Philip Larkin’s thoughts on parentage still ring true today, and most likely always will. They mess you up your mum and dad, they don’t mean to but they do – or something a bit like that with better, less printable words. The best any of us can hope for is to be slightly less messed up than others. In football, young players – away from their families and left to their own devices for most of the working week – often find father figures in their coaches and managers. This is rarely more true than at Manchester United, where Sir Alex Ferguson nurtures his protégés with equal dowsings of love and stern masterly control. Sometimes the kids get a bit unruly, start wearing skirts and choosing inappropriate girlfriends. Sometimes they pine to move away to sunnier, more Spanishy places, but they never forget the impact made on their lives, and always try and act in a way their master would approve of. If Ferguson is a father to his players, he’s messed them up far less than most of ours have.
He revealed recently that Cristiano Ronaldo had sent him a text message on his birthday telling the Scot he missed him. While Ronaldo more than likely got some stick from his former United team mates for that particular revelation, it only went to show once again how much Fergie’s surrogate children think of him, and how much good it’s done them.
I waffle on like this because as we all wait to see if John Terry gets booed by his own fans tomorrow, like his teammate and fellow headliner Ashley Cole was last year, I can’t help but wonder how much Ferguson would have tolerated such negative public perceptions of his players. It’s not a question that needs much pondering really, because I’m fairly certain the circumstances which led to such negative perceptions of those two particular players would never have occurred under his watch anyway. And if they had, they wouldn’t have been under it for much longer. That’s not to imply Cole or Terry, or any other footballer to be embroiled in a series of lurid and undignified personal scandals has had inferior managers (although by default they probably have), merely how wise and beneficiary the no nonsense tutelage of the Govan Gaffer has been in his 400 odd years at Machester United. If messers Terry and Cole had been brought up at Old Trafford, it’s a fair assumption that their more indulgent streaks would have been ironed (or possibly hair dried) out long ago.
The story of Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs’ party is a famous one in Fergie folklore. Ferguson apparently broke down the door during the revelry, kicked everyone out and demanded the young Giggsy and Sharpey went to bed immediately without any pudding. It was a moment the Welshman never forgot. At one time the ultimate pin up boy, Giggsy Wiggsy could have easily gone the way of Georgie Best. But the late nights and the Dani Behrs were stamped out early on and he bears (not Behrs) the consequence of this in his trophy cabinet.
David Beckham may have strayed from the party line occasionally – and suffered because of it – yet still the notion of Becks stumbling drunk out of Boujis on a Friday night, picking up glamour girls and enjoying the wrong kind of Sunday roast is a ludicrous one. He’s still a decent, grounded, family man, despite his almost unprecedented success. Paul Scholes doesn’t even need mentioning, and that’s probably the way he’d like it. Nicky Butt, The Neville Neville brothers, even Robbie Savage, it’s hard to think of a single fledgling, despite their success, notoriety and undoubted temptation, who’s ever given the tabloids as much reason to vilify them as Chelsea’s terrible twosome currently do. Cristiano Ronaldo was once accused of a heinous crime, but it was revealed to be an opportunistic stunt. Still, no similar rumors have ever surfaced since, despite his dramatically increased profile. No doubt stern words were had and the law laid down, even in innocence. Jonny Evans suffered a similar fate. The consequence was an end to Manchester United’s Christmas parties and again, no subsequent revelations.
Those who have continued to indulge beyond youthful naivety have invariably been older signings, and even then they haven’t been tolerated for long. Dwight Yorke seemed ready and able stamp his mark on the world stage in 1999, but his United career was brought to a swift halt after a few to many holidays in Jordan. Even Wayne Rooney’s early tabloid magnet behavior has matured with age, though I’m not sure how good a word ‘mature’ is in that particular circumstance.
It’s clearly not just Ferguson who’s been able to instill such a sense of responsibility off the field in his players, but it’s an often overlooked trait of the great man that he has done so, continuously, with so many prodigious young players. And with the almost consistent scandals that continue to overshadow the footballing achievements of England’s current heroes, it’s a feat that should rightfully be admired.