Sir Alex Ferguson gave this interview as part of a series for See Glasgow with other well-known Glaswegians. The Manchester United manager goes back to his roots to reveal what turned a young, abrasive shipyard shop steward into a legend of the game
Sir Alex Ferguson’s reputation goes before him. And it is thoroughly deserved. It was shaped in Govan – a working-class area of Glasgow on the River Clyde, once renowned for shipbuilding – as he grew up in the most rough-and-tumble of environments. Confrontation was the name of his game. Yet he thrived on it, rarely resorting to calm persuasion when his fists would do.
It is where the seeds of his infamous “hairdryer” treatment – the punishment for misbehaving footballers – were sown. He is fond of reminiscing, unashamedly sentimental when recalling his formative years. He never forgets his roots; they are what he is.
“Govan was a shipbuilding town, of course, with three shipyards,” he said. “Maybe a way back, maybe before the war, there were one or two smaller shipyards. It was a real hub. If you think of the population of Govan before the war, it was 147,000 people. It’s quite a big area, Govan – and now it’s 20,000.
“That tells you the devastation there was in the shipyards and what that created because it’s not just the shipyards themselves. It’s all the automo-tive industry, the light engineering, right up Helen Street. It was a massive area of engineering that was lost as soon as the shipyards went.“I grew up opposite Harland and Wolff, so I had to live through the noise of the night-shift workers banging around, the corkers’ hammers going all night. But I got used to that. You’d sleep through that whereas now I’d find it difficult because I live in a quiet suburb of Manchester.
“You didn’t have a lot but I never call it poverty because I don’t think it was poverty. You always had your meals, you never missed school, you were always clean and tidy. We didn’t have a bathroom but we did have a big zinc bath and you’d have your bath once a week and be scrubbed clean.
“Everybody was the same really. I know there were poor families, there were a lot of big families. I remember the Law family: Mrs Law had 18 kids and they were living in a tenement like all of us. I remember one of the brothers, Joe, coming back from [the war in] Korea and they were all there. It was like the Coronation!
“I kept saying, ‘What’s all that bunting for?’ because the whole street was covered. There were uncles, aunties, cousins, brothers everywhere. It was a fantastic homecoming for him coming back from Korea.
“It was a great upbringing. All we ever did was play football and fight. That’s what you did in these areas. There was a real sense of community because we all lived so close together. You hear it said that you never locked your door, but it’s true. You’d come in and you’d find a note, ‘Lizzie, I’ve taken a cup of sugar’ or ‘Lizzie, I’ve borrowed some tea’, that type of thing.
“People shared with each other. There was a common cause to help each other, far more than you get today. You knew all your neighbours and probably worked with half of them. Today, I don’t know half my neighbours.”
Ferguson’s confidence and stature grew swiftly, a leader who would escape the clutches of the Clyde to become one of the most iconic figures in the world game.
He has remained a staunch Labour supporter throughout. “In most cases, and particularly in my case, your political views are formed by your parents’ ideology or the way they want to see you brought up,” Ferguson said. “My father was a strong Labour man and my mother was Labour, too.
“I always remember when I was about 25 or 26 and my mother came up to me and said, ‘Have you voted?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to vote.’ She said, ‘What do you mean you don’t know how to vote? You get down that bloody school and get your bloody vote! What do you think your father would say?’
“That was the very last time I ever dared to mention voting. My mother was normally quite a quiet woman but she went mad. So I think you’re shaped by your family, although, as you get older, your personality evolves. But I think my inner instinct is to be a socialist and a Labour man and, no matter how much money I’ve got, I will never change that.
“Mum was a shop steward at Aero Plastics in Hillington. She was a really big influence on me, as was my dad, who was also a shop steward for a time. So that’s always been there. I was a shop steward as an apprentice and led the apprentices’ strike in ’61. Later on, I became the shop steward of the toolroom when I was only 21.
“The one thing I always felt I had when I was young is that I was always prepared to be decisive. Whether or not that was an instinct or impulsive, I had it in me to do that. When you are a shop steward, you’re actually working for the interests of your workers.
“I know that on Clydeside, for quite a while, trade unions were under quite a bit of communist influence, which I didn’t think was overly healthy. Nonetheless, the ideology of looking after the workers’ interests was why I became a shop steward. There was reason to fight for better conditions for the apprentices across the whole of Scotland, even though the company I worked for was American and we were at a level above, maybe getting five shillings more an hour. But it was about those other apprentices.
