Former Number Two Archie Knox on why Fergie’s retirement means the end for hardmen managers
“The first time I met Alec, I was playing against him. He was one of those thin, gangly strikers, and I’m not saying he was dirty but opponents would run into his elbow on a regular basis. That typified his resilience – he was never intimidated, a by-product of his working-class background.
“His upbringing was tougher than most. His father worked on the shipyards, as did Alec himself. He once told me that during his days as an engineer in a Rolls-Royce factory he became the first apprentice ever to call a strike. Can you believe that? It was an indication of his leadership qualities before he’d ever signed a football contract.
“Even at Aberdeen it was clear he was destined for greatness. His secret came in the dressing room where he’d remember the tiniest incidents from 20 games ago. His recall is phenomenal. And then there’s the hairdryer treatment, which I’ve seen on many occasions, my favourite being away at [Romania’s] Arges Pitesti with Aberdeen. The dressing room had these big teapots in it and the whole lot got smashed, above people’s heads, on the floor, near the door. But then, he’s fiery.
“When he took me to Manchester United with him [in 1986], he also took a siege mentality. The press, the supporters, the other teams, they’re all out to get you – that’s what he tells players, installing a will to succeed borne from his own against-the-odds career. That’s how he manufactured champions: a mixture of fear and inspiration.
The first time we went to Anfield, we lost, and there was only Alec and myself as the backroom staff. Liverpool, on the other hand, had eight or nine – Ronnie Moran, Roy Evans and Kenny Dalglish included – and they were fairly patronising with their comments to us. As we left, Alec turned to me and said, ‘That’s the last time we go there understaffed.’ So on our next visit we brought every Tom, Dick and Harry with us, even the tea lady, just so win, lose or draw, we felt supported.
“Alec was also passionate about youth. He’d frequently mentioned the Busby Babes, and one of his first duties at United was to overhaul the scouting system. Within his first week, the Greater Manchester area was split into six areas with a scout in each. This put a stop to some talented players moving to Manchester City, also laying the foundations for that class of ’92.
“While he’s never had a problem adapting to modern football – he’s an advocate of sports science – it’s never changed him. He has always been his own man, and one who believes no player is bigger than a club. Not Jaap Stam and not Roy Keane, who both found out to their cost.
“That working-class spirit never left him either. Inviting a rival manager into the office for a drink was always the case up in Scotland, while it wasn’t in England. We’d always have the manager in for a chat and a cup of tea before the game, and no matter the result, he’d always invite them in for a glass of wine afterwards. Even today, even with those who wind him up, such as Rafa Benitez, he’ll always be in his office in case the manager wants to come in for a beer.
“Some players nowadays have a low threshold for pain, but he’s a real man. There is no doubt in my mind that he’s helped restore the masculinity of football. Anyone who can stand the pressure of fighting for that first championship and going on to win 12 more has to be made of robust stuff.
“That’s what’s made him the greatest manager there’s ever been. Don’t expect another one.”