Football, bloody hell

28 min read

Sir Alex Ferguson almost emigrated to Canada aged 21 – instead, he became Britain’s greatest football manager. Twenty-five years since his finest hour, Martin Edwards and others tell FFT the inside story of a legendary career

Words Chris Flanagan Additional reporting Ryan Baldi, Kenny Millar


Remember, remember, the 5th of November. On that 1986 night, a plot took place – not involving gunpowder or Guy Fawkes, but Bobby Charlton and the boss of Aberdeen Football Club, on the outskirts of Glasgow.

A day earlier, Manchester United had lost 4-1 at Southampton in the third round of the League Cup – a loss in which an 18-year-old Matt Le Tissier plundered the first two senior goals of his career. The Red Devils sat fourth bottom of the First Division, and the board decided time was up for gaffer Ron Atkinson.

The man they wanted to replace him was Alex Ferguson, but they needed to sound out their target, without Atkinson or Aberdeen finding out. “We had to contact him to find out if he wanted to come, before we made the official approach,” Martin Edwards, the club’s long-serving former chairman, tells FFT of the initial phone call that took place that afternoon. “If I just rang them up and said, ‘It’s Martin Edwards from Manchester United’, we thought they might not put me through to him. So our director Mike Edelson spoke to Aberdeen’s switchboard, pretending to be Gordon Strachan’s agent. They put him on.”

Sat in his office, and thinking he was about to answer a call from Alan Gordon, a man he knew extremely well, Ferguson began the conversation with the words, “How are you doing, you ugly bugger?”

He soon realised the man on the other end of the phone was putting on a fake Scottish accent, before Edelson passed the phone to Edwards, to enquire whether Ferguson was interested in meeting to discuss a possible move to Old Trafford.

“He agreed, so we travelled up by car, the whole of the board, and met at a motorway service station,” continues Edwards. At 7pm, attempting not to be detected under the cover of darkness, the chairman sneaked out of a vehicle containing Edelson, Charlton and fellow director Maurice Watkins, and into Ferguson’s car at Hamilton Services on the M74. The two cars headed 15 miles to Bishopbriggs, just north of Glasgow, and the house of the Aberdeen chief’s sister-in-law.

There, the five men reached agreement on an appointment that would change football history, and transform Ferguson into the most successful British m

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