Alex Ferguson on Labour, the best footballers and what he WON'T be doing in retirement

Alastair Campbell talks to the retiring Manchester United manager about football, politics and why Tony Blair was a striker.

Alex Ferguson and Alastair Campbell have been friends for many years. One is the greatest manager in British football history, who has a passion for politics. The other helped Labour win three successive election victories, and has a passion for football. As Campbell’s diaries showed, he and the Manchester United manager speak regularly – about politics, sport, pressure, the ups and downs of living with the 24-hour media, and a shared obsessiveness about winning. In the week after Campbell agreed to be guest editor of the New Statesman, as Sir Alex prepared at the team hotel in London before the Carling Cup Final, we asked them to allow us to eavesdrop on one of their conversations

Alastair Campbell: This is primarily a political magazine, so let’s kick off with politics, and we’ll come to the stuff people are really interested in later. On a scale of one to ten, how political do you think you are?

Alex Ferguson: Well, I guess I’d have to be a ten on football. Football has been the big thing in my life for so long. In this job, it is in your mind all the time. There is so much you have to focus on. With politics, I’m interested in it, I follow it, I read political history and I have strong political views. So I would say around seven and a half. It’s probably the other way round for you, isn’t it?

AC: Not this year, it’s not.

AF: That’s true, Burnley have had a hell of a season. It should have been a United-Burnley final tomorrow.

AC: Don’t remind me. Losing the semi-final was absolute torture. Where do you think your politics come from?

AF: My background and my upbringing. My dad was on the left, and so were most people where I came from. I grew up in a very working-class area of Glasgow and I was always very conscious of the sense of community, people and families supporting each other. I grew up believing Labour was the party of the working man, and I still believe that. Then, when I was working in the shipyards on Clydeside, I realised how important it was that people had proper representation and I got involved as a shop steward in the union. I led an unofficial walkout over pay. There was another thing that politicised me even more as an adult, and that was when my mother was dying in November 1986, just a couple of weeks after I took over at United. She was at the Southern General in Glasgow, and it was absolutely dreadful, cladding hanging off the pipes, doctors and nurses overworked, and so little dignity ­attached to it. All my life I’ve seen Labour as the party working to get better health care for ordinary people, and the Tories really only caring about the people at the top. The NHS is definitely better after 12 years of Labour.

AC: You’ve come a long way since then, though, and your success has coincided with the TV explosion and the in­troduction of phenomenal wealth into football, so you’re seriously rich compared to most of the people you grew up with. Is it possible to have that wealth and still hold those political views?

AF: Of course it is. I still keep in touch with friends from those days, and I always will. It’s true I’ve earned a lot of money. But I’ve worked hard, pay my taxes and put a lot back in different ways. I think part of Tony Blair’s success as a leader was showing success and Labour could go together.

AC: What do you think politics and sport can learn from each other?

AF: I think you can learn something about your own world from anyone else’s. I read a lot of history, and in most history books there won’t be a mention of sport, but there are always insights you can learn. Like that book you sent me last summer, the one about Abraham Lincoln . . .

AC: Team of Rivals.

AF: Yes, my God, what a brilliant book. I read it on holiday and even though it was so long, I couldn’t get enough of it. And of course the big story was slavery and the civil war, but what was fascinating was how he held together all these big personalities, the ones who had tried to stop him becoming president, to make sure they stayed roughly on the same track. Now, he was president of the United States in a totally different era. I am a manager of a football team. But I can learn about the art of team building and team management from all sorts of places. It’s all about managing people and relationships, in the end.

AC: But it’s changed so much since you were a player, or since you started at United. You’ve got players in their early twenties who are multimillionaires, and celebrated in a way footballers in your playing days were not, at least not in the same way. That must have changed the nature of management.

AF: The thing is, I have been here while all these changes have gone on, and I’ve managed to adapt and help players adapt. I was here before agent power, before freedom of contract, before the really big money from TV kicked in. Part of my job is to make sure these lads keep their feet on the ground. I hammer it into them that the work ethic is what got them through the door here in the first place, and they must never lose it. I say to them, “When you’re going home to your mother, you make sure she’s seeing the same person she sent to me, because if you take all this fame and money the wrong way, your mother’ll be disappointed with you.”

AC: And does all the fame and the money change them for the worse?

AF: Well, some footballers it might, but look at [Manchester United’s] Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, model professionals who have also handled the celebrity status well. So then the younger ones look up to them, too. You’re talking about some really big characters in a top football club. And the job of the manager is to get the best out of them, for the team as a whole, and always be looking to the future as well. That must be so important in politics, too.

