The mother of all eruptions, as the Guardian journalist Daniel Taylor called it, came when Sir Alex Ferguson faced the press in December 2004, two days after a Boxing Day clash with Bolton in which Wayne Rooney had slapped Tal Ben Haim. Rooney had escaped punishment, but still risked an FA ban, and tension hung in the air at Carrington as the issue was put to Ferguson. Then he exploded. Smacking the table, he railed and ranted, accusing the press of crucifying Rooney. “He is remarkable when he gets going,” Taylor wrote in This is the One. “Half out of his seat, neck muscles straining, eyes protruding, more swear words than you might hear in an entire afternoon at Old Trafford.” As his rage grew, Ferguson swung his arm across the table and sent the tape recorders crashing into a wall. One cracked open. “You can get out,” he said. “Press conference finished. You’ve got me to lose my temper. Wonderful!”
In his book, Taylor tells several stories in which Ferguson terrifies reporters. Most journalists on the Manchester beat saw the United boss as intimidating, irascible and incalculable, and ranked ‘the hairdryer’ as the peak of managerial fury. The exceptions were some older Scottish hacks, who knew more about his Glasgow childhood and his playing career, and who had seen him join East Stirlingshire, galvanise St Mirren and beard the Old Firm duopoly at Aberdeen. They claimed that Ferguson had mellowed. Back in Scotland, he used to be far worse.
The Aberdeen players have said the same. “It wasn’t a hairdryer when he was thirty-six or thirty-seven years old,” Stuart Kennedy told Michael Grant in Fergie Rises. “It was a blast furnace. Brutal. A total examination of an individual’s failings—according to Alex Ferguson—delivered in front of his team-mates. Over the years it reduced to the level of a hairdryer.”
That squad did not call him ‘The Dark Lord’ or ‘Furious Fergie’ for nothing. When they entered the dressing room, Ferguson would stand by the door and look each in the eye. Inside, he provoked, bullied and threatened. Punches were landed, bottles smashed. One player got hit in the face by bits of a walkie-talkie. Another had a pair of pants landing on his head after Ferguson had pelted a laundry basket. “And you can take those fucking pants off your head,” he was told. On a more comical occasion, Ferguson kicked a coffee table, only for a tea cup to fly back at him and burn his legs. So aggressive was his behaviour that even Ferguson got startled. “The quickness of my temper and depth of my anger often worried me,” he noted.
Yet dig deeper into the Ferguson story and such outbursts come to crystallise what set him apart. In a Scotsport documentary from 1985, by which time glory at Aberdeen had made him Britain’s top manager, he contemplates the concept of born winners. “I don’t think it really applies in my case when you consider that I didn’t win much as a player…” he says. “I never really won any big prize at all as a player. But I had this great desire to win… and I think it has carried me right into management.”
Gordon Strachan said he had never seen such a force of will in his life. Whatever Ferguson did, he had to win. When he ran pubs in Glasgow, he challenged old men to games of domino. At East Stirlingshire, he strapped on his boots to take part in training, and would keep things going until darkness fell if needed for his team to win. “He was ferocious, elbowing and kicking,” the striker Bobby McCulley told United We Stand. At Aberdeen, he grew so moody if he lost at snooker that Strachan said he had seen players sold for beating him. It was hard to know if he was joking.
It is this desire that drove Ferguson and infused his players. “The team mirrors its manager because they reflect a lot what you are in your life and what you believe in,” he would tell an ITV documentary decades later. Certainly, when Grant described his St Mirren side as “young, brash, exciting and dangerous”, he might as well have been talking about the young Ferguson himself.
Ferguson grew up in Govan, a blue-collar district by the River Clyde, in Glasgow. It was a buzzing area, where cranes hung over rows of brick houses, overlooking men filing into work at dawn and spending their hard-earned cash in pubs at night. In one of the houses lived the Fergusons. They had no car, phone or TV, but they laboured hard. His mother, Elizabeth, worked in a wire factory; his father, Alex, toiled away as a shipbuilder, braving cold and dangerous conditions for sixty hours a week. He was strict, impatient, demanding, ill-tempered. At 6am, he would awake his son, who adopted the habits of his parents; from the very start, Ferguson merely assumed the only way he’d get somewhere in life was to work furiously hard.
As he got older, Ferguson grew mischievous and street-smart. He stood up to bullies, of which there were plenty, preferring a bloody mouth to wounded pride. Pranks and fights often put him in hospital, but he was not one to be messed with. In his first autobiography, Managing My Life, he recalls going to a snooker hall, aged ten or eleven, where some youths in their late teens offered him a sip of lemonade. It turned out to be urine. As they cracked up, he almost vomited. Most kids might have just gone home, but Ferguson found two spare snooker balls and a piece of wood, waited until the youths were unaware, then hurled the balls at them “with all the violence I could muster”. One hit one in the jaw. Ferguson then ran out, jammed the door shut with the wood and fled.
When not hanging out in snooker halls, Ferguson played football in the rough local leagues. He first joined Harmony Row, where, after one game, they had to dash for a tram in order to escape a lynch mob. At fourteen, he moved to Drumchapel Amateurs; later he signed for Queens Park, the best amateur team in Scotland. Opinionated and volatile, he argued with coaches over training methods, and surely fumed when played out of position in his Queens Park first-team debut, at Stanraer. The game proved a nightmare. He was an inside forward, but started on the right wing, where he battled a left-back named McNight. In one early clash, McNight bit him. One might have expected that to win Ferguson some sympathy, but this was 1950s Scotland, and at half-time, he was castigated by coach Jackie Gardiner for not being “combative” enough.
Gardiner: “You don’t sidestep players at this club. You go through them. You’ve come to this team with a big reputation. What’s the matter with you?”
Ferguson: “The left-back bit me.”
Gardiner: “Bit you? Then bite him back!”
One Saturday afternoon later on, Ferguson and his friends walked past a wedding. By chance, the groom was McNight. After Ferguson had recounted the incident, they sidled up to McNight and heckled him by the church doorway. Eventually an old women chased them off, but not until Ferguson and his friends had had their say.
“Away, ya mug, who would marry you?”
