OF THE many aspects worth recalling about the peerless SirAlex Ferguson on the day of his 20th anniversary as manager of Manchester United, I'm afraid my favourite Fergie moment remains comical and decidedly unflattering, as recounted by Pat Stanton.

The ex-Hibs legend was Ferguson's long-forgotten assistant at Aberdeen for just one season in the early days, and recalled being with the new Dons manager on a foray somewhere in eastern Europe to spy on UEFA Cup opponents. Stanton, with a smile on his face, recalled Ferguson stuffing what he saw as rather opulent coat hangers from a hotel closet into his bulging case.

"You can take the boy out of Govan . . ." mused Stanton with, in this case, a large quota of truth.

Of the many things SirAlex has been, devilish and irascible remain foremost among them. From those who know the Old Trafford boss there are legions of stories, just about all of which will remain unchronicled in the public prints. Suffice to say, eyes would pop if the general public could sit and earwig on a group of Ferguson's trusted friends, gathered round for a soiree one evening and recounting the various capers he has been up to.

Ferguson may always have had a bit of the Artful Dodger about him but the truth of his greatness in football remains. His strength of character has been tested numerously - in being sacked by St Mirren, in nearly being sacked by Manchester United in 1990, in gutting his United team to start anew in 1995 - and he has always met the challenge. Of all the testimonials that are worth paying to Ferguson, that most unsung of tributes - that he is a strong man - should be quoted near the head of the list.

In managerial terms, his greatness, unquestioned as it is, becomes embroiled in debate. Beyond dispute he has overtaken the great Sir Matt Busby at Old Trafford in terms of his achievements, but Ferguson surely cannot be placed in the same bracket as Bob Paisley, who won three European Cups with Liverpool and is surely Britain's greatest ever manager. What Ferguson has done better than anyone, though, is deliver sustained success over so prolonged a period.

A span of 16 years separates his Cup-Winners Cup triumph with Aberdeen in 1983 from his Champions League triumph with United in Barcelona in 1999. (For good measure, of course, Ferguson added a second Cup-Winners Cup win with United in between). In fact, if you count his first glory with Aberdeen in winning the Scottish Premier League in 1980, there is a span of 24 years between that and his most recent FA Cup triumph - his 23rd trophy with United - in 2004.

In terms of their length and breadth these are amazing feats of achievement. I'd like to discover any other coach in world football who can match them for such prolonged success. On this fact alone Ferguson stands immense and immovable.

The one thing that has always intrigued me about the Ferguson success story is how it came within 24 hours of never happening. Back in season 1989-90 the Manchester United directors of the time, Sir Bobby Charlton among them, are on record as swithering one fateful evening over whether to finally bow to public pressure and sack Ferguson as United slumped once more in the league.

Following his arrival in November 1986 Ferguson had triggered a significant improvement in United's fortunes, but a lull set in again in that 1989-90 season, and the calls were out for Ferguson's dismissal. The famous "Fergie Go Home" banner appeared at one United match of the time, and the sportswriter, Hugh McIlvanney, made an equally famous trip to Ferguson's home to interview him in the very midst of his darkest hour at Old Trafford.

Ferguson's sacking, it seemed, was imminent, with United already drawing up a shortlist of possible replacements. Yet the club's board, acting on a nagging instinct, decided to hang fire. Ferguson survived, and his famous FA Cup triumph five months later proved to be the opening of the sluice-gates. In itself, the story of that stay-ofexecution in 1990 is the greatest single example in British football of greatness being given the chance to survive and thrive. It also proves that, sometimes almost on a random whim, reputations either live or die.

I have also always savoured the human side - or maybe I mean the humane side - of Ferguson.

I will never forget, for instance, seeing him in 1999 looking into the famous Nou Camp chapel - a tiny sepulchre - and expressing his genuine warmth and respect for this holy place. Like me, Ferguson was a Protestant who felt moved by this shrine of our denominational rival, and it was touching to witness his respect and feeling.

In this vein I've always liked Ferguson's sense of the community: the football club, the church, the trade union, the society at large. Long ago, that principle was summed up by his decision to go to the dockside in Aberdeen and wave fans off on that big liner bound for a North Sea crossing for Gothenburg in 1983. He has always appreciated people, just as legions now appreciate him.


Ralph Milne:

a Fergie signing in his early days which befuddled Manchester United's fans.

Sir Bobby:

involved in secret talks to lure Fergie from Aberdeen in 1986, and urged board to stick by him in dark days in 1989-90.

Eric Cantona:

the 'can-opener' whom Fergie got almost by accident in early 90s and triggered a whole new chapter for United.


the crowning glory in 1999.