Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson. Yes, he will be sculpted in bronze outside Old Trafford when the time comes. When the sculptor chooses the base for the statue, granite should be ordered. For it is in the “granite city” of Aberdeen in northeast Scotland that Ferguson’s hardened coaching mould was cast.
Approaching Aberdeen by road, the driver sees the granite metropolis sparkle in the distance. Some say the stone is radioactive. It certainly is mesmerizing. It rubbed off on Alex Ferguson when he took over as coach of the city’s team in 1978. In his eight years in charge of “The Dons,” he orchestrated a meltdown at the core of Scottish football with a team that glowed.
For as long as the medieval mind of Scotland could remember, the two-headed Goliath of Scottish football, the Old Firm known as Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic, had devoured everything in its path. Other teams existed to fight for third place in the league or occasionally strike the giant on the nose with the odd knockout win in the Scottish Cup. Glasgow sucked the air out of Scottish soccer, if not Scottish life. But nothing lasts forever.
In the Sixties, oil was discovered in the North Sea. Aberdeen became an oil city overnight. Black gold pumped money into the region. Provincial became international. Naturally, the flame on the city’s football team began to burn brighter. Aberdeen installed the first all-seated stadium in Scotland. They were modern.
Fergie arrived and set about rigging the side that would become the best in Europe in 1983, winners of the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, Europe’s second biggest club prize at the time. Fergie had raised the players who would shape Scotland’s last golden generation of talent. Wullie Miller, his captain, would go on to lead the national team alongside his Aberdeen teammates Alex McLeish, Gordon Strachan, Jim Leighton and Mark McGee. Under Ferguson, Aberdeen won the Scottish league thrice and the Scottish Cup four times.
The Old Firm hated these upstarts from Aberdeen. Sheepshaggers, they called them. How dare this bunch of provincial muttonfuckers come down to holy Glasgow to upset the trinity of football, religion and entitlement. The outrage!
Alex Ferguson is a Glasgow man. He worked as a toolmaker in the shipyards of Glasgow as a youth. Fergie had played professionally for Rangers before coaching, not a great player but he had fulfilled the dream of many a Protestant boy by wearing the red, white and blue of Scotland’s Protestant club. But there were rumors that his welcome at Rangers was limited as he was married to a Catholic, an uncomfortable reality for Rangers players in the sixties and seventies. Rangers had a de facto ban on fielding Catholic players until 1989. Ferguson denies that this was an issue for him or for the club and that he left Rangers solely for soccer reasons.
One of his mentors was Jock Stein, the legendary Celtic and Scotland manager. Stein, a Protestant, led Celtic to victory in the European Cup in 1967, the first British club to achieve the feat. Celtic represented Irish-Catholic Glasgow but they were more progressive than their Protestant rivals across town. No religion bar was set against signing players or coaches. Stein had felt the sting of sectarianism, rejected by his friends when he too married a Catholic. Ferguson, like Stein, was an outsider. Both men were bigger than Glasgow’s soccer prejudices. Ferguson turned down the coaching job at Rangers when it was offered to him. Manchester United gained.
In the eighties, a documentary was made about Aberdeen’s Ferguson. His players spoke of a coach who hated losing not just on the field but playing cards on the team bus or snooker in the games room. Before matches, his adrenaline would be pumping furiously. He ran the locker room with an iron fist, berating players who let the side down, scaring the daylight out of youngsters who failed to make the grade. Born was the legend of Fergie’s “hairdryer ” blasting hot venomous air at the hapless. Speaking of which, when an Aberdeen player decided to get a perm, Fergie went ballistic and frizzled the fool by making him wear a balaclava at training sessions until the perm had grown out. Annoying Fergie was a mistake. Still is.
Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle
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