At school, Ferguson missed classes, struggled and left at sixteen, to much personal agony. He started a five-year toolmaker apprenticeship at the Hillington Industrial Estate, commuting to work in packed buses full of cigarette smoke. As his colleagues unwound in pubs, he played for his new club St Johnstone, leaving work for training at 4pm, coming home at 1am and rising again at 6am. “Just writing down that schedule makes me exhausted,” he later noted.
St Johnstone had tempted him by promising a first-team place, but Ferguson played just ten minutes in his debut season. By his fourth year he had played fifty games. Then came a reserve match in which he broke his nose, cheekbone and eyebrow. He had to wear a mask for six weeks and, when finally back in action, the reserves were hammered 10-1 by Celtic and 11-2 by Kilmarnock. It was all too much, even for him. Depressed and disillusioned, he took out papers to emigrate to Canada, where his dad’s family had moved, and where toolmakers earned more. He wanted out.
Next up were the Rangers reserves. Ferguson didn’t want to play and got his brother’s girlfriend to call the manager, Bobby Brown, pretending to be his mother and saying he had the flu. But his parents found out. His dad predictably lost his rag, and even his mother admonished him. Brown had also called the bluff and chastised him over the phone. Brown added that many in the first-team were down with actual flu—it was December—and told him to join the squad the next day. As it was, St Johnstone were playing Rangers at Ibrox, where they had never won, and Ferguson played the game of his life. He hit a hat-trick that sealed the win. Writing in 1999, Ferguson was still unable to find a rational explanation for that “miracle”, and seemed to genuinely regard it as the work of some higher power. “Since then I have never been sceptical about the existence of influences beyond ourselves,” he wrote, and added: “My life changed from that day.”
As a player, Ferguson was known for his energy, bravery and pugnacity. One observer, as cited by Patrick Barclay in his biography Football – Bloody Hell!, described him as an “old-fashioned forward with no respect for anybody”. Ferguson criticised opponents, referees and even team-mates. On one occasion, he marched the length of the pitch to confront a player for misplacing a pass—in a testimonial match. Yet the worst punishment was reserved for rival centre-backs. He got sent off six times and received a series of suspensions, usually for retaliation. His active elbows often injured players, though he claimed the damage was accidental. “He was always a handful, a pest,” John Greig told Barclay. “He busted about with his elbows parallel to the ground—and he was all skin and bones, so that when he got you, it was like being stabbed.”
The Ibrox hat-trick led Ferguson to join Dunfermline on a £28-a-week contract, which prompted him to quit his job and go full-time. Realising a life near pristine grass beat slogging away in grim industrial parks, he vowed to stay in football beyond retirement. He soon went to his first coaching school, and started helping out with tactics, information and statistics. “He got into it a lot deeper than some of us,” coach Willie Cunningham told Barclay.
Dunfermline should have become Scottish champions in his first season, but missed chances let Kilmarnock and Hearts slip past. Many blamed Ferguson for the profligacy. When they then met Celtic in the Scottish Cup final, Cunningham dropped Ferguson. “You bastard!” Ferguson snapped in the dressing room, as colleagues had to restrain him. There were no substitutes in those days, so Ferguson watched his side lose 3-2, before handing in a transfer request.
This kind of temperament was classic Ferguson. Not even on his wedding day did he manage to stay calm. On 12 March 1966, he married Cathy Holding, and as they arrived to have their wedding photographs taken, someone tried to steal their parking space. Ferguson started to shout and run after him. “Cathy was not too pleased with me,” he wrote. “Good start, Alex.” Straight after the photographs, Ferguson played against Hamilton Academical. There was no honeymoon either: the next day, he was holed up in a Dunblade hotel preparing for a Fairs Cup quarter-final against Zaragoza.
After Cunningham rejected his transfer request, Ferguson hit a rich vein of vorm that saw him move to boyhood club Rangers. Jock Stein had led Celtic to two straight titles, so Rangers were under scrutiny, but that season they went so close to winning it that Stein waved the white flag. Yet Stein knew what he was doing. His remark heaped further pressure on Rangers, who lost their nerve and let Celtic sneak past. After the collapse, irate fans encircled the Rangers dressing room, broke the windows and kept the players locked in for hours. As Ferguson escaped into a waiting car, a fan kicked him on the calf. A managerial lesson had been learned. “I shall never forget those headlines Jock instigated,” Ferguson wrote. “The trick was instantly lodged in my memory.”
The next season Rangers manager David White offered Ferguson in exchange for another forward, Colin Stein. When Ferguson refused to go, he was dumped into the reserves. Later, in a rare first-team appearance, he lost the marker for the Celtic goal that cost Rangers the Scottish Cup final, and fell further out of favour. White even put him in the third team. Rangers were treating him in a way he would neither forget nor forgive. “My hopes and ambitions were being buried alive,” he wrote.
In November 1969, Ferguson made off for second-division side Falkirk. They immediately got promoted, Ferguson forming a deadly duo with Andy Roxburgh. A few years later he wanted to join Hibs, but the manager, which now happened to be Cunningham, again stood in his way. This time Ferguson refused to budge, and the two nearly fought in a dressing room toilet, until the club physio intervened.
By this time Ferguson had cultivated a strategic mindset. Vocal and decisive, he often questioned Cunningham, who replied by calling him “a bloody nuisance”. Yet their tempestuous relationship hid a mutual respect, and Cunningham must have seen something, because he gave him a player-coach role. That should have matured Ferguson, but a month later he got sent off against Aberdeen for a petulant kick. Tired of his breaches, the Scottish FA suspended him for almost two months. When Falkirk then sacked Cunningham, new boss John Prentice offloaded Ferguson to Ayr.
Before that transfer, Ferguson had tried to get the Falkirk job himself. He rarely played at Ayr and, when an offer came to manage East Stirlingshire, in the second division, he accepted. He retired at thirty-two.
East Stirlingshire could only afford to hire Ferguson part-time, which meant he needed a second job. So he opened a pub in Govan. Capitalising on his career, he named it ‘Fergie’s’ and christened the entertainment lounge ‘the elbow room’. The pub drew all kinds of characters: “historians, poets, psychiatrists, bums, would-be millionaires, fighters, lovers, fantasists.” Yet most were dockers who enjoyed a scrap, a downside Ferguson literally had to take on the chin: he often had to break up fights, and would come home with a split head or a black eye. “You were not likely to find Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger in my place,” he wrote. “Though you might have encountered the odd costumer who, single-handed, could have put the three of them to flight.”
