Busby and Ferguson: United's shining Knights
It is a milestone which Sir Alex Ferguson admits he never thought he would reach. But on Sunday Fergie, the Fiery One of Old Trafford, finally passed the legendary Matt Busby as the longest-serving manager in Manchester United's history. Twenty four years, one month and fourteen days was the extraordinary length of Busby's tenure at the Theatre of Dreams between 1945-1969. On Sunday it became twenty four years, one month and fifteen days since a young Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford from Aberdeen to take over from Ron Atkinson. Busby and Ferguson. Two Scotsmen who, ironically, were knighted for their services to world football. Two Scotsmen who will stand alongside the greatest managers in the history of English football. Two Scotsmen who made Manchester United the club it is today. Despite rumours to the contrary, I wasn't born when Busby left his Scottish home town Bellshill as a 17-year-old in 1928 to begin his eight-year career with Manchester City. But in a way, I've known him, or of him, all of my life. I was born into a sky blue family. Uncles Tom and Jim would often reminisce about Busby the sturdy, intelligent City right-half who could thread a pass through the eye of a needle. By the time I reached my teenage years in the mid-50s, Busby was a household name as manager at United. English football had never seen anything like him. He had produced a team of kids who looked capable of conquering the world the fabulous Busby Babes. Like every person in Manchester, blue or red, I was distraught when that wonderful team was destroyed in the 1958 Munich air disaster. I remember there was one ray of hope. Busby had survived the carnage albeit suffering terrible injuries. While Busby lived, so did United. Somehow he recovered and the rest is history. But to this day, I've always believed that if Busby had died in that Munich hospital in 1958, his club would have died with him. In the early 70s, I was an eager young football writer at the Evening News, while Busby had moved upstairs on the United board. I can still recall being sent to United's ground to report on that year's Annual General Meeting. No other journalist bothered to turn up AGMs in those days were dull. There was nothing to report but as I was leaving, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and it was Matt Busby. He told me how much he had enjoyed a series I had just finished writing about retired players called Where Are They Now? and he hoped there was another series in the pipeline. Can you imagine how I felt? A kid from a poor Gorton family being appreciated for his work by Matt Busby? I was proud fit to burst. It was around that time that I interviewed United's madcap Irish goalkeeper Harry Gregg. I wanted to know more about Busby's managerial technique. What made him the great manager he was. Harry's answer surprised me. He said that Busby rarely gave inspirational pre-match team talks. Just go out and play your football, was Busby's usual message. With hindsight, perhaps Busby knew that was all he needed to say. Sir Matt, as Gregg recalled, wasn't a rant and rave manager or a teacup thrower. But, as quiet as they were, a telling-off from Busby, Gregg insisted, was a terrifying experience. You came away feeling like the poacher who had just shot Bambi's mother, was how Gregg put it. So this then was the Scotsman who ruled over Old Trafford for twenty four years, one month and fourteen days between 1945-1969. Empire An innovator. A visionary, who believed in youth. A man who came to Old Trafford not to build a team but to build a club. A man who built the foundations for a club which became an empire under United's next Scottish manager, Sir Alexander Ferguson. On paper Fergie and Busby are like chalk and cheese. One a ticking time bomb, the other a quiet pipe-smoker who, to the outside world, was laidback to the point of being horizontal. Ferguson, I read recently, agrees that he has little in common with Busby but I'm going to risk a hairdryer blast by begging to differ. Because in so many ways, I regard the two great Scottish managers as being peas out of the same pod. Both had the same goals when they accepted the manager's job at Old Trafford. They weren't looking for instant success although they wanted it. They wanted to rebuild the club they had inherited rather than just rebuild a team. And both had an unshakable belief that youth would be the key to success. In a working capacity, I have known Fergie from the moment he walked through the door at United in 1986. I do view the world through blue-tinted specs, but even so, I liked him as a man from the first moment I spoke to him and that holds good to this day. I like his humour and his straightforwardness. He speaks it as he sees it. And any man who punctures a few over-inflated egos, inside and outside football, certainly gets my vote. Down the years I've interviewed a number of United players from different generations. When it comes to Sir Alex, those players were unanimous. If you've got a problem, football-related or domestic, take it to Fergie. He'll find the answer. Has Ferguson changed during his twenty four years, one month and fifteen days as Manchester United's manager? No, I don't think he has. It's professional football which has changed, not him. He's now handling footballers who are millionaires in their own right and as famous as any A-rated Hollywood film star. The pressure from all the media to feed their public grows more relentless with each passing week. During his tenure at Old Trafford, Fergie has had to keep a firm hand on the wheel as he watched United go from a family-run club to a public limited company to a cash cow for American businessmen hated by his club's fans. Somehow among all that mayhem, he stuck by his principles to build teams which dominated English football and elevated the status of his club to a global level. Yes, it's true. When Ferguson blows, he blows like a tornado, although he does seem to have mellowed (slightly) during the passing of the years. But I can say, in all his time at Old Trafford, I have only had the his famous hairdryer' once. Midway through the treble campaign in the 1998-99 season, he granted me an audience after I had badgered him. I asked him if his priorities would change if he collected the full set of trophies by winning the Champions League that season. He thought for a while and then replied that if his team did win the Champions League, he might adopt a less hands-on approach to his management. The way I wrote the story made it look as though he would retire with the Champions League trophy in the bag. When he read that, Fergie was not amused. I rang him the next day and the earpiece on my phone had all but melted by the time he had finished. Needless to say, I was at the Nou Camp where the Reds pulled off that amazing victory over Bayern Munich to land the Champions League. An hour after the match, I was walking across the car park and there was Fergie and club secretary, Ken Ramsden. I walked over to congratulate him and Alex picked me up and gave me a hug which any grizzly bear would have been proud of. As I staggered away trying to get my breath back, Fergie opened his mouth to speak. Hincey, he bellowed, You're still banned from Old Trafford. When you see Sir Alex's picture in the MEN, you are looking at a slice of football history. His longevity as a one-club manager will never again be matched. We are now living in hire-em and fire-em times, more's the pity. So Fergie's record will remain untouched. But knowing him, he will be around for a few more years yet just to make doubly sure. Is Fergie the greatest manager ever? Have your say.
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