One of the finer arts of publishing, as of soccer, is timing. Launching Michael Crick's blockbuster biography of the Manchester United manager, The Boss: The Many Sides of Alex Ferguson (Simon & Schuster; 612 pages), at the end of the English soccer season seemed a fair bet. With 14 major titles in as many seasons with the club, Ferguson and his team looked set for one or two more this time out. Instead, United lost in the semifinal of the European Championship and was edged out of the Premier League championship by an ascendant Arsenal who, days after winning the F.A. Cup, clinched the title by beating Ferguson's stellar team on their own turf at Old Trafford. The winning smile of Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger was that of a man who knew he'd outfought, outthought and outstared soccer's meanest, smartest double-bluff artist. Until now Ferguson has pretty much held the franchise on his own life story in eight autobiographies, and he's not inclined to start cooperating with snooping authors not even one like Michael Crick, who has been a fanatical supporter of "the Reds" for 30 years. But in Crick the publishers are fielding one of the most resourceful and thorough biographers around his 1995 exposé of Jeffrey Archer was practically the case for the prosecution that put the British author-politician behind bars in 2001. Through interviews with more than 250 colleagues, friends (and many ex-friends), Crick exposes the mess of contradictions, shenanigans and charms of the man known always to his players as the Boss.
Ferguson, now 60, grew up in the shadow of the shipyard his family had worked in for generations in Govan, a district of Glasgow where the running battles of Catholic-Protestant sectarianism and workers' rights were fought on the soccer pitch and the shop floor. As a trainee tool cutter and trade union organizer, Ferguson was at the front of an apprentices' strike for better pay in 1960 and again led a walkout in 1964 in support of a sacked colleague. "It was the fight for the fairness of things that got to me," Ferguson later told an interviewer. Sacked, humiliated or verbally roasted players and outmaneuvered club directors appear at regular intervals in The Boss to wonder at his concept of fairness. Yet at the heart of Ferguson's managerial success lies the fierce loyalty he evokes in his clubmates and which he repays with quiet encouragement and ever the union man a refusal to rebuke his players publicly for their misdemeanors on the pitch. Perhaps the most telling influence on Ferguson was his father Alex, who supported his early career as a player with his presence but never his congratulations even when he'd scored four goals. "He was a born winner and a bad loser," says a former fellow striker. Ferguson won a reputation for belligerence and the nickname "razor elbows" for the barely legal style with which he created the time and space he needed to fire a shot on goal. A champion of "the beautiful game" as a manager, Ferguson was never a real beauty on the pitch, and it's easy enough to see the elbows still at work: intimidating journalists, talking down his team's chances, pepping up in-form players by dropping them from the team still buying room for maneuver and maintaining control.
At Manchester United, Ferguson has found a layer of charm and some outside interests to relax into, but Crick's account of his early stewardship of lowlier Scottish teams is a running riot of flying teacups, brawls and spats over petty cash. Such revelations as there are in The Boss are more storms in teacups. Ferguson's tendency to steer transfer-seeking players toward his son Jason's soccer agency seems a relatively mild strain of nepotism for the modern game. And news that Ferguson tried to cobble together a consortium to buy the club to stave off a bid by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB will likely cement him more strongly still in the hearts of the estimated 50 million Manchester United fans worldwide who are this book's natural readership. For the rest of us, a 600-page biography, complete with footnotes, appendices and an index, suggests the complex life of a statesman spent in deep intrigue. But Ferguson, for all his paradoxes, is not the man of mystery the assiduous and insightful Crick requires to show his best form. Thankfully at least, Ferguson vs Crick is that rare sort of match in soccer: the entertaining, scoreless draw.