Fergotten hinterland

Fergie is a control freak, a big head and a bully. You wouldn't want to get on his wrong side, live with him, or sleep with him, but he is also of endless fascination to all football fans.

There is yet another biog of him out this month - Football: Bloody Hell! - written by Patrick Barclay of the Times. By my reckoning, Fergie has authored six books himself. In all, there have been about 18 books by or about Fergie in the past 25 years.

Wenger, by comparison, is a closed book. We know fuck all about him - possibly because outside football there is little to know or little that he'll reveal.

Herbert Chapman was probably our first manager giant. Chapman won the League with two teams, Huddersfield and Arsenal, in the 1920s and 1930s. He was also an innovator on and off the pitch, which Fergie has never been, introducing new formations and team numbers at Arsenal.
Then we jump a few decades to the likes of Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Brian Clough. Cloughie was the nearest to a genius of the three, in that
he won the League with two hitherto (and ever since) unfancied teams, Derby and Nottingham Forest.

Football fans, like fans of politics, tend to look back to when giants bestrode the pitch or the cabinet, as opposed to the fresh-faced weeds and placemen we have to today.

Oh, where are the characters of yesteryear? It might be true of politics, but not of football. We are blessed. Three monsters are still among us: Fergie, Mourinho and Wenger, whom we have been fortunate to observe at close quarters on our shores.

Mourinho and Wenger are clearly clever, not just in speaking all those languages, but in their thoughts and pronouncements. You could imagine them passing entrance exams, writing as fluently as they talk, while Fergie would struggle and stumble.

His ability to stay at the top for so long is perhaps the most remarkable thing about him. He'll be 69 in December and he seems as strong, ill-tempered and convinced of his own rightness about everything as he ever was.

It's also remarkable that his football life has been totally insular, both as a player and as a manager, never working in foreign parts - something that modern superclubs today consider essential. How else, the thinking goes, can you handle all these foreign players and foreign owners if you're
a boring little Brit who has worked nowhere else? Yet, without any foreign languages or experience, Fergie tamed Cantona and knocked Ronaldo into shape.

He has a hinterland, which most managers don't have. Thanks to all the millions of words about him, we know he loves horses, red wine and the Labour Party. We are told that his heart is in the right place. Which has bugger all to do with football. We'll accept the bad and the ugly, the nasty and the rough, as long as they do the business. Well done, Alec. Yes, he only became "Alex" when he moved south.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.