Fergie: the Godfather of Manipulation
Pre-match Press conferences with managers, for the journalist, can range from enlightening to entertaining to exasperating, from hilarious to hackneyed to humdrum. An article has to be written, whatever the banal musings of the football figurehead, and column inches have to be filled. Enlightening, entertaining and hilarious “pressers” are always preferred by the scribe.
Post-match pressers are different. A match that has just finished can be discussed, the controversy digested and the referee slated. All on the spur of the moment – when tempers are raging, emotions boiling and the facts unclear. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” is an age-old journo’s maxim which, at times, managers love to indulge in, incessantly.
But forget the cauldron of the post-match PCs. They are often one of a kind, unique, knee-jerk stuff. Yet the pre-match preambles are usually carefully planned, carried out strictly to the order of the club PR department and, ultimately, controlled by the manager. And if that manager is Sir Alex Ferguson, the boss of bosses, be afraid. Be very afraid.
Ferguson is also one of a kind, unique. Mr Man Utd. And woe betide any hapless hack who should ask a question that, though totally relevant, is deemed to be worthless by the Old Trafford legend. Fergie is his name, intimidation is his game. And journo bans from Carrington, the Manchester United training complex, have been plentiful over the years.
Only in August, my colleagues Mark Ogden, of the “Daily Telegraph”, and Paul Hetherington, of the “Daily Star Sunday”, were barred from attending United’s regular Friday pressers because they dared to report that Rio Ferdinand would miss the seasonal opener against Everton due to a groin injury.
That Ogden and Hetherington were spot on – Ferdinand missed the 1-0 defeat at Goodison Park – held no value to Ferguson. As Alan Sugar, another notoriously cantankerous knight of the realm, might have uttered: “You’re fired.” And so the Telegraph and Star Sunday were denied access to Fergie’s Friday briefings … for getting it right!
In my experience, I concur with another fellow journo, who once remarked that the weekly Carrington ordeals are little more than “tense, joyless affairs”. You would have to strike a delicate balance: suck up to the Great Man, with a tender line in interrogation, or run the risk of him walking out … and incurring the wrath of the other scribes who needed to fill a “double-page spread” with his infinite wisdom but were unable to because of his sudden departure. And it was your fault.
And yet, on other isolated encounters with Fergie, I have have found him affable, revealing and at ease with the normally despised Fourth Estate. On United’s pre-season tours, often to the Far East, he will always sit down on one pre-designated day in a five-star hotel suite to chat about anything and everything. And if he has something of importance to get off his chest, he needs no prompting.
It is as though, away from the suffocating confines of the domestic Premier League, he can relax. Well, just a bit. For an invited audience of, say, eight to ten daily newspaper journos – and he would accommodate the Sunday papers and broadcast media separately – he will wax lyrical for an hour or more. And provide excellent copy that could run to a 2,000-word piece, which our desk chiefs would be ecstatic with. The mega-cost of the trip, immediately, will have become worth it.
Beguiling stuff and, when talking to him, it’s almost like chatting with your dad or grandad. Plenty of reminiscing but with an abundance of in-yer-face and up-to-date topics, too. Fergie knows how to “guide” the media, especially of the passive variety. He is the Godfather of Manipulation and clearly gets a kick out of it, even at his veteran age. Fair play to him.
But I do recall a one-on-one meeting with him, at a major championship finals abroad for which he was a television pundit. In the “Green Room”, Fergie wanted the horse racing piped through from back home and, of course, he got his wish. Yes, I like a little flutter, too, and what ensued was a marvellously amicable conversation about the “Sport of Kings”. Even if, privately, I was cacking myself in case I made the wrong comment, however innocent.
This was Fergie Unplugged. Away from the domestic public scrutiny, the goldfish-bowl glare, the seven-year refusal to talk to the BBC, all that bollox. And before he had to go into the TV studio to offer his opinions to the nation – with, if I remember correctly, Terry Venables and others – he generously told me to back his latest prize horse, which was running for the first time shortly. Of course, I forgot. And, of course, it won!
Oh well. You live and learn …
Other managers, also doyens of their profession, do not have such an edge as “hairdryrer” Fergie. Arsene Wenger’s pre-match pressers are usually civilised functions at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground in Hertfordshire, with the Sky Sports “attack dogs” and agency boys given the first airing. And then, if there’s any scraps left over, the daily and Sunday paper guys get a go with the urbane Frenchman on their own. He’s a lovely man, who will answer almost any query, however loaded.
Harry Redknapp, when at Tottenham, always offered a gag a minute at the club’s former Chigwell base in Essex. Sometimes, you just didn’t know whether he was being serious or talking clap-trap. But who cared? It always made for a great yarn. And yet, when his first XI selection was unveiled on the Saturday afterwards, you did wonder: “Er, Harry. Were you not being rather convenient with the truth?”
And the “Special One”? Jose Mourinho. I would not claim to know him but his pressers when the Chelsea manager were always enlightening, entertaining and often hilarious. As I mentioned earlier, just what a journo craves. I cannot recall, either, that he personally banned any reporter from attending, though the Chelsea “Thought Police” at the time – a particularly rabid bunch – might have ruled otherwise.
I also remember that, after he had moved on to Inter Milan, I attended an Internazionale match on a lovely Mediterranean isle, when his side had put in a rather less than impressive Champions League performance. And yet he spoke for more than an hour afterwards, in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and English, to explain his team’s shortcomings.
Not great for the journo trying to hit their deadline. But let’s face it, if Mourinho is talking, you can’t ignore him and get on with your copy because he just might say something that will “Hold The Back Page”. And if you miss it, there would be hell to pay. But would Fergie have done that on the back of such crap display? No way.
Managers do not control the media, however much they might think they do. A journo will always break ranks, through “contacts”, “leaks” and for whatever reason, and will endure his or her petty ban from the club proceedings and return to the fold, later, untarnished. Perhaps with their reputation even enhanced for bucking the trend.
Freedom of the Press will remain undimmed because it, football and the Premier League demands the mutual oxygen of publicity. And no one can deny that.
Perhaps not even Fergie …