How Alex Ferguson learned his Irish

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On May 19, 1997, the Monday morning after Eric Cantona’s shock retirement from the game had been announced, Alex Ferguson flew into Belfast accompanied by a small media army. Although Old Trafford was still reeling from the departure of its French talisman, the Manchester United manager had more pressing business at hand. David Gillen, a member of the Carryduff branch of the United supporters’ club, needed a new motorised wheelchair buying, and Fergusonwas anxious to do his bit to help.

A few months earlier, Fergusonhad committed himself to attending a day of fund-raising events organised by the Carryduff faithful, and even the sudden exodus of his most influential player wasn’t going to impinge on that. During the day, he spoke at a sportsmen’s lunch, ferried the Premier League trophy along to a street party, and attended a dinner. If the media were shocked by Ferguson’ssense of duty, nobody at Carryduff would have expected any less. No Manchester United fan in Ireland would have either. More than anybody, Ferguson understood the country and its outsized and historic relationship with the club.

Who else but Ferguson could sit down to be interviewed about Denis Irwin and answer one question by delving into the traditional geographic rivalry between the northside and the southside of Cork city? “Denis says Roy is from the rough part of Cork, and Roy says Denis is from the rough part of Cork,” said Ferguson. “I don’t know exactly who to believe here, but there is obviously a little bit of competition in the parts of Cork they come from.”

Listening to him discuss the merits of Keane’s Mayfield and Irwin’s Togher, it was difficult to fathom there was once a time Irish fans worried about Ferguson. In the years after the departures in quick succession of Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside, before the arrival of the Cork duo, a bizarre legend grew up that Ferguson had something against the Irish. Ignoring the obvious fact that Whiteside was a Protestant from east Belfast, the ludicrous notion was predicated on Ferguson’s perceived anti-Catholicism.

In its way, this was as misguided and wrong-headed as the belief in a different time that Matt Busby’s faith caused him to discriminate in favour of the Catholics in his charge. The reality was Ferguson was interested in players who could help his club move forward and improve, regardless of nationality or creed. In this respect, Keane had been on his radar from September, 1990. Making his first appearance for Nottingham Forest against United, his first act was to go in hard on Bryan Robson. “He absolutely cemented him!” said Ferguson, relish in his voice as he recalled the moment he glimpsed his future captain..

Regardless of the bad blood that apparently exists between them now, it’s not an exaggeration to say that with Keane, Ferguson changed the course of Irish sporting history during that brief moment in the summer of 1993 when Keane had agreed to sign for Blackburn Rovers. Once news of this reached Old Trafford, however, Ferguson had the then hottest property in the English game round to his house for a game of snooker during which he persuaded him to change his mind and to sign for lesser money.

Would Keane have developed into the greatest Irish player in Premier League history under Kenny Dalglish at Ewood Park? Would United have been quite the same without him? All we know for sure is Ferguson was crucial to moulding and shaping this character on and off the field over the ensuing decade, Imagine how Ireland and United would have suffered if he hadn’t.

Then there was Irwin. One morning in April, 2001, shortly after the Premiership title had been secured, Ferguson sat down to talk about him. For close to half an hour, he waxed as lyrical as one would expect about the player and the man. When the cameras were finally turned off, Ferguson lingered in his chair.

“What exactly is this for again?” the Manchester United manager asked.

“It’s a documentary about Denis’s career for RTE,” I said.

“It’s about bloody time ye did one,” he replied.

There was a pause, and to fill the silence somebody in the crew asked whether the latest league medal made Irwin then the most decorated Irishman ever in English football. That was the only prompting Ferguson needed. A fuse had been lit. Using the fingers on both hands, he began counting out the trophies with the passion of a schoolboy leafing through a deck of old Top Trumps’ cards in search of comforting stats. Listening to him reel off all those league and cup victories he had enjoyed with Irwin was to glimpse the raw desire that fuelled so much of what he achieved.

Three times in four years, I was part of RTE productions asking Ferguson to be interviewed for documentaries we were making. Two of the requests centred on Keane and Irwin. Of course, he was up for those. Perhaps more impressive though was his response when we called, requesting him to go on camera for something we were making about Paul McGrath. Even though McGrath was one of the few who prospered after Ferguson deemed him past it, he was still generous enough to go on camera to explain why he got rid of him and to praise how well he’d done since.

If that was a gesture that spoke volumes, we kind of expected as much. Over four years at Old Trafford, Brian Carey, another Corkman, became captain of the reserves at a time when Fergie’s Fledglings were starting to cut their teeth. With the first team proving a bridge too far, Carey moved down a division to Leicester City in 1993, and a year later, he played centre-half on the team that defeated Derby County in the play-offs at Wembley to gain promotion to the Premier League. Not long after that triumph, Carey received a letter from Alex Ferguson, a missive in which the United manager told him how proud he was of his performance and how he would go on to have a fine career in the game.

Another small yet wonderful cameo. So many players have trundled in and out the doors at Old Trafford over the past 26 years, and Carey is a name probably only remembered by the anoraks who trek along to reserve fixtures to spot rising talents before they make it to the show. But Ferguson remembered his part in shepherding along some of the brightest stars of their generation, and he took time out to write that note of appreciation. Even now, years later when their paths cross in and around the game, Ferguson will put his arm around  Carey and introduce him to people as “one of my boys”. A story that says something about the man.
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