AC: It is. The best leaders build the best teams. Have you seen that Team of Rivals is Obama’s favourite book on politics as well? And now he has taken in a few rivals, too, not just Hill­ary Clinton, but Republicans.

AF: He’s right to do it, especially with the scale of the problems he’s trying to sort out. Do you remember, I think it was 1996 or 1997, and you and Tony were up in Manchester for a rally and we met up for a drink at the Midland Hotel? I remember saying to Tony, “So long as you can keep all your key people in the same room at the same time, you’ll be fine.”

AC: We were in the room where you said you signed Eric Cantona and Andy Cole [in 1992 and 1995, respectively].

AF: That’s right. Cantona – one of the best buys I ever made in terms of his overall impact. And that’s my point, in a way. He was a great footballer. Andy Cole was a great footballer. I’ve got some great players now. But nobody can do it on their own. It’s about the team. I can give the leadership and the direction but the team has to gel. That means keeping them together, able to live with each other in the same room, get the best from each other.

AC: The big difference in politics is that you can never really kick them off the team. If a footballer goes, he moves on to another club. The prime minister can sack a minister, but they can still hang around.

AF: So they have to be kept in the room somehow, too, in a different way to before.

AC: One of my worries at the moment is that we don’t see so much of the team. Too much of it falls on Gordon. I was thinking on the way here, listening to the radio, and Gordon was getting it in the neck over Royal Mail at the Policy Forum. If ever the shit hit the fan and we were looking for big hitters, there was a lot more than Tony – John Prescott, Gordon, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar, David Blunkett, Mo Mowlam, John Reid, Alan Milburn, Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, Peter Mandelson, Margaret Beckett, Tessa, Helen Liddell, Jack Cunningham, Pat Hewitt, lots of them.

AF: That’s right. The Tories and the media are into Gordon the whole time, like they used to be with Tony. The others should be out there much more, defending and promoting.

AC: I was telling the photographer before you arrived that I was amazed when I transcribed my diaries just how often you cropped up, particularly when the pressure was on. There’s only a few in the edited version, but during the campaigns and the tough times in particular, you were never off the phone.

AF: You know my definition of friendship – the real friend is the one who walks through the door when the others are put­ting on their coats to leave. You had some pretty difficult periods, and it was important you understood there was support out there. I know from my position here that sometimes there can be so much noise and fury going on around you that you need people outside your own bubble who can take a slightly different perspective for you. We all need that.

AC: There’s a bit where I talk about you being really excited about us getting rid of the Tories.

AF: I really enjoyed that run-up to the 1997 campaign. I was following it very closely and I think sometimes I could spot things going on that were worth passing on to you.

AC: Like saying we needed a masseur on the battle bus?

AF: (Laughs) Well, maybe that was a step too far. But the point I was making was that mental and physical fitness are two sides of the same coin. You have to build rest into any programme. That’s another thing that applies in all worlds, not just sport. I don’t think you can do high-pressure jobs now without being physically fit. And there were times I could see Tony was getting tired, and I was thinking he’s probably doing too much himself, not delegating, not spreading the load. So I’d phone up and tell you. But never mind my advice, I tell you the best bit for me in your book: it was near the end, when you were getting advice from Bill Clinton about Tony’s position – he was going through a really bad patch – and your own position, when things were really getting hot for you, with Iraq and the BBC and everything. I tell you, that was a political genius speaking. I learned something out of that. I read it several times over. His analysis was just so sharp, it was different class. Being able to analyse a situation and then decide what to do – that is such an important part of these top jobs. Reaching the right decisions under pressure.

AC: I suppose dealing with the media since it went 24/7 is another area affecting both sport and politics.

AF: Bloody nightmare. I think a lot of the live coverage of games is good and it’s brilliant that every single league game is record­ed on film. But the papers are a nightmare. They have all this space to fill, they’re under pressure from TV and the internet, the journalists are on short-term contracts and worried for their future but so much of what they write is just rubbish. I tell you, the press in our country are a real problem. They do real damage. I kept saying to you, the government needs to do something because it’s got worse not better. It’s a wonder anyone goes into politics with the stuff that gets thrown at them.

AC: You still don’t speak to the Beeb because of the stories they ran on [AF’s son] Jason, but why do you do all those press conferences?

AF: You have to. Part of the obligations before big games. It’s also a way of talking to the supporters, making sure they know what’s going on. It’s not a part of the job I particularly like, but you have to do it. I think it’s fair to say you and I have reached pretty similar views about the state of the media.

AC: No chance of you going into punditry when you retire, then?

