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Home  >  Features  >  From 129 Glasgow Company to European Glory

Looking Back

LOOKING BACK: From 129 Glasgow Company to European Glory

Sir Alex Ferguson


As Sir Alex Ferguson announces his retirement after 26 years as manager of Manchester United, Life and Work looks back to our 2007 interview in which he credits the Boys' Brigade as a major influence on his life.


Thomas Baldwin learns about the influence of the Boys’ Brigade on the life and faith of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Scots-born long-serving manager of Manchester United.

“MY Christian upbringing was through the Boys’ Brigade. As kids, church is boring but the BB Bible Classes were a bit more entertaining. The BB chaplains would make it far more lighthearted and instructive than sitting through a service.”
I’m sure the manager of the world’s biggest football club has far more important things to do than talk to me – the fact that it has taken six months from agreeing the interview to actually holding it gives some idea of how in-demand he is – but Sir Alex Ferguson has never been one to forget his roots.
He is happy to wax lyrical about his time in 129 Glasgow Company and the men running it: Johnny Boreland, who was team manager when he was in the Life Boys; and Johnny’s brother Jimmy, who was in charge of the 12-16 age group.
“Johnny was an absolute fanatic for the game. When we went to camp in places like Stonehaven we were given a list of everything we had to bring with us, and at the bottom, in big capital letters, he’d put ‘AND FOOTBALL BOOTS’. As soon as we arrived it would be ‘right everybody, get your football boots on’.
“Johnny gave us a leg up and developed this great enthusiasm in us all. We won the Battalion Cup in a two-leg final in 1950. I still keep in touch with Johnny; he’s a marvellous man, absolutely marvellous.
“I joined the BB team when I was 12, playing in an under-18s league. I remember one time we were losing 5-1 at half time and Jimmy turned to me and said ‘What’s wrong with you? I can normally depend on you.’ I got a great surge of belief and confidence, and in the second half I scored a couple.”
But of course it wasn’t just football. “We had all the other parts – Bible classes, learning to play the bugle, going for our badges. I did the signalling badge, the camping badge, about nine or ten badges in my time there. As I got to 16 they wanted me to come on as a staff sergeant, but by that time I had drifted away – but that spell from nine to 16 was a very important part of my life. It gave us discipline and confidence, and trust in the relationships we developed with the officers.”
‘Discipline’ is one of the Ferguson watchwords, along with ‘loyalty’. Loyalty to him is repaid in kind, and in life-long friendship (his autobiography – a veritable roll-call of all the people he feels he owes gratitude to throughout his life and career - reveals that he is still friends with boys’ he knew at nursery); conversely, any footballer not showing the kind of loyalty or discipline he demands can expect to be shown the door.
These are virtues that were instilled in him through a poor but happy working-class upbringing in Glasgow, that he is clearly very proud of.
“Everyone looks at the foundations of their life – what you are taught and what you are given. I had great parents who set me in the right direction, my football, the BB, my first job – all of those things.”
His childhood was spent in Govan, in a time when the shipyards were still going strong, and all his recollections emphasise a life in which lack of material possessions was more than made up for by a strong family and community spirit.
“It was a place where you could leave your door open and people would come in, borrow something they needed and leave a note. We didn’t have a television until I was 14, and we never had a car, but I didn’t think of it as poverty-stricken - I thought I was rich. I had everything I needed and it was all new.
“It would have been the same in Newcastle or Manchester. Working class areas at that time brought something with them – loyalty, and a determination to do well in life. Obviously times have changed and that sort of working class doesn’t exist any more, although you still see it in places like the Favelas in Brazil.”
Alex had been born on Old Year’s Night in 1941, first son of Alexander and Lizzie, and can’t speak highly enough of his parents, whom he says made sacrifices so he and his younger brother Martin could have the lives they wanted. He credits them with instilling his drive to improve himself, an awareness of the importance of education, and other habits such as assiduous timekeeping.
“During my first job (as an apprentice toolmaker), I would get a shake of the feet at 6am to get up. I knew that if my father came back through the bedroom and I was still in bed I was in trouble. That’s part of me now.”
It was the kind of family that bucked all the stereotypes of the West of Scotland religious and footballing divide. His mother was a Roman Catholic; his father came from a mixed background, had been brought up a Protestant, but ‘had little time for religion’ and supported Celtic. Alex and Martin grew up following Rangers, which their father didn’t have a problem with; although he objected so strongly to the wearing of ‘provocative’ club colours that Martin had to hide his Rangers scarf behind the toilet cistern.
