by Chris Tobin
On a sunny April day I had been invited to the home of former football manager Lord Alan Fergie, for what would be a frank and honest assessment of the Lord’s career – a step back in time. Where for the first time he would disclose how debilitating illness would dog him throughout his footballing life and the struggles he would have to overcome including a brutal fight with amnesia alongside personal addiction that would see him at one point during the 1990s spending £38.46p a week on chewing gum.
A man that now finds himself alone with just his memories rattling around his head, unable to make sense of any of them. This is a must read for any football fan or old age pensioner – a heartfelt tale that will bring tears to your eyes and possibly make you howl with laughter. One man’s personal story on his decline into dementia.
I would be led through the halls of Trafford Castle, a place where you can hear a pin drop, the silence would indeed be somewhat deafening. Pictures of Alan’s former protégé’s would adorn the walls, a testament to his tenure as Britain’s greatest procurer of footballing talent – Massimo Taibi….Gabriel Orbertan….David Bellion….Eric Jemba-Jemba….Jose Kleberson. I would later be informed that Lord Fergie likes to refer to them as his “Fabulous Famous Five”.
On entering Alan’s living quarters one is instantly overwhelmed by an aroma – a harsh fragrance of spearmint with a hint of three day old urine. A huge overcoat would cover his frail frame as he sat serenely in a huge red armchair, reminiscent of a throne, on the left arm would be a packet of Werther’s Original, and a bottle of Vino circa 1986. On the right arm of the chair would be – lined up like soldiers – packets of pre-opened Wrigley’s chewing gum original mint flavour. Ahead of me would be a spittoon half full of freshly chewed gum and Werther’s wrappers covered in phlegm.
After the formalities of introduction, where Lord Fergie would confusingly refer to me as Geoff [I assume he meant Shreeves] and threaten me with knee-capping if I asked any questions in relation to goal-line technology – his Sky+ had stopped working at the weekend and this would set the tone – I would press record on my dictaphone and the interview would begin.
The following would all be Lord Alan Fergies own words.
“I suppose the warning signs were always there. I went to the doctors, and I think he spotted it straight away, and of course he then sent me to the specialist, and they did loads of tests on me. I remember what the Doctor said – and I will never forget his words – he said “It is confirmed Mr Fergie, unfortunately you are suffering from myopia” . Well I cried for three days and three nights until Big Sam Allardyce told me that it just meant I couldn’t see things that were further than a metre away. You see he had suffered with a similar problem; I think he called it bulimia. Since that day I have loved that man like a brother. Love him.
Noticeably soon after that diagnosis, I would deteriorate. It would get so bad that even if the BBC would show me a replay on T.V. of a blatant penalty that had not been given to our opponents, I would still not be able to see. In the end I had to stop speaking to the BBC all together – especially when they suggested my son Jason was slightly dodgy that time on Panorama….he wore glasses for Christ sake.
I would first notice that there was a problem in November of 1986 when I would join Manchester United Football Club as their manager. You have to go back to my childhood in Scotland; none of our family had watches back then so we had no reason to figure out how the bloody things worked. Why would we? Obviously part of the contract at United was they would provide a watch – I think it was one Ron Atkinson had left behind – a big gold thing with a huge diamond face. Well when I say gold, it was covered in green under the band. Ron was always bringing fake gold into training and selling it to the lads – Remi Moses told me that.
It made not a jot to me though because I couldn’t work it, no use how I tried. I could not understand how many minutes added up to 90. I knew what an hour was, but not two 45 minutes put together, but in those days the FA and referees were not bothered about genuine disability amongst managers; they would attempt to just ignore it back then.
After 3 years when we had won sod all, the lads and the supporters all chipped in and gave me a birthday present of a new Casio watch which they inscribed with the words “Times Up Fergie” which was nice, but even with that I still struggled to tell the time. It’s laughable really when I look back now – a grown man unable to work a tick-tock.
When I got my Knighthood from President Blair in 1999, Martin Edwards wrote to the FA to get them to make all our games last for 100 minutes, because then I could use an abacus. So they agreed to that, but some of the referees did not want to play ball. That Martin Atkinson he was the worst – disgusting man he should have been banned, never referee again, or deported for the way he used to blow his whistle bang on 90 minutes. You see I would be sat with Mikey Phelan thinking we had another 10 minutes, and that little s**t would be blowing his bloody whistle.
Luckily Howard Webb came along and he would be more sympathetic to those with disabilities. He has done a lot of charity work in and around the Manchester area, well around Old Trafford. Fantastic man he will always include any time we were sat chatting during half-time, on to the end of the match – sometimes 5 or 6 minutes. Great guy was Howard.