Life at the pub was lively and not always entirely safe. News once emerged of a £40,000 whisky heist that had been re-stolen from the original thieves. One of the pub regulars, a giant man with a scarred face, was rumoured to be involved. One day after training, Ferguson got a call from his assistant, George Hope, that someone had turned up at the pub carrying a shotgun. When police arrived, the man had gone. Hope described him to the officers, who soon called Ferguson to say it had been a notorious criminal from eastern Glasgow. “The news chilled me to the bone,” Ferguson wrote. The gun man would eventually survive an attempt to run his car off a bridge, before someone had set fire to his lorry business. By that stage Hope had realised he was the only witness in the case—and fled immediately. “I believe he went to Wales,” Ferguson wrote. “Had I been in his shoes, it might have been Tristan da Cunha.”
In his second autobiography (2013), Ferguson said the pub helped him better understand people, their dreams and frustrations. That proved handy at East Stirlingshire, where he had plenty to do. The squad was a dozen part-timers, and had no keeper. The stadium held twenty-five thousand, but only three thousand showed up. The transfer budget was £2,000. With no experience bar his playing career and his badges, Ferguson started off by blowing every penny on a striker named Billy Hulston. According to United We Stand, Hulston had been set to join Stenhousemuir, but then Ferguson telegrammed him demanding a meeting and convinced him to join East Stirlingshire. When Hulston then requested a last call to Stenhousemuir, Ferguson asserted his authority. “If it’s more money you want, I’ll give you £50 out of my own pocket,” he told him and put the notes on the table. Hulston signed immediately.
Ferguson worked all hours to patch up the club. McCulley claimed he did not even wear a watch; if he needed something done, he’s stay as long as it took. Foreshadowing his dedication to talent development, Ferguson filled the squad with hard-running youngsters; he also spent £40 to bus in a group of Glasgow schoolboys for trials, and stormed out of a board meeting when later questioned over the expenditure. The players had to turn up on time in tie and collar, or risk his wrath. “Already he terrified us,” said McCulley. “l’d never been afraid of anyone before, but he was a frightening bastard from the start.”
Ferguson used whatever means necessary. He told the players that the local press favoured Falkirk, even though the only newspaper in town was the Falkirk Herald, which had a circulation of about forty thousand. In a game at Cowdenbeath, he forgot to check the weather and found a pitch as hard as stone, to which he responded by running into town to buy eleven pair of baseball shoes. (In the same game, writes Ferguson, opposition manager Frank Connor reacted to a refereeing decision by throwing a bench onto the pitch.) The baseball shoes didn’t work out, but Ferguson had more luck when facing his old club Falkirk. “I know them and they are useless,” he told his players. His preparations included putting the squad in a hotel, where he ordered the chef to serve up two slices of lemon sole, toast and honey. The chef protested that they would be starving. “Good,” Ferguson replied. They beat Falkirk 2-0.
In October, Ferguson was approach by St Mirren. They were below East Stirlingshire in the table, but had bigger potential and, though he had come to adore his modest but loyal squad, he accepted the offer. When he told the players he’d leave, they first sat in silence, until the wing-half Tom Donnelly snapped: “You bastard!”
The move had involved Cunningham, who had recommended Ferguson when retiring as their manager. Most of the players were part-timers, but that did not mean Ferguson was prepared to lower his demands. The moment he arrived, the local paper Paisley Daily Express sent a photographer to take a team photo with the new manager. When it appeared in print, Ferguson noted that the captain, Ian Reid, had made rabbit ears behind him. He called Reid to his office and told him he’d be put on a free transfer. “If I’m looking for a captain, I’m looking for maturity,” Ferguson said. “That was a childish schoolboy trick. You have to go.”
The standard had been set. Ferguson demanded discipline and commitment, and dissidents entered his personal ‘black book’ or got sold. One player was rebuked for driving to an away game when everyone else travelled by bus. Another insisted he’d miss training because he and his girlfriend had tickets to a pop concert—Ferguson told him not to come back. “He was on you for every tiny detail,” the midfielder Billy Stark told Barclay. What particularly infuriated Ferguson were slackers and boozers. When he once caught the players drinking, he smashed a Coca-Coca bottle into the wall so that bits of glass rained over their heads. Another time, when Stark had switched off for a moment in the first half, Ferguson threw a boot at him at half-time. At least Stark had lasted half a game. On another occasion, Ferguson hauled him off after seven minutes.
That last decision was precipitate even for Ferguson and, in hindsight, he would sigh at the attitude of his younger self. He was too rash, too keen to shake things up. “I was hot-headed, very passionate about my job, and I did not want anyone to make me look like a fool,” he wrote in his fourth book, Leading. He could also be too cocky. In his first year, St Mirren had won eight in a row and sat second when he told the press they would not lose another game that season. They won just one of their remaining five games, losing twice, and finished sixth.
Still, that sixth place was crucial for St Mirren, as the second division was splitting into separate leagues that year, with the top six staying in the second tier and the bottom six sliding into a lower league. The next season, St Mirren came sixth again.
The ensuing summer, Ferguson took the squad on a three-week summer tour of the Caribbean to play Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana and Surinam. During games, he would dress up as a sub just for fun. But things got serious when they played Guayana, who were gearing up for a World Cup qualifier. Their centre-back kept kicking young forward Robert Torrance, and Ferguson complained to the referee, to no avail. When Torrance got booted again, Ferguson lost it. “That’s it, I’m coming on,” he said. “That big bastard is taking liberties.” When the next cross came in, he exacted “a bit of revenge” on the defender, who went down squealing. Ferguson then dished out another blow, at which point the referee sent him off. In the aftermath, Ferguson warned his players not to tell anyone about what had happened. Nobody ever did.
