I was working in Pizzaland in central Glasgow that blighted and cursed afternoon in 1986 when the media announced what we’d all known for weeks was true: that Alex Ferguson needed to extend his horizons and move to Manchester United.
Black breeks, white socks, white Marks and Spencer shirt, black bow tie. That was the “yessir” “nossir” uniform that Pizzaland’s owners insisted on for us, the male staff.
So that’s how I was kitted out as I listened to the radio blaring out the news.
Fergie leaving was a brutal, spirit-breaking moment, amid the calzones and Black Forest gateaux. I’ll arm-wrestle anyone who says I never recovered, fully, from that chilling moment in 1986 – but I can’t deny the truth. The world got a bit darker that day.
Thus it is, instead, that I became an underpaid, Doric-accented adopted Spaniard in Barcelona. Them’s the breaks. But while I took Fergie’s departure hard, harder than most, I’m aware many Evening Express readers, and their friends and family, immediately became Manchester United devotees. Charter flights while Aberdeen’s exiled manager (I refuse to call him anything else) was in his pomp at Old Trafford – as well as the pitifully scarce scheduled routes to Manchester each weekend, when Fergie’s “other” Reds were playing at home – were packed with Aberdonians flying to follow their newly-adopted team. In our wonderful community here in the North East there are thousands of United fans.
So, for that reason, I suspect that the majority of the Evening Express’s “older” readers are fully backing Real Madrid to win the Champions League this weekend. If you’re either a devoted or closet Manchester United fan, the phrase is: “Anyone but Liverpool”. Right?
And the younger readers are the same. Perhaps even more fervently.
I know this because Real Madrid have become an impossibly glamorous proposition. Ronaldo, Modric, Kroos, Bale, Zidane the wonderful Marcelo – trophy after trophy, season after season.
Sky may well, this week, have said goodbye to well over 20 years of Spanish football coverage because the rights have been sold to a different company, starting from August. But during the last two decades people have had the joys of La Liga’s clubs piped into their living rooms on a weekly basis. That builds affection, support.
I’d guess that if you wander around Aberdeen there will, on average, be far more kids kitted out in Madrid (or Barça) tops than Liverpool. This season may have adjusted the balance a little because of Andy Robertson, mighty Mo Salah. But not greatly.
There’s a wider thing than Sky’s wonderful investment in Spanish football since 1996. I remember when Madrid came to play their 2002 Champions League final in Glasgow.
So many people came to wait for them at the city’s main airport that the Madrid flight was diverted, to Prestwick. Los Blancos – then starring Zizou the player – were then bused to their hotel. That had something to do with the Galáctico era and the remarkable buzz which surrounded Florentino Pérez’s idea that buying the world’s top superstar each summer, for world-record prices, would draw massive new swathes of support around the world.
That much it did. But there was something bigger, which links Fergie and this big love for Madrid in Scotland. It was, of course, the apogee of the first Galáctico era when, in the 1950s, Madrid’s then-President, Santiago Bernabéu, invested heavily in assembling a world XI of stars. That team, starring Di Stéfano, Puskas, Gento et al stormed Hampden in 1960 and defeated a brilliant Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3.
Both Alex and Martin Ferguson were in the huge crowd that night – Madrid’s white-shirted magic converted them, and millions like them, into people who would revere that Madrid elan; that idea – of a superstar select playing at its peak – was a beautiful thing.
Barça, in recent years, have thrilled and convinced. The awe for that era, which united Guardiola, Xavi, Messi, Iniesta and their ilk, probably stemmed from watching a brand of football that was all-time excelsior. But the Cruyff-Guardiola idea is fading at the Camp Nou, thanks to a board fixated on other ideas, mostly marketing, and which doesn’t have the right talent-selection people in place.
While that happens, Madrid keeps turning the screw by winning in Europe. Should they do so again tomorrow, Zidane will be the first man in history to coach three straight European Cup victories, Madrid the first to win a hat-trick since Gerd Müller and Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich ruled Europe from 1974-1976.
I find it fascinating that the stranglehold in which Madrid have held Europe is based not on a playing philosophy, the likes of which made Barça so identifiably from the Cruyff school, but on the same thing which made them dominant in the 1950s and 1960s. Assemble the best, add class every summer, then send the Harlem Globetrotters of football out there to rely far more on talent than tactics. It can look ‘seat-of-the-pants’ – high speed improvisation rather than planned. Especially when Marcelo ignores any concept of defending. Whatsoever.
And it may be Liverpool’s concept of ‘storming’ football is too muscular, too fast for Madrid. I don’t think so but it may be. But what all of this ignores is that however classy your squad is the man in charge, in this case Zidane, needs to find the magic formula to keep rich, over-achieved, haughty footballers engaged, intense and hungry. Something at which Zidane has proved to be absolutely brilliant.
This brings the story right back to Fergie. The two men have one, central thing in common: the alluring power to inspire, to convince. More than enough reason, for me, to wish Zizou well in Kiev tomorrow.