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Book review: My Autobiography, by Alex Ferguson

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 8:49am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 8:49am
 

My Autobiography
by Alex Ferguson
Hodder & Stoughton
4 stars

David Goldblatt

As his comments on his upbringing reveal, Alex Ferguson is a child of the Attlee years, and a son of the Scottish industrial working class, beneficiary of the new welfare state and the solidarities of organised working-class family life. "I came out of a wartime generation that said: you're born, that's you. You were safe. You had the library, the swimming baths and football." It was a way of life in which the most important values were hard work, frugality and loyalty to family.

The former Manchester United manager's greatest accolades are for the straight-talking, the solid, the resilient and reliable, the people without airs and graces - a dying breed. "Now we have more fragile human beings. They've never been in the shipyards, they've never been down a pit; few have seen manual labour," he writes.

Alongside this reverence for the virtues of working-class life and the collective good, runs a fearsome ambition and shop-floor materialism. Ferguson is, by his own admission, no saint, displaying a contempt for authority he would never tolerate himself. Nor has he challenged the economic status quo - his old-school social democracy does not extend to a critique of private ownership, be it the Glazers at Manchester United or anywhere else.

If Ferguson has been prepared to cede some ground to economic realities, he is uncompromising when it comes to the choice between pursuing the collective objective of soccer excellence and the individual project of manufactured celebrity. David Beckham, he believed, made the wrong choice: "David was at a great club: he had a fine career … that was taken away from him … he lost the chance to become an absolute top-dog player."

Ferguson's book is really a piece of oral history. His ghost writer, Paul Hayward, has preserved the cadence, grammar and honesty of reported speech.

The idea that the collective good might entail some limit to individual advancement, that a shared triumph might be more satisfying than individual acclaim, remains, despite everything, lodged in the collective, historical memory of soccer and the wider nation. Ferguson's life is a conduit to a time when these were the commonsense norms; a world where a working-class man of talent could, not by the magical alchemy of elite education or the stardust of celebrity, but by a lifetime of hard work and hard thinking, rise to the very top, and remain true to the best of the world he came from.

English soccer lives in his shadow and will wait for his successors, but neither England nor Scotland will forge his like again.

Guardian News & Media

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