AF Book Review: Football – Bloody Hell: The Biography of Alex Ferguson

In May Sir Alex Ferguson lead Manchester United to claiming their 19th top League title establishing themselves as the most successful English team going one better than Liverpool.  In the season they won this feat a biography titled on what he uttered after winning the treble some 12 years earlier was published.  Still, football eh – bloody hell.

I like Patrick Barclay.  As in what I know of the guy I like it.  And what I know is primarily through his appearances on Sunday Supplement during the football season.  He comes across as a thoughtful yet passionate commentator on the issues of football.  Sometimes he can seem a bit sanctimonious, but more often than not his cool rationale is at least a reason to give his views consideration.  Of course the reason why he would appear on Sunday Supplement is because his trade is as a sports journalist and his reputation when you read the back of the book speaks volumes of highly he is regarded.

When I came across the biography that he wrote on Sir Alex Ferguson and noticed that it was relatively recent – only published last year – I was up for reading it.  This is not the first book I’ve read on the manager of Manchester United and it’s not the first book I’ve reviewed on the man himself.  Why I read about him is because he remains ever fascinating.  Like him or loathe him he cannot be overseen in the overall scheme of things as far as greatness in football is concerned.  His longevity and trophy accumulation at Old Trafford alone is worth considering in itself.

Barclay’s challenge then is to offer something fresh, insightful and intriguing about the guy.  What Barclay brings is an intriguing reflection on the character.  At times forensic, at other times more expansive.  To get the life of a 70 year old man who has done as much as Fergie into a single tome is an admirable task for any and it’s fair to say the writer covers most of the essentials well.  He talks about the things that matter to the man and not just the success of the clubs he managed.  His sources and interview material is intriguing in lacking anyone really close and intimate.  There is nothing from the sons and unsurprisingly from other family members.  It also appears that the football fraternity at large have contributed little in the way of direct information to Barclay with the notable exception of players like Gordon Strachan and Mark McGhee.

The picture of the most successful manager in British football is one of a dogged and persistent man only too aware of some of his inconsistencies but who will blunder through on the strength of his own character.  A side to Gergie that few others have brought out is how much Fergie relied on some of his mentors.  The contributions of characters like Scot Symon and Jock Stein obviously meant a lot to Fergie and helped him at crucial times in his development.  This is by no means a hagiography highlighting just how great Fergie has been.  Key mis-steps in his career both at the playing level and then as a manager are looked at closely.  This is to the extent that you get the picture of a man who can be loyal to a fault and yet can also turn out not to be as powerful and influential as he would have us believe.

Throughout the book the key themes about the man is power and control.  Barclay hammers those points in thoroughly with ever passing incident.  Unlike some biographies, Barclay is not as concerned with Ferguson’s youth and childhood despite giving it some pages.  The real focus is on how the playing career gave the fuel for the managerial career and how those twin concepts steered both team selection and the overall way in which he managed the club.  It is not a completely football oriented book and Barclay takes the time to consider Ferguson’s affiliation with the Labour party and his ill-fated stint in horse racing.

In that sense the book is a strong read.  However, in comparison to the glowing reviews and compliments the book received, I found it to be rather on the light side when it came to depth in the character.  That might be because of the lack of insight from those close to the man and a reliance on distant material or better still judging the man by what he said in press conferences and interviews.  For such a sparkling as Barclay appears, I finished reading the book somewhat dissatisfied with the sparkly init.  Indeed at times it can become less objective and more about how Barclay related to the guy which doesn’t illuminate much except for where the author’s coming from.

That lack of depth is reflected in the lack of insight in the key relationships – like his wife and some of the players that marked his career.  Although much is mentioned about Cantona, less so on Keane, arguably a character closer in spirit to Ferguson, as for Giggs, almost nothing at all on that longest lasting of relationships.  That sense of superficiality in areas detracted from what was otherwise a worthwhile read.

If you are a Manchester United fan who wants to get a picture of the most successful boss in your club’s history, this is a good book to read.  It also has appeal to the football fan who has real interest in what makes football such an enjoyable and engrossing game.  Though disappointing in areas for lack of depth this is a good piece of work from a masterful writer and journalist.




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