Back at St Mirren, Ferguson slipped into a brutal schedule. Each day he would stay at Love Street, their stadium, until 11am, then run the pub until 2.30pm, return to Love Street to take training, then go back to the pub, then home. This was before he had mastered the art of delegation. At Love Street, he did everything from buying cleaning material to ordering pies for match days. When he noticed that fans were jumping the fences, he lowered the turnstile roof so that nobody could sneak in. As ever, he would tell the players they were ignored by the press, and even created his own St Mirren newspaper. Nothing and nobody escaped his attention. “He had an omnipresence,” Stark told Barclay. “You always felt you were being watched by him, at or around the club.”
One thing that particularly irked Ferguson was the crowds, which were “barely larger than a church choir”. St Mirren was located in Paisley, a poor town in the shadow of Glasgow, and each weekend people would travel to watch Celtic or Rangers. Ferguson felt the place had an inferiority complex. So one weekend, the club electrician strapped a loudspeaker to the roof of a van, in which Ferguson drove through Paisley, microphone in hand, talking up his team and encouraging people to turn up at Love Street. It worked. The crowds went from near one thousand to up to twenty thousand and, with spirits lifted, St Mirren got promoted to the top division in 1977.
That was the first major success of Ferguson the manager, who now told the players he was building a team to overtake Celtic and Rangers. Yet he was also feeling the strain of juggling two jobs. In a game against Clydebank, he had chased the linesman down the touchline, only to be held back by the opposition manager. When facing Motherwell, he had berated the referee so forcefully that he got ordered not to speak to referees on match days for the next two years. He also fell out with people at Love Street, including chairman Willie Todd, and having kept St Mirren in the elite in his fourth year, he was fired for breach of contract.
Aberdeen were on a hot streak. They had come second in the league in 1971 and 1972, but the jolt of a relegation flirt in 1976 had prompted the appointment of Ally MacLeod. He delivered third place and a League Cup title, which convinced Scotland to put him in charge for their 1978 World Cup campaign. Aberdeen proceeded to hire Billy McNeill, captain of the ‘Lisbon Lions’ that won Celtic the 1967 European Cup against Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter, and he reached second place plus a Scottish Cup final. The board had struck gold twice. Then came a series of appointments that would shape Scottish football for years.
First Scotland fired MacLeod, they then hired Stein. Celtic in turn snatched McNeill, which left Aberdeen without a manager. The timing was ideal for Ferguson. Many had reservations about him: he was only thirty-six, and had a reputation as a live wire for his playing style and brash man management, and had been dismissed for Dunfermline in that game against Aberdeen. People also recalled his fall-out with St Mirren, whom he had since taken to a tribunal to sue for unfair dismissal. But the board admired how he had succeeded by fostering youngsters. In return, Ferguson saw a club that had a healthy squad, wise owners and the whole city of Aberdeen for itself. “I had a hunch that I would do well,” he wrote.
By this stage he had become involved in another pub called Shaw, which had gone into liquidation. Tired of coming home bruised and battered, he sold the pubs. That paved way for fourteen-hour-days at Pittodrie, after which Ferguson would continue to phone scouts and players at home. From his temporary flat in the city centre, he plotted his greatest mission to date: to break up the stranglehold that Celtic and Rangers had on Scottish football.
It seemed close to impossible. The Old Firm had won the last thirteen league titles, leaving others to settle for the odd cup win. The remaining teams had an inferiority complex that Aberdeen had exemplified months earlier, when they had unravelled against Rangers in the Scottish Cup final. Ferguson knew he had to tear down that mental barrier, and soon used the match programme to fuel the fire. “The one thing that has annoyed me all my life is this acceptance that Rangers and Celtic must win, that everything is geared around them, that nobody but nobody is expected to beat them,” he wrote, according to Grant. “I look at everything round me and success is staring me in the face. The one thing that is lying hidden inside people’s heads is this total belief.”
Still, before he could convince the fans, he had to win over the players. Many still missed MacLeod and McNeill, and they grew annoyed at how Ferguson kept extolling his St Mirren players. Slower defenders such as Kennedy and Willie Miller also disliked his wish to set the back line higher. Worse, some openly questioned his tactics. One was the popular striker Joe Harper, a poor trainer, whom Ferguson claimed to have lapped during a pre-season running test. Harper survived initially, but other rebels were consigned to the reserves, where they played unglamorous midweek fixtures in freezing grounds. One unwanted player, Dom Sullivan, was entitled to feel he had been punished enough as it was; years earlier, he had lost two teeth thanks to a Ferguson elbow.
Gradually, the players realised it was impossible to mess with Ferguson. Some would never warm to him, but he convinced the most influential characters, such as Kennedy, Miller and experienced goalkeeper Bobby Clark. Still, their mentality took time to change. In September, after a 1-1 draw at Rangers, Ferguson declared himself happy publicly, but fumed in private about how Aberdeen had defended deep, wasted time and killed the game. Even at Ibrox, he wanted to attack and win.
Such a reluctance to follow instructions might have led to bigger brawls, had Ferguson not been so distracted in that first year. His family still lived near Glasgow, and the St Mirren tribunal drained his energy. Worse, his dad was seriously ill. When Ferguson lost the tribunal later that year—“a hammer blow”—his dad quickly got worse. (In his books, Ferguson appears to draw a connection between the two events.) In February, Aberdeen visited Love Street, and were 2-0 up when the referee sent off Miller and winger Ian Scanlon, leaving Aberdeen down to nine men and enabling St Mirren to fight back to 2-2. Already under great strain, Ferguson lambasted the referee, who reported him to the Scottish FA. Moments later, the St Mirren electrician, whom Ferguson knew well, led him into a small room and told him that his father had died. “I was completely broken up,” Ferguson wrote. The funeral was held in Glasgow the next Wednesday and, later that afternoon, as Ferguson was driving back up to Aberdeen, he stopped in a lay-by and cried.
So difficult was that first season that Ferguson just wanted it over with. Aberdeen came fourth, though they did show promise in the cups. In the Scottish Cup quarter-final, they beat Celtic over two legs, and Ferguson took particular pleasure in their attitude at Parkhead, where they had remained unfazed by a menacing atmosphere. Cans were throw on the pitch, fights started in the tunnel. To Ferguson, that 2-1 win proved that his players were up to it.
Aberdeen later lost the semi-final to Hibs, but reached the League Cup final, where they met Rangers for a chance at revenge. They were 1-0 up with minutes to go when Ferguson did something unusual—he started to pray. “You don’t need to pray, son, we’ve won it,” one assistant told him. Then Rangers struck the equaliser.