AF: Not a chance. Some of the ex-player, ex-manager pundits are the worst. It’s a disgrace the way they sit there criticising guys they used to play with, just to make a bit of an impact. I couldn’t do that.

AC: Talking of retirement, do you have a date in mind yet?

AF: Not for a while. I’m 67 now. My health’s good. I still have the drive and the energy. I’ve been here more than 22 years, but I still get a buzz arriving at the training ground. I still get that tingle of excitement when the team bus draws up at an away ground before a big match. Or I see some of the young kids coming through, like the young Brazilian twins [United’s Rafael and Fabio da Silva] . . .

AC: They weren’t even born when you started at United.

AF: I know. Maybe they’ll be here after me, though.

AC: So what are we saying? Another year? Two?

AF: That kind of area. We’ll see.

AC: I reckon your last game should be at Wembley, the 2011 Champions League final. Then you do the UK football team for the 2012 Olympics.

AF: We’ll see. I certainly support the idea of an Olympic team in principle, provided there is no danger at all to the individual identities of the smaller countries. They have to be protected in terms of World Cup participation.

AC: I remember you once saying, a few weeks out from the first election, that it was like we were 2-0 up and we should let the Tories come at us, just probe them, let them make a few mistakes. So what do you think the Labour-Tory score is right now?

AF: Well, the polls aren’t great, are they? And a recession is the last thing you need when there’s an election not that far off. So you’d have to say the Tories are a goal or two up. But I don’t think it’s over. I might hear people complaining about the economy, or immigration, or Labour being in power too long, but I don’t hear too many saying they really want the Tories back.

AC: What about Gordon? What have you made of his premiership so far?

AF: Well, he’s been around a long time because he was such a big part of Tony’s government as well as leader of this one. And whatever anyone says about the economy and the recession right now, I think he did a terrific job as chancellor. And I know people go on about him being a dour Scot and not having Tony’s charisma and so on, but I think maybe the country needs a bit of that dour Scottishness. He has had some hellish problems thrown at him, and he’s handled them well.

AC: If Gordon was a footballer, where would he play?

AF: Central midfield.

AC: Tony?

AF: Striker.

AC: I would ask you about Cameron, too, but I think it’s fair to say normal politics has been suspended for a while.

AF: Yes, it’s just terrible what’s happened. You wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

AC: Was there ever a time you thought we would never get back in? [AC’s partner] Fiona’s dad used to have a mantra, that one day we’d be back, and sadly died before we made it. But I must admit there were times I doubted we ever would.

AF: I always felt eventually the country would turn against the Tories again. They’d done too much damage, in a way. And then when Tony came on the scene you just knew the guy had something. There was real enthusiasm for change then.

AC: But the polls are not good. Maybe the Tories think they don’t need to do much, just wait and let us do it for them.

AF: I think when you get closer to an election, people will think very long and hard. And again, if you’re talking about the read-across from politics and sport, I don’t think it’s ever enough to let the other side do it for you. You have to earn it yourself. So yes, the polls are not great, and the economic situation is not great, but it’s not game over, as I see it.

AC: What about Scotland? Are you worried about the Nationalists winning the argument on independence?

AF: Well, as you know, I never thought Alex Salmond would win last time, so I was wrong. I really hope they don’t win the argument. I feel very strongly that Scotland does better by being part of the UK.

AC: Christ knows how the credit-crunch fallout would have affected an independent Scotland. The Scottish banks have not exactly covered themselves in glory.

AF: I know, and I think it has unsettled people a lot. I think that if it came to a vote, Scots would stick with the rest of the UK. I certainly hope so.

AC: Now, even New Statesman readers probably like football, so a few football questions to end. Best player you ever saw?

AF: Pelé, di Stefano, Maradona, Cruyff.

AC: In that order?

AF: Yes, I think so.

AC: Greatest manager?

AF: Jock Stein.

AC: What is it about working-class Scots and management? Stein, you, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, so many of the management greats seem to be Scots.

AF: I think we’re back to the values we grew up with in the kind of places we came from. Hard work. Teamwork. Strong beliefs. Jock was an incredible guy. I was manager at Aberdeen when he asked me to be his assistant with Scotland as well, so I had 18 months to see him close up. The two things I remember above all were his humility and his intelligence. He knew everything that was happening in Scottish football, everything. He knew about players I was looking at before I knew it myself.

AC: That must have been hellish, being alongside him the night of the Wales-Scotland match [on 10 September 1985] when he had his heart attack and died.

