“Okay,” he was asked, ‘‘you have won all these competitions in Scotland but what makes you think you can do the same in England?”
The reply, over a quarter of a century, has been conclusive: 12 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League Cups, 10 Charity Shields, one European Cup Winners’ Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup, one Club World Cup and two Champions League trophies.
This extraordinary haul is not, however, the measure of the man or the manager. The most stunning factor of Ferguson’s success is its enduring consistency from Aberdeen through Manchester United.
George Graham, the manager who rebuilt Arsenal from 1986 to 1995, was in a prime position to watch his fellow Scot revitalise United and believes Ferguson has constructed four separate teams in his 25-year stint at the club.
It may be more but it is fascinating to recall just how many teams and managers Ferguson has seen off. It is instructive to remember that not only did he knock Liverpool off their perch, he overcame early challenges from a strong Leeds United and a Blackburn Rovers side bank rolled by Jack Walker, the steel magnate.
He then shrugged off increasingly strong assaults from Arsenal under Graham and Arsene Wenger and then Chelsea, particularly under Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. Even Liverpool, briefly revitalised under Rafa Benitez, were brushed off with the Spaniard increasingly looking like a demented man muttering into his drink. Several clubs enjoyed a brief day in the sun but Ferguson always came back.
His appetite is beyond gargantuan. The desire to win is in his very marrow. It is what has sustained him through 25 years and more.
“You are going to have to change,” he told an under-performing United side on his arrival. “Because I won’t change.” He has been true to his word.
“In the beginning he dealt with what he had,” Howard Wilkinson, the former Leeds manager, has told ESPN who this week broadcast a series of documentaries on Ferguson to celebrate his anniversary. “Did he break it up, smash it down and start again? No, he was very, very clever. He used what he had at his disposal, built them into a side and as he was doing that he made the changes that were necessary and it wasn’t easy. He’d inherited a group of players there who could play but he wasn’t happy with, if you like, the culture that was there at the time.”
Of any failure to win, Wilkinson said of his friend: “He’d go away and lick his wounds and get over it, but the disappointment would be his. He wouldn’t be carrying anybody else’s because there would be no greater disappointment than what he would be feeling.”
Graham was intrigued by the arrival of Ferguson at Old Trafford. The former Arsenal and Manchester United player spent all of his professional career outside Scotland, almost exclusively in England, but had watched with interest how Aberdeen won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983 and destroyed the Old Firm’s domination in domestic competitions.
He knew Ferguson would not fail through a lack of effort at United and spotted a key component in the United manager’s make-up. Ferguson, a keen reader and a persistent questioner of those who have gained success in other fields, is a tireless seeker of knowledge.
“He was learning all the time, he’s a great learner,’’ said Graham. “And in life you never stop learning, no matter how great you are there’s always another little thing you always sort of learn. And I think Alex, that was one of his assets. He was a good learner.”
Ferguson famously had to wait until 1993 to win his first Premier League championship, ending a 26-year title drought for the club. “The first trophy is always really the hardest one and then after that you get a bit of a taste for it. Then you sort of want to keep on picking up more trophies as the years go by. And Alex? Well, I don’t think there’s any question now he’s the most successful manager in the English game.”
Graham and Ferguson produced teams that were aggressive and there were flashpoints when Arsenal played United. “Both of us didn’t want to lose and I always remember going up the tunnel where there was Archie Knox [Ferguson’s assistant] and Alex and we were at one another’s throats.”
Graham, though, was desperate to become close to Ferguson. “I wanted to pick his brains and discover what his philosophy in management was. We became friends after that.”
He has come to know Ferguson over the years and has enjoyed being a spectator at the battles between Wenger and the United manager. “Alex was this little Glaswegian -- up and at ‘em and really aggressive -- and Arsene got tagged as the professor, the intellectual manager. So it was wonderful for the media and the press, these two locking horns together.”
There is, of course, a deeper significance to the Wenger-Ferguson rivalry. First, the public perception of each manager is simply wrong. Ferguson is an obsessive reader, almost exclusively of non-fiction. He is particularly interested in American and Scottish history but his thirst for knowledge is as insatiable as his hunger for success.
He is a keen musician with an appreciation of the arts and has an interest in the theatre. Wenger, in contrast, is the football obsessive who allows almost no other interest to tear him away from his DVDs of French second division games.
There is also, of course, the most telling difference. Wenger and Arsenal have not won a competition for six years. The Frenchman, therefore, is not an authentic rival to the Scot.
Ferguson has watched Wilkinson, Graham, Gerard Houllier, Benitez, Kevin Keegan, Mourinho, Luiz Felipe Scolari and a host of others take a tilt at United but ultimately walk away, defeated and fatigued at taking on the man for whom winning is not a business or an obsession but simply a way of life.
Ferguson now has two other rivals. Pep Guardiola and his Barcelona team stand between the United manager and the Champions League. Roberto Mancini and Manchester City present a formidable barrier in the league. The Scot will be 70 when both competitions are settled next year. Yet he will still have the hunger of the boy from Govan.
ESPN Classic this week broadcast a new series of programmes paying tribute to Ferguson, starting at 10pm. Visit espnclassic.com for more information.
FERGUSON FACT FILE
Name Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson
Born December 31, 1941
1957-1960 Queen’s Park
1960-1964 St Johnstone
1964-1967 Dunfermline Athletic
1973-1974 Ayr United
1974 East Stirlingshire
1974-1978 St Mirren
1986-present Manchester United
1986 November 6 Appointed manager of Manchester United
1990 May 7 Lee Martin scores in FA Cup replay against Crystal Palace to give Ferguson his first trophy as United manager
1991 May 15 United defeat Barcelona to win the European Cup-winners’ Cup
1993 May 2 United win first league title in 26 years
1999 May 26 Ferguson’s team lifts treble by defeating Bayern Munich in Champions League final
2001 May Announces he will retire
2002 February Signs a new contract
2011 May 14 United win record 19th title, knocking Liverpool off their perch