Robert McNeil – Scottish Icons: Sir Alex Ferguson

LIFE is full of diverging paths. Imagine if, having fallen out of favour as a footballer with St Johnstone, Sir Alex Ferguson had chucked it all and emigrated to Canada, as he considered doing. With his drive to succeed, he’d probably have been prime minister before now. He’d have aimed footwear at Donald Trump’s eye and described negotiations with China as “squeaky bum time”.

But Sir Alex persevered with the round ball business and became one of the world’s most successful managers. Not bad for a wee boy from Govan where, on 31 December 1941, he was born to a shipyard worker and his wife.

Recently, he said: “I speak for every young boy in Govan and Glasgow that growing up, the only thing you had was football – football every day.”

Again, this was fortunate. Had he been born in Edinburgh, he’d probably have gone on to be a champion ballet dancer.

Instead, he got his knees muddy with the Harmony Row Boys Club and Drumchapel Amateurs, before signing on at 16 with Queen’s Park and then the aforementioned St Johnstone. Instead of going to Canada, he went to Dunfermline Athletic – six or half a dozen really – and thence to Rangers, for a then-record fee in Scotland of £65,000.

Read more Rab: The beautiful bridge which infuriated Scots

Unlike many managers, he was a good player (something notably lacking in referees, most of whom haven’t played the game, which is why they’re so intent on spoiling it). While at Dunfermline, he was joint top goalscorer in season 1965-6.

After a spell with Falkirk, he finished his playing career at Ayr United. But that wasn’t the last that football had heard of Alex Ferguson. Nope, he was the man who went on as manager to win the UEFA Champions League twice, though not with East Stirlingshire.

His first managerial job there – aged just 32 – was part-time, paying £40 a week, and at the time the club’s efforts to keep a clean sheet were hampered by not having a goalkeeper. Fergie soon sorted this out and also began earning his reputation for discipline, with striker Bobby McCulley recalling that he’d “never been afraid of anyone before but Ferguson was a frightening bastard from the start”.

Frightening bastards don’t usually end up at lovely St Mirren, his next team, which he transformed into an exciting force before moving on again, this time to Aberdeen, where the Fergie legend started taking shape in earnest. They won the league and the Scottish Cup regularly but the supreme triumph was the European Cup Winners’ Cup triumph against Real Madrid in 1983.

Aberdeen fans still sing about being “the famous Aberdeen”, to which opposing fans now retort, “You’re not famous any more.”

HeraldScotland: Sir Alex returns to Harmony RowSir Alex returns to Harmony Row

Well, that’s because they lost their most famous manager, but not before his reputation for severity had deepened further. The players nicknamed him “Furious Fergie”. After winning the cup against Rangers, he famously described their performance as “disgraceful”. Stories include fining one midfielder for overtaking him on the road, and kicking a tea urn at the players.

This vivid behaviour didn’t put off English clubs vying for his services and, in November 1986, he took the helm at Manchester United. The rest is modern football history and, up to his retirement as manager in 2013, a stunning record of achievement: 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, five FA cups, and the Champions League twice.

His sides became famous for their self-belief, never giving up, often winning with goals late on, not least from Ole Gunnar Solskjær, now the club’s manager. His winner three minutes into injury time of the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich prompted Fergie to note: “Football, bloody hell.” Man U had been 1-0 down after the regulation 90 minutes. Bayern’s colours were already on the trophy.

In his time at United, Ferguson created an almost magical aura, attracting or nurturing wizard players such as Giggs, Cantona, Scholes, Neville, Stam, Ronaldo, Larsson.

Three other legends made the news pages for their occasionally awkward relationship with Fergie. The manager’s autobiography – What You Lookin’ At, Pal? – reveals that even he feared fiery Irish midfielder Roy Keane, recently mooted as replacement for Neil Lennon as Celtic manager. Fergie believed Keane temperamentally unsuited to management, and thought Roy’s tongue the hardest part of his body. Keane, for his part, has accused Sir Alex of disloyalty.

Possibly, a paternal and protective nature being the obverse of his harsh side, Sir Alex found it difficult to treat Roy as a son, as he did other players. Wayne Rooney was one wayward child who sometimes, allegedly, found his way into women’s undergarments.

In newly published diaries, former Labour spin-doctor Alastair Campbell reveals that he’d mentioned the papers being “full of Rooney and prostitutes”, to which Sir Alex had replied: “What can I do? He is also the last guy who should take a drink.”

David Beckham took a boot in the face, kicked his way from the floor after United were knocked out the FA cup by Arsenal. Beckham relates in his autobiography, I’m A Little Cupcake, that he “lost control” and “went for” Fergie before being pulled away by team-mates. Even his wife Victoria, an influential former Spice Girl, wanted to have a go.

Fergie later apologised and still speaks fondly of Beckham, whom he really did treat like a son. Come on, which father hasn’t kicked a football boot at his son’s heid? Only language they understand.

Other languages Fergie understands are wine, in which his taste is said to be “exceptional”, and politics, he being a proud Labour supporter. He also admits to being a unionist.

But, otherwise, what a man. What a winner. He has said: “There are moments in your life when you say, ‘I did something really worthwhile.’”

Read more Rab: Apart from Moomins what does Finland have that we don’t?

He was referring, not to football, but to when he was a teenage shop steward and led apprentices on strike for better wages. You can take the man out of Govan but, praise be, you can’t take Govan out of the man.

* All autobiography titles have been improvised.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.