We think it would be a good idea, Michael, if you came away from covering the Euro '96 finals from Scotland's base in the Midlands and head across to Manchester for the day. You'd be there when the fish guys turn up with the crate of mackerel, halibut, or whatever it is he likes with his chips. And you'd get an interview with Fergie. Uninvited, unannounced, intruding on a shared moment between the great man and pals he doesn't often see any more - as journalistic assignments go this was about as pathetically half-arsed as it can get.
Naturally, the thing was as big a disaster as it deserved to be. A late-running train meant a missed connection between Leamington Spa, near where the Scotland squad were training, and Manchester.
And that meant arriving almost an hour late for this doomed doorstepping job. So no Fergie, no photographs, no story, not even the fish guys. The Old Trafford receptionist politely went through the motions of calling his office on my behalf.
"Hi. Listen, there's a lad here from Scotland. Something about fish for the manager. Yeah, fish. He's saying is there any chance of a quick word with him. Yeah, with the manager. Oh I know, I know -"
Plenty of journalists have their tale of the one that got away when it comes to an interview with Ferguson. For the past quarter of a century he's consistently been the biggest beast of all in the pool of football targets. He used to do 'one-to-ones' relatively frequently but as he piled more silverware on the heap, and Manchester United withdrew deeper behind wall after wall of corporate bull, he got busier and fussier. He would periodically turn up in something like L'Equipe, or a style magazine, or in the glossy pull-out of one of the English Sunday heavies. But run-of-the-mill football interviews with run-of-the-mill British papers? Gradually they became few and far between. To get Fergie you had to somehow catch his imagination, or you had to get lucky.
Early in 2001 we got lucky. It's burned on the memory all these years later; oh Lord, it's there in black and white in the email from his secretary – Fergie's said "yes!" Every journalist knows the thought that comes next: "Please don't let me balls this up!" The newspaper, the Sunday Herald, wasn't yet two years old (I'd moved on from my old paper and its boxes of fish) and here was one of the highest profile interviews it had landed.
This was a new batteries job. You don't risk possible equipment failure on a mission this enormous: you prepare notebook, list of questions, pen, spare pen, and new batteries for the tape recorder. Sony Microcassette-recorder M-540V: don't let me down now, you little bastard. This would be a conversation with Fergie and a simultaneous attempt to prevent him noticing the umpteen stolen glances to check those little tape spools were turning. Am I getting this?
Please God, let this be recording -
Everyone tells you Fergie's at his work at 8am every morning, or 7am, or whatever time you want to believe. They say he's read all the papers, he's had his breakfast, he's bollocked four people down the phone and watched a full replay of United's last game before you've reached over to hit the snooze button. Well, not this day. At 9am, interview time, Fergie's car park space was empty and the workaholic manager of Manchester United was nowhere to be seen. He wasn't there at quarter-past either, or half-past.
Eventually an update from his secretary: "He's running late, come back and he'll see you at 11am." This was good news because it would be the icebreaker. Fergie would feel a bit guilty about messing around a fellow Scot, and he'd be friendlier and more open because of it. His "apology" would come in the form of better quotes, some jokes, a bit of colour, a better interview. That's what I thought.
You look for a way in at the start of an interview, something to establish some sort of connection and get a foot in the door. These early exchanges can be crucial. It's when you're being sized up to see what you're made of. Unlike Ferguson, I'm not into horseracing. I don't play the piano. I'd happily drink wine out of a Thermos flask, to hell with the vintage bottles. I haven't managed Manchester United for 25 years. But we have Aberdeen together. I'd tell him I was a Dons man who'd grown up to his teams spanking the Old Firm left, right and centre. We'd get on like a house on fire.
I've read the vast majority of big Ferguson interviews over the years. The one that stands out was by Michael Tierney in The Herald in 2002, which read like Tierney had just gone three rounds with Tyson. They didn't hit it off, and he perfectly captured what a hard, challenging bastard Ferguson can be in interviews.
My own experience was more enjoyable, but even so - he doesn't do small talk or pleasantries. No "how was the trip down?" No "did I find the training ground easily enough?" He couldn't give a toss. Two hours late he flew into the room, briskly shook hands, clapped his hands together and said: "Right, fire away."
No apology and not a single second's gap which might have been filled with some ingratiating you're-so-great Dons chat. Would he have time for the photographer when we're finished? "Naw, he can take some while we're talking -"
Ferguson might test, intimidate and even try to bully but, boy, he delivers too. For the best part of an hour he took every question. Words poured out of him. Retirement (he was still in his 50s), horseracing, golf, how Rangers bought too many players every summer, how Celtic needed Martin O'Neill to sort out their perennial player problems, how United would react in adversity – "many people shrivel up and die, we wouldn't" – how it interested him to see how disparate personalities gelled to form a winning team, how everyone obsessed about United. "In the newspaper industry they've got to get something about Manchester United every day because it sells. It doesn't matter whether it's 'Roy Keane was seen on Mars yesterday', it definitely works."
But he's tough and hard going. He keeps you guessing, and he can look cold and unimpressed, and he'll not fall for tired patter. And then suddenly it's all over. Another clap of the hands, as abrupt and unexpected as the first, and he's on his feet. There hadn't even been any tapping of the watch as a warning. He said, "well done" (a phrase he has a habit of using at the end of questioning) and then a tiniest morsel of chit-chat. "You driving back up the road just now?"
At last! This was more like it, me and Fergie shooting the breeze and - oh, he's just said cheerio and the door's closing. Every journalist has their own Fergie: a hero, heroine, villain, favourite sportsman, artist or star. And if you're lucky enough to get them, your pulse doesn't really quicken whenever you later sit down with anyone else. You aren't fazed or worried by anyone once you've landed what, to you, is the biggest of them all.
And what's the first thing you do when the door's shut and he's left the room? You check the tape recorder.
Yeah, it's all there. Got him.
This is an extract from Henrik, Hairdryers And The Hand of God, a book featuring contributions from some of the best sportswriters in Britain. It is out now in paperback and as an e-book from all the usual retailers, published by BackPage Press. All proceeds of this book will go to SANDS, the charity that supports bereaved parents.
Michael Grant is chief football writer with The Herald and has covered club and international matches all over the world, including three World Cups and three European Championships.