The Making of Fergie Rises

The initial reaction was: ‘Another Ferguson book? Really?’ But this one is different. For many reasons.

By Michael Grant

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

“Fergie Rises” was conceived while there was an elephant in the room. A huge red-and-white elephant with rowies and old copies of The Green Final stuffed up its trunk. The idea of putting together a book charting Alex Ferguson’s eight-and-half years at Aberdeen – the full glorious rollercoaster, warts-and-all – had its genesis in 2011. The London commissioning editor and the literary agent weren’t to know it wasn’t money, sales or the surrender of all of the foreseeable future’s spare time which troubled me about taking it on. It was a nagging worry about not being able to do justice to something so profoundly personal that it amounted to the very wellspring of a lifetime’s obsession with football. Yes, John Humphrys: the specialist subject will be Aberdeen Football Club 1978-1986, please. So the elephant in the room was this: bluntly, could I write a book on this without making an arse of it?

Taking on the narrative of those seminal years amounted to a prolonged gamble for a second reason. It was taking the risk that exposure to the deities from my childhood might end in a poignant letdown. I always knew there would be a book when it was all over but I couldn’t be sure I’d still have the same affection and respect for the characters I’d watched and been addicted to from the ages of nine to 17. What if I didn’t like some of them? What if they were uncooperative or grudging, or wanted money to spill the beans? What if they bad-mouthed each other or somehow corroded the Walt Disney halo I placed over the Dons in the mid-1970s and haven’t yet gotten round to taking down? I used to have “Shoot” and “Match” posters of these guys on the bedroom walls. Jeez…what if they didn’t like me? The book could still work even if they all thought I was a wearying dullard, but even so. After a three-year researching, interviewing and writing process, I had answers on all of that.

There tended to be one prevailing, discouraging reaction when others learned this was underway: “Another Fergie book? Really?” Raised eyebrows. Hadn’t it all been said? Sometimes I’d stutter a lame response that it wasn’t my idea, which felt like trying to falsely put distance between me and the labour of love that was consuming my every spare hour. But it happened to be true. Sure, the subject couldn’t have been closer to my heart as a Dons man and son of two “red” parents. Sure, I’d done a Scottish football book already with fellow sports journalist Rob Robertson called “The Management” which had done okay. But “Fergie Rises” genuinely was conceived by others, in England. Publishers Aurum had produced a successful account of the Don Revie era at Leeds United and when they looked around for a comparable story their attention fell on Ferguson at Pittodrie. Subsequently they got in touch, pitched the idea and made an offer. It didn’t take long to figure out their instincts were right: there was a book in it. The period of Ferguson’s life from 1978 to 1986 remained full of untapped stories, material and colour. Hadn’t it all been said before? Hardly.

Even so, the book would have to be as thorough as possible. Three previous works were especially relevant: Fergie’s own autobiographies “A Light In The North” and “Managing My Life”, and Michael Crick’s biography “The Boss”. Together those covered the essentials (and the first pair certainly gave Fergie’s perspective) but the most recent of them had been published 12 years earlier. Although Crick’s tremendous work encompassed the manager’s entire life and career, it still left room for the Aberdeen years to be picked over in greater detail than before.

And so it began. It seemed essential to track down as many Aberdeen figures as possible, the elders of the famous “siege mentality” cabal Fergie created and those outside the tent, pissing in, so to speak. A couple of years later, the final interview count stood at around 80. Fergie wasn’t one of them. He was never going to be. People (mainly fellow journalists) wondered or made assumptions about whether he was co-operating and seemed to feel the book would be worse off without him. Not me. I thought the opposite. His position on collaborating with unofficial books is well-established: he does not grant interviews for them. Unless they are official club publications he will not co-operate on books about himself or his clubs. It would have drained away time and energy trying to pursue him.

Strange though it sounds, I wasn’t interested in his side of the story; with the greatest respect, I’d heard all that before. More to the point, Fergie’s version of his Aberdeen odyssey was already familiar to those who had read his first two autobiographies (the third, published in 2013, had no Aberdeen material). The tales are so familiar and boxed up in his mind there was little prospect of jarring him into fresh revelations or memories after three decades.

No, there would be nothing from the man himself. Actually, that wasn’t true. Going through Ferguson’s opinion column in the Aberdeen programmes from the 1970s and 1980s was like entering Aladdin’s cave (see, there actually was a reason for keeping those boxes of programmes under the bed in the spare room). What a throwback that was to a time before rolling news, club TV stations, websites and social media. Boy, in those early years Fergie didn’t half use his programme notes to get stuff off his chest.