The real drama started in extra time. The giant Aberdeen defender Doug Rougvie got sent off for an off-the-ball incident with Derek Johnstone, helping Rangers win the game. Rougvie protested his innocence, as did Aberdeen, while Rangers backed the referee. The subsequent fall-out was bitter, with Ferguson criticising Johnstone in a newspaper column, but no footage of the incident has ever emerged, and the mystery of what really happened remains to this day.
In any case, Ferguson had finished his first season without a trophy. The press questioned him. Some players still didn’t like him. Soon, the chairman summoned him to his office.
Dick Donald had owned Aberdeen for eight years and been involved in the club since starting his playing career in the 1920s. Now nearing his seventies, he ran local cinemas, bingo halls and dance halls. People knew him for his old-school values, pin-stripe suit and parsimoniousness. According to Ferguson, he always wore the same tie, and when his shoelaces tore up, he’d just tie them together in knots. When he entered a room, he’d ask why the lights were on.
He was also one of the best owners Ferguson could have hoped for. Behind closed doors, Donald would rant about his team selections and tactics; in public, he always backed him. “The fact that he never voiced a word of criticism behind my back was probably more helpful to me than pounds of praise or a big hug,” Ferguson wrote. After the Rangers defeat, Donald told him: “I hired you because you can do the job. I’m not interested in what the press say. You just get on with your job. Don’t moan. Be a man.”
Ferguson went down to business, making the most of Aberdeen’s modest facilities. All they had for match analysis was unedited, low-quality VHS tapes. The staff were so overworked that the kit man, Teddy Scott, also coached the reserves; when he missed the last bus home, he’d sleep on the snooker table. The stadium had no press room. The club even lacked a designated training facility, so Ferguson would alternate between a municipal stadium, a military training ground, the Pittodrie car park and Aberdeen beach, where icy North Sea winds chilled the players. Fitness training was limited to tortuous runs up hills and around golf courses. “It was all quite old-fashioned,” Ferguson wrote. “But I didn’t know any better.”
Tactically, Ferguson followed through on his attacking ambitions. In his second season Aberdeen pressed higher, passed it quicker and drove up the tempo. At half-time, they were told to run off the pitch so that their opponents saw they were not tired. Within December, Ferguson looked close to landing his first trophy. The League Cup was being played in the first half of the season, and the Dons had beaten Celtic and Rangers over four games en route to the final—a major statement of intent. Their opponents, Jim McLean’s Dundee United, had not met a single elite side. But in a 0-0 stalemate, Aberdeen hit the woodwork and had a header stuck in a puddle of mud on the goal line. That sapped their morale and, in the replay, Dundee prevailed 3-0.
It was a crushing blow. This was their third straight final defeat. Frustrated Aberdeen fans fought in the stands, forcing the game to be briefly suspended, and when Dundee paraded the trophy, the victors were pelted with cans. Back at Pittodrie, fans had left a graffitied message. “You’ve let us down again, Dons,” it read.
Ferguson did not sleep that night. At one point, he felt like throwing in the towel. Yet he refused to let adversity crush him. He got dressed, headed to work early and tried to lift the players. “I stressed it was a time to go on, it was a time to look forward,” he wrote in A Light in the North. “And I think that period was part of making us what we are today. If you check the records, Aberdeen very seldom lose two in a row.”
That week it kept bucketing down and, when St Mirren visited Pittodrie on the Saturday, only five thousand showed up. The pitch was a state, and Ferguson had half-suggested to Donald that he hoped the game would be postponed. “Listen, son, get on with the game,” Donald replied. “You don’t quit.”
Ferguson knew he was right and led Aberdeen to a 2-0 win. Gradually, the dark clouds drifted away. An injury to Harper had enabled Ferguson to use summer signing Mark McGee up front with Steve Archibald, and a resurgent Aberdeen forced their way into the title fight. For one home game against Morton, the weather looked set to cause a postponement that might have ruined their flow, but Ferguson and his staff awoke early, grabbed shovels and spades, and cleared six inches of snow off the pitch. Even Donald took part. The game went ahead and Aberdeen won 1-0 to keep up the pressure on Celtic.
A huge April awaited. Aberdeen trailed Celtic by seven points—a big gap, since wins only gave two points—and would travel twice to Parkhead, where their League Cup win had been the only away victory all season. Optimistic and confident, Ferguson told his players that if they won their game in hand plus both clashes at Celtic, they’d be one point behind. They won the first game 2-1 and, when they returned for the second, the press billed it as a title decider.
Close to sixty thousand people crammed into the boisterous stands, of which the most notorious was a stretch known as ‘The Jungle’ that housed the hardcore fans. So many teams had crumbled here, but this had become a side in the image of Ferguson. As Aberdeen warmed up, Rougvie broke from the group to do sprints and imaginary headers in front of The Jungle. It was pure provocation. Enraged fans hurled merciless abuse back at Rougvie, who loved it. “Up ye, ya bastards,” he’d say.
The message this sent was that Aberdeen would not be intimidated. Rather than calm things down, Ferguson encouraged new signings to go over and watch Rougvie. Aberdeen won the game 3-1, with Archibald and Strachan scoring and clenching their fists at The Jungle, to the approval of their boss. “It was letting Celtic know that we were there to win,” Ferguson wrote.
That changed the title race. In their penultimate game, Aberdeen knew they would effectively be guaranteed the championship if they won at Hibs and Celtic dropped points at St Mirren. At stake was their first league title since 1955, and the first to elude the Old Firm since Kilmarnock snuck past Dunfermline in 1965. Some grew nervous in the run-in, particularly Strachan, who found himself going to the toilet so often that people thought he was ill.
On the day, Aberdeen beat Hibs 5-0 and Celtic drew 0-0. At the whistle, the fans exploded, and Ferguson sprinted out onto the pitch, his black suit jacket flapping behind him, arms outstretched, hugging everyone in sight.
The party lasted for days. At one point, Ferguson invited people to his home, after which two fans turned up at his door for a drink at 3am. Another night, his phone rang at 2am. It was the players, singing drunken songs at a party hosted by Miller. Ferguson would come to appreciate that they felt close enough to him to make such a prank, though at that moment he thundered that they’d all get fined and suspended. The next Monday, he punished everyone with a gruelling hill run, except Miller, who had wisely reported injury.
