From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.34 :: NO.48 :: Dec. 01, 2011

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FOOTBALL / KICKING AROUND

Is Sir Alex the finest?

There are, as we are told, three kinds of life: lies, damned lies and statistics. On the basis of statistics Fergie's record is quite unassailable, but let us go back in time, to far off 1945, to take the measure of Busby's essential contributions. Over to Brian Glanville.

PICS: AP

Sir Alex Ferguson soaks in the applause of the crowd before a presentation commemorating his 25 years in charge of the club.

Sir Alex Ferguson recently completed an amazing 25 years in charge of Manchester United. Phenomenal not just because of the sheer longevity but because of the triumphal haul of trophies which have distinguished his reign, two European Cups, a dozen Premier League titles, six FA Cups. Yet when push comes to shove, as they say, does even this remarkable record overshadow the achievements of Matt Busby at Old Trafford; even if Busby didn't win remotely as many competitions as Ferguson?

There are, as we are told, three kinds of life: lies, damned lies and statistics. On the basis of statistics Fergie's record is quite unassailable, but let us go back in time, to far off 1945, to take the measure of Busby's essential contributions.

The end of the Second World War saw Manchester United without a ground; a phenomenon which would last for seasons to come. The reason being that Old Trafford was so badly bombed in the war — a tree famously grew out of one goalmouth — that for years United were obliged to share Maine Road, the home ground of Manchester City. The club, in fact, where Busby had made his name as a cultured wing half, a Scottish international, which the battling centre-forward Ferguson ever was, before joining Liverpool not long before the war. Made manager of Manchester United, he did have a number of talented players to call on, but it was the remarkable success of his youth programme, the creation of the team known as the Busby Babes, which distinguished his regime.

“If you don't put them in you can't know what you've got,” he told me succinctly in remote 1952 after an extraordinary win at Chelsea, where goals proliferated.

And put them in he did to huge effect; the likes of Duncan Edwards, the dominant left half who died after the horrific 1958 Munich air crash, Bobby Charlton and George Best. It was Busby, himself a serious casualty of that crash, who took United into the European Cup in 1956 against the bitter isolationist opposition of Alan Hardaker, Secretary of the Football League. And Busby who, romantically was back in charge in 1968 at Wembley when his team beat Benfica to become the first English team ever to win that Cup.



The newly named Sir Alex Ferguson Stand at the Old Trafford Stadium is seen as Manchester United play Sunderland in their English Premier League match.

All three United victories in the European final were close run affairs, even so the 4-1 Wembley win over Benfica in 1968 may have seemed emphatic. In fact United, without their injured star Denis Law, were fading at the end of ordinary time with the score square, till a wonderful solo goal by George Best revived them at the start of extra time. Manchester United under Ferguson beat Bayern Munich in the Barcelona final against all odds and probability. A goal down against a team which had hit post and United bar, Ferguson almost paid the penalty for playing Ryan Giggs (filched from Manchester City as a 13 year old) on the right rather than the left where he deployed the ineffectual Swede Lars Jesper Blomqvist. No essential Roy Keane or Paul Scholes, but United rallied astoundingly in the last minutes of the game scoring through their substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer.

In the European Cup final in Moscow, United breathlessly got off the hook when John Terry, Chelsea's captain and England centre half, missed a spot kick in the shoot out. But did either of these victories surpass the phenomenal achievement of his Aberdeen (four times Scottish champions against the Rangers-Celtic duopoly) beating mighty Real Madrid in the Copenhagen final of the European Cup winners' Cup?

If you looked for the cloven hoof in either Busby or Ferguson, you could find it. Belatedly and bewilderingly, Frank O'Farrell, who followed Busby as United's manager, has published in an autobiography a long lament of how Busby refused to move out of his managerial office to accommodate him and generally made his life a misery.

Ferguson, a few years back, was embroiled in a displeasing stand off with the millionaire Irish racehorse owners Magnier and McManus who'd generously allowed him to collect all the winnings of their champion horse, Rock of Gibraltar. When, however, it came to breeding rights on the horse's retirement, the Irishmen, to Ferguson's ire stood firm. No payments. He threatened to sue them in an Irish court, but was allegedly talked out of such a doomed expensive business by his sons.

One of them, Jason, ran the Elite Agency which Ferguson was alleged to persuade his young players to join. When United signed the gifted American keeper Tim Howard, after his dazzling Confederations Cup in France, they were reported to have paid a large sum to an obscure Italo-Swiss agent for helping Howard get a work permit; most of the money then going to an agent in Monaco, Mike Hammond, thence to Jason and Elite. The problem being which I as a former regular member of the Ministry of Employment's regular appeals panel was well aware of was that no agent could ever get near us.

Magnier and McManus were planning a 90 plus questionnaire for Fergie in which this might have figured, but the Irishmen pocketed GBP240 million when the Glazers took over United and that was that.



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