AF: Oh my God. You know, I said a few minutes earlier to the team doctor, “I’m a bit worried about the Big Man, he doesn’t look right” – and then the ref blows his whistle for something and Jock thought it was for the end of the game and he stands up, and that’s when it happened and I grabbed him. He was still alive then, but had a second heart attack later, and he died. He was a great man. I learned a lot from him.

AC: Who will replace you? And will you have a say?

AF: United is a family club and I know they will want me to stay involved as an ambassador of some sort. If I’m asked my view I’ll give it, but I won’t be a back-seat driver.

AC: And who do you fancy?

AF: I’m not gone yet.

AC: Reaction to [Liverpool manager] Rafa Benítez’s rant?

AF: Weird. I really don’t know what he was talking about. He’d obviously worked himself up into something, because he was reading it out. I’d be amazed if his staff or his players thought it was a good idea.

AC: Best (other) manager in the Premiership?

AF: You’d have to say Arsène Wenger, David Moyes and Martin O’Neill.

AC: Why did you only get one cap for Scotland?

AF: There’s no need to remind people of that. There was a glut of good Scottish strikers.

AC: Your United dream team, out of the players you’ve managed?

AF: Oh, there’s too many, even without Best, Law, Charlton, Edwards. What’s your Burnley dream team, then?

AC: Christ, it changes every time I do it. Beresford or Black-law in goal; Angus, Davis, Miller, Newton; Steven, Dobson, Coates; Morgan, Lochhead, James.

AF: 4-3-3? What about Adamson and McIlroy?

AC: Just before my time. My dad told me I saw McIlroy, but I was only four or something.

AF: I used to play with Andy Lochhead, at Drumchapel. Great header of a ball. My problem with United is I have had so many great players that I can’t do one dream team.

AC: Do two, then.

AF: Well, two goalies for sure – Schmeichel and van der Saar. Both top keepers. Full-backs, Denis Irwin, Gary Neville, Evra, and these da Silva boys are something else. Centre-backs you’d have to say Stam, Bruce, Ferdinand and Pallister. Ronny Johnsen was top drawer as well. Jonny Evans will be up there. For midfield . . . I ask myself who were the players you could not leave out. Bryan Robson for sure. Roy Keane. Scholes. Giggs – never, ever leave him out if I was playing my best team. Ronaldo and Cantona are both “never leave out” players. You’d have Beckham knocking on the door. Out-and-out strikers, where do I start – van Nistelrooy, Cole, Yorke, Solskjaer, Sheringham. As for Rooney, if I left him out, I’d have to do it by email or I’d never hear the end of it. God, when you go through it like that, I have been blessed with terrific players.

AC: Greatest achievement?

AF: The treble [Premiership, FA Cup and Uefa Champions League] in 1999, and in particular the comeback at Barcelona against Bayern.

AC: That’s in the book. You and your bloody knighthood.

AF: What a night. Can’t believe my own wife tried to stop it!

AC: Biggest mistake?

AF: Letting go of Jaap Stam. No question.

AC: Biggest disappointment.

AF: Not getting Gazza. He was a fabulous footballer and he would have done brilliantly here.

AC: Can you do the quintuple this year?

AF: No.

AC: Seriously?

AF: The thing about Cup football is you need to be the best, but you also need a lot of luck, and I think it’s asking too much for all the games to go your way. The one thing I will say is, this squad is the best I have ever had. Every game we play, I feel confident. At the moment, every attack fears our defence, and every defence fears our midfield and attack. That gives you confidence, but it is too tough a call, I think. That’s another read-across to politics, isn’t it? Confidence and momentum.

AC: Yeah. Best goal scored under you?

AF: Giggs against Arsenal at Villa Park [the 1999 FA Cup semi-final]. Out of this world. Let me ask you one. Best Tony speech?

AC: As a parliamentary speech, whether you agreed with him or not, you’d have to say his speech just before the war in Iraq. Best stand-up speech for me was the party conference, 1994.

AF: You mean he never got better after that?

AC: OK, Manchester, his last conference speech as leader.

AF: All the best things happen in Manchester.

AC: Three most important qualities required for leadership?

AF: Control. Managing change. And observation.

AC: What do you mean by observation?

AF: Spotting everything around you, analysing what is important. Seeing dangers and opportunities that others can’t see. That comes from experience and knowledge. What are your three?

AC: Being strategic. Being ahead of the curve, which I suppose is about change management. And getting the best from the people around you.

AF: Not that different to mine.

AC: Single most important attribute to a winning mentality?

AF: There’s two for me. A will to win. And attention to detail. You?

AC: I’d throw in fear of failure, too. I suppose that’s the flipside to will to win. Will you win tomorrow?

AF: Aye . . . should do.