The first player Ferguson really lost at Aberdeen was Archibald. He admired him for his talent, determination and stubbornness, even if their relationship was tense. Once, when Archibald had scored a League Cup hat-trick against Celtic, he took the match ball home with him, which was uncommon practice at that time. Ferguson sat him down in an office chair, which had happened so often that it had been nicknamed ‘The Archibald Chair’, and told him to return it. Some twenty-four hours later, as Ferguson was sipping tea with colleagues, Archibald burst through the office door and smashed the ball into the room with such force that it bounced off the walls, hit the tea cups and broke a fluorescent light. “There’s your bloody ball,” he said, and stormed off.
That summer Tottenham had tabled an offer that neither the club nor the player could refuse. Incidentally, when Ferguson travelled to London for negotiations, he took time out to watch Argentina train at White Hart Lane ahead of a friendly with England. He noted a young player obsessively practicing his shooting. It was Diego Maradona. He was still playing for Argentinos Juniors, but Osvaldo Ardiles told Ferguson he was going to become one of the greatest players in the world. Writing in 1985, by which time Maradona had joined Napoli, Ferguson offered his appreciation, but noted that “it hasn’t actually been proved that he is the world’s greatest—his temperament and ability to handle adversity are both suspect”. Had A Light in the North been published a year later, his verdict might have been different.
Before the season started, Aberdeen went on pre-season tour to the Faroe Islands. Their plane bumped down on the runway unconvincingly, raising talk about the pilot, whose credibility hardly soared when the players spotted him out enjoying “more than a few beers” the night before their early take-off back to Scotland. The trip itself denoted the financial limitations of the club. Some players found the Faroes a godforsaken place and, at some stage, one said: “Can you imagine what would have happened if we’d lost the league, if this is the reward for winning it?”
For his part, Ferguson was beaming, relieved about having secured the title and happy to have silenced his doubters. The players liked him and his family had settled. He had also hired an assistant named Archie Knox, with whom he would drive to games while listening to audio tapes of Bill Shankly talking. They would forge a strong relationship, though Knox soon complained that he had nothing to do, since Ferguson controlled everything. Reluctantly, Ferguson let Knox take training while he observed, and he realised he could spot more details this way. It was a lesson that stayed with him until his final days in management.
As ever, Ferguson was also investing heavily in the youth sector. He hired new scouts, built local contact networks and devised ways to snap up talent in front of Celtic and Rangers. One key weapon was the veteran scout Bobby Calder. Wearing a suit and a soft hat, he would crisscross the Glasgow belt hunting young stars, using his charm to persuade them. One challenge was to convince the parents to let their kids join a club some hundred and fifty miles north, so Calder would turn up at their door with chocolate or flowers for mum and cigars for dad. Brothers and sisters might be offered loose change. “You’re signing for Aberdeen and Scotland at the same time,” he’d tell the players.
Once the talents arrived at Aberdeen, writes Grant, Ferguson put them in houses, where he’d offer staff presents in exchange for tips about eventual misbehaviour. At youth games, he examined their parents to gain insights into their background, character and how their physique might develop. As soon as a youngster walked into his office, Ferguson said he could judge by their body language whether he was worth signing or not. “I can spot a winner a mile away,” he boasted.
Soon a conveyor belt of talent fortified the first team: Jim Leighton, John Hewitt, Neale Cooper, Alex McLeish. Yet the third season proved disappointing. In winter, serious injuries hampered their form, as did a high-profile European Cup clash with Shankly’s Liverpool in which Aberdeen were pummelled 4-0 at Anfield. They limped to second, seven points behind Celtic, and were dumped out of the cups by Morton and Dundee.
Ferguson was never going to tolerate a second straight season without a trophy. Though Aberdeen lost their first two league games, it soon became clear that he had imbued the players with a more aggressive, almost hostile attitude. One team that found that out were Sir Bobby Robson’s Ipswich, whom they met in the UEFA Cup first round. At that time Ipswich were one of the top sides in England and worried little about the draw. But Aberdeen went at their throats and drew 1-1 away, then won 3-1 at home. “They were a really difficult team to play,” Terry Butcher told Grant. “Tough bastards. Fucking hell, really strong bastards.”
In the second round, Aberdeen beat Argeș Pitești 3-0 at home, but endured a disastrous start back in Romania and trailed 2-0 at half-time. Particularly Strachan had ignored orders, and Ferguson confronted him in the dressing room. Then Strachan made the mistake of talking back to him, which led a livid Ferguson to swing his palm into a huge giant urn that nearly “broke his hand”. In blind rage, he then grabbed a tray of tea cups and hurled it towards Strachan, the porcelain crashing into the wall behind him. In the second half, Aberdeen fought back to 2-2 and won 5-2 on aggregate.
Back in the league, Aberdeen wobbled from November to January, until they met Celtic in a Scottish Cup clash in February. The game was at Pittodrie, but a paranoid Ferguson took the players out of town because he felt McNeill “knew too many people in the Aberdeen area”. He knew what kind of battle awaited. The Celtic clashes had descended into war since he had arrived. When Celtic and Rangers met, there was at least mutual respect afterwards; Aberdeen were too brutal for that. Most of it stemmed from Ferguson, who wanted to get rid of the reserved attitude characteristic of the north-eastern area. He would fire up the players by parroting how everyone was against them—the referees, the people, the press—and they believed him. If anyone kicked them, they’d get at least one kick back.
Aberdeen beat Celtic 1-0, which started a run of sixteen wins in eighteen league games. That was not enough to win the title, but they still had a Scottish Cup final date with Rangers. Also they had come to loathe Aberdeen, and clashes frequently triggered brawls, horror tackles and red cards. As it was, the Dons won 4-1 after extra time. In the aftermath, BBC journalist Archie Macpherson remarked that Ferguson had “exported the street-fighting qualities of Glasgow” to Aberdeen, which seemed exactly right. “I always remembered us being fit and organised and having drive, but there was more to it than that,” Strachan told Grant. “That team could play any game, anytime, anywhere. They were like a four-wheel-drive Ranger Rover. They could handle anything.”