So no Fergie interview but everyone else was fair game. Dons players – dozens and dozens of them – were an obvious target but it was intriguing to find out what others thought of those Aberdeen teams. Opponents, referees, journalists – after speaking to a few of them it was obvious the book would have plenty which was new. No-one had ever asked Celtic and Rangers players to speak at length about what it was like to face Fergie’s teams in full flow.

Charlie Nicholas, Davie Provan, Ally McCoist, Terry Butcher (who played against Aberdeen for Ipswich and again in the one and only Fergie v Graeme Souness/Aberdeen v Rangers game in 1986) and plenty of others opened up with undisguised pleasure and untold stories about the epic battles of Pittodrie, Parkhead, Ibrox and Hampden. Provan remembered getting “the treatment” from Dougie Rougvie. McCoist totted up his broken nose count against Willie Miller (he reckoned he suffered two, Willie one). Nicholas gave his version of the day Neale “Tattie” Cooper went through him so quickly he was down before the ball left the centre-circle at kick-off. “Tattie” gave his side of things about that one too, of how Fergie had whipped him up about Nicholas for a week. When he came thundering into that tackle and Nicholas was felled, the Celtic players, management and support were in uproar. “Tattie” looked across to the Aberdeen dug-out and saw Fergie giving him a happy thumbs up. Incidentally, and amazingly, neither of them of were sure whether that game took place at Pittodrie or Parkhead. Scouring over every newspaper match report from the time failed to uncover a mention of it: these days it would have been all over all the back pages.

It was a privilege to blether with these guys. I spoke to all of the “Gothenburg greats”, which of course includes Stuart Kennedy and Dougie Bell, who both spoke about the injuries that prevented them playing in the Cup Winners’ Cup final. Kennedy played for Scotland and if it was possible to talk for your country he’d be first in the queue. He was a hoot. When I arrived in Greenock to see John McMaster, he had his foot in a basin of water after another ankle injury (decades after his playing career ended). After an hour of stories and jokes he was handing me his Gothenburg and Super Cup medals for a look. These days I meet John all the time. Archie Knox, Willie Garner and Mark McGhee were among countless others who were sparkling company. Older footballers speak like normal people, full of candid anecdotes, opinions and laughs. Especially the laughs. The conversations flow. They aren’t clipped and guarded and looking at a public relations guy in the corner in case they’ve said too much, as modern players do.

The interviews happened all over the place: Dom Sullivan in his pub in Denny, big Rougvie in a Marks and Spencer’s cafe in Aberdeen, Ian Fleming in a service station in Perth, Pat Stanton in a public car park in Edinburgh, Johnny Hewitt in his front room where his dog covered me in slevvers, former club secretary Ian Taggart in Dizzy’s cafe-bar in Aberdeen’s west end, where it was so dark by the end of the chat I could barely see him across the table. Bobby Clark and Davie Robertson took long phone calls in America. Ian Porteous was on the other end of the line from New Zealand. There were coffees and questions for Willie Miller in Belgrade and Brussels – two interviews with the Capo di tutti capi – when we were there on media duties covering the Scotland team.

Only three declined. A mutual friend told me Stevie Archibald was reserving his material in case he did a book of his own (two years later there’s no sign of that, but fingers crossed). Joey Harper had just gotten himself into (further) trouble by criticising Fergie in a BBC radio interview and thought it better to lie low on their fractured relationship. Roland Arnott, once Fergie’s popular young physio, is now a senior figure in his profession and was wary of betraying client confidentiality even 30 years on. Try as I might I couldn’t track down Frank McDougall, despite a couple of his football pals giving me a number for him in Brazil, where he was living. The former director, Ian Donald, has gone to ground and didn’t return calls. Happily there was an active connection to the 1980s board through Keith Anderson, son of the great vice-chairman Chris, who talked at length about his father’s experiences and vision. Good job I kept Keith sweet… a year later I was working for him at The Times.

The end result was 100,000 words of interview transcriptions. A few long, painstaking months after that – early rises, late nights, coffee, repetitive strain injury, sobbing – a 100,000-word, 320-page book slipped out, as unsure of itself as a new-born foal. Mercifully it was well received.

And, aye, of course they’re all still heroes. But you knew that from the start.

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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