For my 100th anniversary as United manager, Roy Hodgson & Big Sam gave me a kitchen clock that would always automatically put on 6 minutes every hour. Jesus one week I lost half a day! My missus accused me of drinking it away, but I hadn’t a clue. Bloody clocks.
Things were to get particularly bad. I had always suffered from mood swings and had such a temper, forgetfulness and of course the eyesight would get worse. One day myself and Gary Neville were horsing around after a game and I tried to karate kick him up his boney backside, but rat like he swerved out of the way. My cowboy boot flew off and took out one of David Beckham’s eyes. His career at Old Trafford ended that day. Unfortunately I completely forgot about it the next day and was unaware that it had even happened apart from the fact that my left boot was covered in claret.
We loved playing Kung-Fu after matches in those early days; every Friday we would play during five aside games in training. Some of the lads would get great enjoyment out of those sessions, apart from that big girl’s blouse Owen Hargeaves who would turn up every Friday (Kung-Fu day) with a sick-note from his mom.
The physio used to use him like a guinea pig as a punishment.
Managing is all about building camaraderie , but these football lads are like children and there is always one who spoils the fun for everyone else by taking things a little too far. Eric Cantona, another foreigner, would ruin it for all the boys. I would have to dispense with Kung- Fu Friday after Eric started playing it on a Wednesday evening with a lad at Crystal Palace. As soon as the media got wind of that, we had to stop it.
You will laugh at this, as an example of how it’s all affecting me but my memory has completely been shot. They told me that in 2009 there was me saying Eduardo should be banned for diving when he was at Arsenal. I can’t remember. Then we have that other bugger Suarez flipping diving and doing somersaults all over the pitch. I can’t remember that either. You see my players were not like those foreign sorts, we had great players that did not need to dive – Ronaldo…Van Nistelrooy…the lad with the wig, Rooney – and Ashley Young who was also a fantastic swimmer by the way. He could have easily been a star of the high board in the Olympics.
In all my time in football I can honestly say that I have never seen a player I have managed dive. We would instil British values into our players. You go out there and play fairly and at the start of the game you shake your opponents hand and be respectful of each other and the officials. Well apart from that time that Scholesy and Roy Carroll refused to shake Patrick Viera’s hand after that French b*****d threw a plate of prawn sandwiches over my best mohair coat that the missus had given me for Christmas. The lads did me proud that day and Viera should have been banned for life and should have never played for Arsenal again. He could have caused a riot that day.
When I told our old goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel about Ashley Young’s high board diving he told me that black guys couldn’t swim – Funny guy Scmeichel was. Some called him a bigot and a racist because he had a wee argument with Ian Wright, and yes everyone remembers him calling Wrighty a black such and such but no-one remembers Ian calling him a big Danish lump with a girls hair-cut. The boys can be easily wound up out there and these things just need sweeping under the carpet, and between ourselves the F.A. and the P.F.A. that’s exactly what we did. And good old Schmeichel ended on a poster promoting anti-racism .Even I would be accused of racism when I called them cheating Italians, but everyone knows they are a lying race. All I said was “ When an Italian says it’s pasta, I check under the sauce” …bloody fined me £5000 after that. Sepp Blatter. I think he was Italian.
Our supporters are some of the most knowledgeable in Manchester. They hate racism, but love a laugh especially with our Korean players. When they sang about them eating dogs, that made us all giggle [starts singing] “ Park Park wherever you may be, you eat dogs in your own country” …… aye that was funny. Sometimes the joke is lost in translation, you know because these boys can’t understand the lingo.
Not like them flipping scousers. What that Nazi Suarez said to our little black man Patrice Evra, well that was disgusting – he should have gone to jail for that. And you have to ask yourself why on earth he never shook Rio Ferdinand’s hand, just because Rio likes all that boom-boom bang-bang music. There was no need for that.
Looking back now I assume I was always ill. People would call me a hypocrite, but genuinely I could not see very well, and my memory would be shocking. Three years after Roy Keane had left I would still put his name on the team sheet and many a time at the chemist with my prescription for my Wrigley’s – would you believe I forget I’m a multi-millionaire and tick the box that says I am on Job-seekers allowance so I get them for free.”
With Lord Fergie heading off on a tangent I draw the interview to a close. There are three less packets of gum on Alan’s armchair than when we started, and a now empty bottle that once held the vino lay disregarded on the floor.
Lord Alan Fergie stays seated on his throne whilst offering me his hand to shake. “Thanks for coming Geoff” – I did not have the heart to tell the dotty old git that I was not Geoff Shreeves. I would leave with an impression that I had not seen Lord Fergie in a new light, more a confirmation of what I suspected all along.
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