In the summer of 1982, Ferguson combined his family holiday with watching the World Cup in Spain. He also visited the Scotland team hotel, where he found Archibald near the pool ordering a hamburger plus a bottle of Dom Perignon. “He deserved to be back in the Archibald Chair for mixing those two,” Ferguson would note.
The season would hand Aberdeen a bitter title run-in. They would finish a point behind Dundee United, who pulled off a sensational triumph. More excitement was on offer in the cups, as they had entered the Cup Winners’ Cup, where rivals included Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Internazionale. Though few thought they could win it, they beat Sion, Dinamo Tirana and Lech Poznán to earn a glamorous quarter-final tie against Bayern.
The imposing Bavarians had stars such as Paul Breitner and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, but Aberdeen had gained experience in Europe. They dug out a 0-0 draw in Bavaria, one of their finest defensive displays under Ferguson. According to Barclay, the goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff said Bayern knew they were in for a scrap when they noticed their opponents hardly had any teeth. Still, back at a rocking Pittodrie, Aberdeen looked down and out when Bayern were 2-1 up with a quarter of an hour left. At some point, Strachan and John McMaster even argued about who should take a free-kick outside the box. Strachan shaped up to take it, only to confusingly run past the ball and stop. The quarrel might have bemused Bayern players marking in the box, but suddenly Strachan turned and whipped the ball into the area where McLeish nodded home. The whole thing had been an act. A minute later, Hewitt popped up to make it 3-2 and seal a shock turnaround.
That night made Aberdeen believe they could win the tournament. In the semi-finals, a 5-2 aggregate win over Waterschei set up a final against Madrid. They had stumbled to third in La Liga a year earlier, but still awed opponents with their aura and history. Yet when Ferguson flew to Spain to scout them, he was not impressed. He told Knox: “Don’t tell anybody, but what a chance we’ve got!”
Final fever gripped the city of Aberdeen. The game would be played in Gothenburg, and more than twelve thousand fans boarded planes to get there. Some five hundred travelled by boat. Others jumped on their motorbikes, taking a week off work. According to Grant, the Aberdeen airport duty free shop sold a month’s worth of alcohol in three days.
Ferguson prepared meticulously. He booked a riverside hotel outside the city, and sent instructions to the players’ wives about what they could do to help. He also enlisted the advice of Stein, his big idol, who recommended that he present Madrid coach Alfredo Di Stéfano with a bottle of Scotch before the game, so as to give the impression that Aberdeen were starstruck. Ferguson followed suit. On the eve of the final, the players organised a quiz night to momentarily take their minds off the game, which worked so well that, by breakfast the next morning, they were still arguing about the answers. A staff membered had banned Ferguson from taking part on the grounds that he would have become too competitive.
On the day of the final, constant rain drenched the pitch. That did not worry Aberdeen, who were tremendously fit, and they took an early lead through Eric Black. But minutes later, a McLeish back-pass slowed on the soggy pitch to let Madrid win a penalty that Juanito converted. When extra time came along, Ferguson had already put on Hewitt, who was so cold he was wearing two shirts. Almost immediately, Ferguson shouted at him for dropping too deep, and soon he turned to Knox and said: “We’re going to have to take him off.” Just then, McGhee hared down the left and crossed for Hewitt, who headed in the winner.
The triumph was remarkable. A club with the size and history of Aberdeen should never have been able to win a cup like that, let alone beat Bayern and Madrid. As the whistle went, Ferguson slipped and fell in a puddle, while the staff raced over him. The carousing lasted until 6am. Back in Aberdeen, players and staff leapt aboard a bus to parade the trophy in front of a hundred thousand people.
Ten days later, Aberdeen met Rangers in another Scottish Cup final. Exhausted, they ground out a 1-0 win. Ferguson had reason to be pleased with their endurance, but in a live on-pitch interview, he slaughtered what he deemed a ‘disgraceful performance’. He continued the outburst in the dressing room, before repeating the message to stunned journalists. The squad were indignant: they had just won two cups. The ensuing celebrations were understandably flat. Years later Ferguson would cringe at his own his behaviour and, within days of the event, he apologised to the players. Some accepted it. Others never forgave him entirely.
A few months later, when the dust had settled, Aberdeen geared up for another title tilt. Ferguson had signed Stark from St Mirren and masterminded a 2-0 aggregate win over Hamburg in the European Super Cup. Though the league campaign started slowly, a 3-1 win over Celtic kick-started a run of fourteen wins in sixteen games. All along, Ferguson maintained his astringent style to keep everyone on their toes.
Some of his behaviour could be harsh and downright unfair. “I was aggressive and demanding and I suspect not everyone enjoyed it, but it made the players into men and increased their profiles,” he wrote. As ever, what really got him going was drinking. One Friday night, Strachan saw him drive past his house to check he was still in. Ferguson generally encouraged his players to settle down early and, while most did, the exceptions were particularly vulnerable. One was Cooper, who was once handed a drink in a bar, only to see Ferguson appear out of nowhere.
“What’s that you’re drinking?” Ferguson asked him.
Cooper started sweating.
“Oh, eh, it’s Coke.”
Ferguson came closer. He smelt the drink and looked at him.
“That doesn’t smell like bloody Coke to me.”
“It is, it is Coke,” Cooper stuttered.
Ferguson took a sip. Then he moved even closer, and said in a low voice:
“You’re dead. Monday morning…”
While the crusade on alcohol was understandable, Ferguson could also combust over trivial things. He once fined Hewitt £20 for having overtaken him en route to training. In one game at Morton, in horrific weather, Ferguson asked if anyone wanted to play in long sleeves. When Doug Considine said yes, Ferguson wanted him removed from the team-sheet.
At Pittodrie, youngsters infringing rules risked having to wash cars or run in the woods. When playing snooker, Ferguson and Knox would even bring out a baseball bat. It was not meant as a serious threat, but Knox did go as far as to turn off the lights and wave it around a bit. “Sometimes you would clout them… not hit them properly. Maybe jab them a bit,” Knox told Grant. “Some of the things we did then, you’d get jailed for now.”