With such parentage, it is hardly surprising that Sir Alex has no time for sectarianism. “A glance at my family tree suggests why bigotry never had a chance of spreading its pollution among the Fergusons’” he wrote in his autobiography. “ Through all its branches, and as far back as we can trace, there have been mixed marriages. That is a common pattern in the West of Scotland. Perhaps it doesn’t always breed intolerance out of the later generations but it certainly did in our case.”
However, he speculates that the reason he and Martin were baptised in the Church of Scotland, despite his mother having the stronger religious convictions, was because Catholics suffered disadvantages in the employment market. Later, he was to be a victim of sectarianism when he fulfilled his dreams of playing for Rangers, and certain people in the club never accepted him because his wife, Cathy, was Catholic.
Being brought up Protestant meant the local Bible school, Shiloh Hall, on Sundays, before moving to the Boys’ Brigade. Sir Alex still has his first Bible from the school and, while obviously not exhibitionist about religion, attributes two early defining moments – meeting Cathy and scoring a hat-trick for St Johnstone at Ibrox (the first player to do that against Rangers at their ground) – to divine intervention. “I do honestly believe that some power somewhere gave me a break and that it was a signal for me to grasp this opportunity and not ever to forget the responsibilities that came with,” he wrote about the latter event.
That hat-trick and, before it went sour, a spell scoring for Rangers at Ibrox, were the high points in a footballing career that, as a combative striker, also took in Queen’s Park, Dunfermline, Falkirk and Ayr United. He represented the Scottish League and joined an eventful Scotland tour in summer 1967 to Israel, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
On retirement he briefly took up that old footballers’ staple, running a pub; but that was overtaken by a managerial career that started at East Stirlingshire and went on to St Mirren before his phenomenal spell at Aberdeen, where in seven seasons he won three league championships, four Scottish cups and, the crowning glory, the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983. He also had the unwanted honour of leading Scotland to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico after Jock Stein’s death.
It took the offer from Manchester United to tempt him away from Aberdeen and, now, it’s so easy to forget that it took seven seasons to win his first league championship, and that those early days were occasionally accompanied by rumours of his imminent demise. Of course, the 1990s established United as the most successful team in England, European champions in 1999, and its manager as a furious, red-faced, gum-chewing presence on the sidelines, always ready with the ‘hairdryer’ treatment for a player who hadn’t met his standards.
But these days there are signs that he is mellowing: he even let it be known that he missed a pre-season game to help Cathy while they were moving house. “Sometimes my competitive nature comes out but I’m 65 years old now, I don’t very often stand in the technical area and shout any more,” he says, “That’s gone many years ago.”
The only exception is if something angers him badly: “There was a bad tackle on (Christiano) Ronaldo at the weekend that could have ended the boy’s career. You still react to things like that – that wouldn’t change if I was 95.”
Having backed out of a decision to retire a couple of years ago, you wouldn’t bet against him still being on the touchline at 95. He rose to the challenge of the nouveau riche Chelsea by building what he says he considers his finest squad of players yet, and continues to seek the Holy Grail of a second European triumph. Age and success haven’t dimmed the competitive instinct, or the constant desire to educate and improve himself that he got from his parents.
“I read a lot, mainly history and biography, I think that gives me another learning curve all the time in terms of my education and intelligence. I am not any more intelligent than a lot of people, but by still searching out to improve yourself it gives you other chambers in your life you can open doors and go into.”
Away from football, he also owns racehorses and collects wine, and says he enjoys a game of golf, managing eight or nine games during the summer – how competitive it gets depends on who he’s playing. “If I’m playing against (Rangers manager) Walter Smith it’s an absolute battle.”
Sir Alex’s extraordinary career has taken him from Govan to every inhabited continent on the map, and to a level of comfort that was probably beyond his wildest boyhood dreams.
Yet he still keeps in touch with many of his old friends from Glasgow. His last house, Fairfields, was named after the shipyard where his father and brother worked. One of his racehorses is named Broomielaw after the Glasgow harbour, and another, Queensland Star, after a ship his father helped to build. Last year, he returned to the city to support the Citizens Theatre in the Gorbals by taking part in a question and answer session there. You can take the man out of Glasgow, it seems, but you can’t take Glasgow out of the man.
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