“If you remember back to those days, people got married much younger, many in their teens, so lots of the apprentices were married with kids. It was a different culture and mentality and most wives didn’t work in those days. Their job was to look after the house, bring the kids up, make the dinner in time for their husband coming home. Simple as that. So it was a one-wage house in most cases, which was why I felt a responsibility to look after their interests.”
The fledgeling Ferguson took flight, maturing into the abrasive but inspirational manager of Manchester United. “I think that self-confidence [to stand up and lead] is probably just within me,” he said. “I was a wee bit bossy when I was younger. I’m not saying this as a promotion of myself, but you get some guys who stand out in that way. It’s just a characteristic thing about me, being decisive and go-ahead, at times even aggressive. I’ve always been like that, never changed.
“That aggression is a Glaswegian thing, especially with guys of my generation. I meet guys throughout the world and hear the Scottish accent and I say, ‘Where are you from?’ and they’re, ‘I’m frae Glasgow.’ It’s amazing how many are out there. They go out there because they have that determination to do well.
“I went to do a documentary of myself that never got finished so, I suppose, it’s lying on some shelf somewhere. But I went down to Glasgow and down to the shipyards and I phoned up Joe Donnelly, the personnel manager my dad was pally with, and asked if I could go into the shipyard to do some filming and he said, ‘Yeah, come on in.’
“So they organised lunch in the boardroom and we went around the shipyard and it was all, ‘Hiya, Alex.’ And we went on to the deck of this ship and it was absolutely freezing. Honest to God, the wind was howling down the Clyde. It was just a young interviewer and he said, ‘What do you think has shaped your character?’ and I says, ‘Do you feel that flipping wind?”
Ferguson is hewn from the same rock as Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Sir Matt Busby, fellow strivers and survivors from grim backgrounds, fellow football greats. “It’s the communities,” Ferguson said. “If you look at the mining communities where Big Jock, Shanks and Busby came from, they really depended on each other.
“It’s like that great movie, How Green Was My Valley, about the mining disaster in Wales and that’s what it must have been like in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. You see these places and all the houses in the miners’ rows all look the same. The communities they came from gave them that determination to do well in life, to remember that their loyalty is to each other.
“That’s something that all four of us have always had. Shanks was loyal to his club [Liverpool], Stein was loyal to Celtic, Busby was loyal to [Manchester] United. That wasn’t by accident, that’s the sort of human beings they were. They came from a community that depended on loyalty to each other. There was a trust and belief in each other.”
Escaping the docks, Ferguson, a prolific forward, played for Queen’s Park, St Johnstone, Dunfermline Athletic, Rangers, Falkirk and Ayr United, averaging better than a goal every two matches. He cut his managerial fangs with East Stirlingshire, moving on to St Mirren and Aberdeen. At Pittodrie he combined managing Scotland for one year after Stein’s death and in 1986 – a year indelibly stamped on the memory of every United fan – he moved to Old Trafford.
His devil-may-care youth, the setbacks along the way, again helped to forge his inner steel. “We grew up in tenements so we spent all our time outside,” Ferguson said. “Our mothers would say, ‘Get out there and get some fresh air’, so you were always out the back fighting with the gangs up the road and playing football. That was your life.
“And we’d be out jumping dykes. Some areas of Govan had great jumps, where you could jump from one dyke to another. The dangerous ones had names: the king, the queen, the suicide, the diamond, the spiky. You’d go to different areas of Govan to challenge each other into jumping dykes because it was very dangerous.
“But you do that when you’re a kid because you’ve got no fear. We used to go for pigeons, go on church roofs, on bridges and that, you never worried about falling. Nowadays, I’m in a 20-storey hotel and I look down and go, ‘Oh no!’ But when you’re young, nothing worries you.”
Nothing worries Ferguson, 67, any more. Well, maybe the possible departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid this summer. Or perhaps Carlos Tévez’s move to whoever has the most money. If, though, he can persuade his multimillionaire superstars to embrace just a fraction of his work ethic, he will be happy.
“I say to my players, ‘What is the hardest thing to achieve in life?’ ” Ferguson said. “I think one of the hardest things you can do is to work hard all your life. I don’t think that’s easy. I say to them, ‘Look at me: have I changed? Am I still as hungry as I was ten years ago when you first came to me as young kids?’ The answer is yes. So if I don’t change, does that not tell you something that is nice? Which is that working hard is actually good for you.
“I hear that people want to retire at 50 or 55 and I can’t believe that. What are they going to do with their lives? Sit in the house and read the bloody papers or twiddle their thumbs when there’s a world out there that you should be working for?