On other occasions, Ferguson used his fury as a tool. Anything could trigger outbursts, but he could also turn it into an act just to keep people in line. In one half-time talk, he nearly got into a fist fight, then calmly resumed his analysis. He once slammed McGhee at half-time, then invited him and his wife out for Chinese food after the game. Another time, Ferguson told Miller, McLeish and Leighton that he would harangue them in front of the squad the next day, and ordered them not to answer back. According to Barclay, Strachan even saw Ferguson give Rougvie a dressing down, then wink back at him and say: “If he ever hits me, I’m dead.”
One such episode might have taken place ahead of the Scottish Cup final, which Aberdeen had reached a third consecutive time that season. They had lost to Porto in the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finals, but won another league title. Now, as they were aiming for the double, Ferguson spotted Rougvie on the front page of the Aberdeen Evening News posing on a motorbike. The players found it hilarious, but Ferguson, seething at what he perceived as a dangerous hobby, commanded him to his office and ordered him to trade the motorbike for a regular bike, or get sold himself. Rougvie followed orders, thought it did him little good. A few days before the final, a lorry knocked him off his bicycle and put him in hospital.
Somehow, Rougvie still played the final. He had told neither Ferguson nor the physios about the incident. “No wonder he had a nightmare of a game and had to be substituted,” Ferguson wrote. In any event, Aberdeen won 1-0 to pull off the first double in history outside the Old Firm.
On the bus ride back, champagne was guzzled like water. Ferguson had ordered eight cases to be brought on board in case they won, but club secretary Ian Taggart had panicked over what Donald might say about the outlay. When Donald had spotted the cases, Taggart had assured him only two would come on the bus. That was a lie: Ferguson had hidden the other six in the bus toilet and, on the way back, as Donald noted the bottles being uncorked, he turned to Ferguson and asked: “Mr Ferguson, how many cups did we win today?”
After yet another triumphant year, Ferguson was starting to become a victim of his own success. Richer clubs wanted his players and, that summer of 1984, he lost three key men. Strachan joined Manchester United, Rougvie left for Chelsea and McGhee signed for Hamburg. Alleviating those blows was the signing of striker Frank McDougall, another arrival from St Mirren.
Ferguson also had received offers himself. He had turned down Tottenham and Rangers, which had not been easy. On the subsequent pre-season tour, in Germany, Cooper and Peter Weir suffered long-term injuries, while McMaster was already out for the season. Aberdeen then exited the League Cup in the second round against lower-league Airdrie, then slipped in first round of the European Cup to unfancied East German outfit Dinamo Berlin. So many things were going wrong that Ferguson started to feel he should have jumped the ship.
At least they did well in the league. They won fifteen of their first seventeen games, and McDougall was proving a revelation. Like Archibald, he had a complicated relationship with Ferguson. For one game, he hid a groin injury that forced him to come off, which prompted Ferguson to accost him in the dressing rom. But McDougall happened to be a former Glasgow amateur boxing champion, and he instinctively swung a punch that knocked Ferguson to the floor. Ferguson got to his feet and told him he was finished. Before long, though, McDougall was back in the team. In such cases Ferguson could prove forgiving, partly since he admired people who stood up to him, and partly because he was pragmatic enough not to bench his best striker. McDougall scored twenty-two league goals that season.
In late April, Aberdeen clinched their second straight league title with a 1-1 draw at home to Celtic. They eventually collected fifty-nine points and scored eighty-nine goals in thirty-six games—both league records. Despite such a gloomy start, the campaign had turned out so well that Ferguson would rank that team alongside his heroes of Gothenburg.
Everyone wanted Ferguson now. Overcoming Aberdeen’s provincial status and fragile mentality, he had shattered the Old Firm duopoly with a recipe of attacking football, clever man management, shrewd signings and sheer bloodymindedness. Arsenal and Wolverhampton had approached him and been rejected, but he was starting to get itchy feet.
Then came another distraction. For some months, Ferguson had assisted Stein at the Scotland national team, but in a decisive World Cup qualifier at Ninian Park, Stein had collapsed on the bench and died. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Ferguson was selected to lead the team into the 1986 World Cup. That affected his work at Aberdeen, who finished fourth.
Other things had started to bug Ferguson. When Aberdeen lost to Gothenburg in the European Cup quarter-finals, he had been disappointed at the Pittodrie turnout, which he ascribed to people now taking their success for granted. He also felt the club has become so well run that it left him without challenges. After a 3-0 win against Hibs in the Scottish Cup semi-final, he told Donald he was considering moving on. Donald replied that there were only two jobs that were worth leaving Aberdeen for: Barcelona and Manchester United.
Aberdeen finished the season by winning the Scottish Cup and the League Cup. Ferguson then took Scotland to Mexico, where they came last in a group with Denmark, West Germany and Uruguay. Still, it had been an exhilarating adventure, and some of the Aberdeen players lost motivation when forced to swap the world stage in Mexico with pre-season trips to Scottish provincial sides. To make matter worse, McDougall aggravated a back injury and, by early October, Aberdeen had exited the League Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup. Tellingly, their victors in Europe were Sion, the club they had steamrolled 11-1 on aggregate four years earlier.
Other events indicated that the Old Firm was gathering strength. In summer, Rangers had shocked everyone by hiring Graeme Souness as player-manager, backed him with cash and let his reputation attract big names. They had beaten Aberdeen 2-0 at Ibrox in September. The usual enmity had been present, but Rangers had seemed fresher, while Aberdeen, as Ally McCoist is cited by Grant, had looked “like a boxer who had had one fight too many”.
Ferguson must have sensed it too. Soon news emerged that United had sacked Ron Atkinson and, on 5 November, Ferguson got a call from United chairman Martin Edwards. They agreed terms and, the next day, he was unveiled as the new manager of Manchester United.
Few were surprised at Aberdeen. The players had long suspected he’d join United once the job was available and, if anything, it was odd that they had managed to keep him for so long. When Scotsport filmed their 1985 documentary, many of the players spoke as if they sensed that Ferguson would leave soon. Despite the many clashes, they had nothing but praise. “He can handle players, he’s good at man management, he’s good on the tactical side, he’s good with the press,” said Miller. “So I think whatever he wants to turn his hand to, whatever job he thinks will suit him better in the future, I’m sure he’ll do it very well.”