watch. If he wanted something done, he'd stay as late as it took, or come in early." Said Hulston: "Training was always sharp and enjoyable. He was always right in the middle of things, unlike many bosses back then, who just sat in their office." Shire reached their zenith in a cup derby with Falkirk, were on their way to becoming Second Division champions. Ferguson begged his board for money to take his side out to dinner on the eve of the tie and, knowing Falkirk would be at the Claddens Hotel, booked the same place. As Falkirk sat down to eat, he took his players past the window, laughing and joking. "The Falkirk boys thought, 'What are those guys doing? They can't afford to come here.'" McCulley recalled. "Fergie stood pointing, 'Look at him, he's never a player. And him, he doesn't know how lucky he is to be eating there for free.'"
Ferguson also convinced his squad in the build-up that the town's press were favouring Falkirk and identified that little-known blight within world football, anti-East Stirlingshire bias. In his team talk he told forward Ian Browning not to try to round the Falkirk goalkeeper in a one-on-one situation, because he was susceptible if vou shot early. "He spent an hour identifying all their weaknesses." said Simpson. "So and so lacked pace, that guy's only got one foot, this player is weak in the tackle. We went out there believing we were by far the better team." Shire won the game 2-0, Browning duly getting the first, put through and scoring before the goalkeeper could advance.
Shire never did gain the promotion Ferguson had set them on course
for, although - surprise, surprise - St Mirren did under their new
"He was only there five months, but he shaped people," said McCulley, who later became Shire manager himself. Hulston, now living in Australia and hoping to meet his old manager when Manchester United tour the country, found it incredible, watching the European Cup final, "to think I'm connected to all that".
Simpson set a Firs Park appearances record and retired in 1980, the year Ferguson won his first Scottish title with Aberdeen. "We were disappointed when he left because we felt we were at the start of something," he said. "But I don't think he'd have got where he is today if he'd stayed with the Shire."