The QT

Friday 14 June 2024

Oh what a Knight!

Simon Rushworth first dipped his toes into the world of media 30 years ago. This week The QT’s Associate Editor goes back to 2001 and a memorable meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson at St James’s Park

Earlier this month I read with interest news of the freak storms passing through the US states of Utah and Nevada which brought about an unprecedented invasion of tumbleweed.

Helpless residents became prisoners in their own homes as thousands of bone dry plants piled up against their doors and windows, preventing entry or exit.

Time, quite literally, stood still.

That unusual phenomenon immediately brought to mind a tumbleweed moment of my own — and the unforeseen consequences of asking a perfectly reasonable question to a famously unreasonable individual.

It was September 2001 and the late, great Sir Bobby Robson was a few weeks into his second full season as Newcastle United manager.

Sacriston’s most famous son had busily set about transforming his boyhood favourites from Premier League strugglers into Champions League hopefuls and the visit of Manchester United would prove to be another key indicator of a fascinating work in progress.

A ‘traditional’ 3pm Saturday kick off (how Sky must have wished they’d seen sense and selected the fixture for live transmission) meant only the 52,056 inside St James’s Park would be treated to the live action in real time.

And when it came to action, there was plenty.

Seven goals, Alan Shearer appearing to challenge Roy Keane to a fight and the ultimate dismissal of Manchester United’s tetchy captain only scratched the surface of a dramatic afternoon on Tyneside.

This was a top-flight classic that had it all, including, for the Magpies’ faithful, three hard earned and well-deserved points.

Seven goals and a sending off only just scratched the surface of an action packed Premier League clash at St James’s Park

And yet for those of us lining up, post-match, to quiz the respective managers on an eventful 90 minutes, the true theatre was still to come.

I don’t think any of the assembled press corps expected Sir Alex Ferguson to react indifferently to a frankly embarrassing thumping but few could have predicted his remarkable response to a humbling 4-3 defeat.

Then again nobody — and I include myself here — anticipated the first question fired in Fergie’s direction as the notoriously irascible Scot settled into his seat in the St James’s Park media suite.

Now, given that this was a fixture rich in history and renowned for generating the odd headline, a full complement of national media ‘number ones’ (the term given to those swaggering newspaper big beasts who command the greatest number of column inches and the salaries to match) had booked first class seats on the East Coast main line and headed out of London en masse.

I later learned that he could barely believe the bare-faced cheek of the Geordie journo who dared to question his defensive strategy

As I looked around, I realised I was surrounded by true titans of the print media game — wordsmiths of the highest calibre decamped to the North East for this very opportunity: the chance to quiz Fergie on what could only be described as a catastrophic day at the office.

This may have been my manor but I respected my elders. And I was prepared to cede the first question to one of my more experienced colleagues — not least because this was the Manchester United portion of the post-match press conference and I was primarily in position to hear Sir Bobby’s thoughts and to develop the Newcastle United angle.

So I waited. And I waited. And I waited some more. 

I looked left and right and back towards Ferguson. Surely somebody had something to say to the glowering Glaswegian as he peered down from his elevated platform within a hushed press room. Asking questions is, after all, a staple of the profession.

But no. And so — like Laurent Robert before me — I took my chance.

Clearing my throat and taking the deepest of breaths, I fixed my gaze on one of football’s most unfriendly faces. Fergie stared back — almost daring me to speak.

And so I did.

Dutch defender Jaap Stam (right) in action for AC Milan

“Was that a defence missing Jaap Stam,” I enquired, politely, succinctly and, it’s important to note, without any discernible hint of sarcasm.

At this point, if I may, I’ll refer you back to the tumbleweed sweeping through the town of South Jordan, Utah.

For a moment it was as if my colleagues and I were frozen in time. Had Manchester United’s blindsided media manager not almost fallen off his seat, it would have been possible to hear a pin drop. 

Slowly but surely, Fergie’s facial hue was transformed from its resting crimson colour to more of a deep, brooding purple. 

Just the other day my dad enjoyed a delicious goat’s cheese and beetroot salad — imagine Fergie’s cheeks looking something like the non-cheese part of the dish.

The tumbleweed moment lasted for what felt like an eternity but at some point later that evening, Manchester United’s manager took a deep breath of his own and fixed his own unsettling gaze on The Journal’s Chief Sports Writer.

Now, before I move on to a truly memorable response it’s imperative that I cover two key points. Context, as anyone who’s read my previous columns will realise, is key.

Firstly, as a trainee journalist, you’re taught to butter up your interviewee with a few easy questions before going in for the kill, so to speak. 

It’s common to toss up a few looseners to put everyone at ease and almost lull the individual opposite into a false sense of security.

Asking the tough question first is a fool’s game. It’s a frankly ridiculous tactic that risks everything — including the interview itself.

But special circumstances, I would argue, demand a game-changing approach.

There’s nobody in the training manual who comes close to Sir Alex Ferguson.

And absolutely nothing to explain what steps should be taken if nobody else in the room has the balls to ask a single question — difficult or otherwise.

So that’s why I asked a question.

But why did I ask the question?

Well, there’s a backstory here. And I’ll tell it as briefly as possible.

Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson was in no mood to face the media following his side’s humbling 4-3 defeat at St James’s Park

In a move that stunned the world of football, Sir Alex had offloaded defender Jaap Stam to Lazio just three weeks before the trip to Tyneside.

The no-nonsense Dutchman had irked his manager by releasing his autobiography Head To Head and, in what appeared to be a rather unprofessional fit of pique, Fergie shipped off one of his prize assets to Rome.

In Stam’s place, Manchester United signed the veteran, French, ball playing centre half Laurent Blanc and the Old Trafford faithful weren’t happy. 

Shipping four goals at St James’s Park was hardly a glowing endorsement of Sir Alex’s wheeler dealing and as Robert, Shearer, Craig Bellamy and co. ran riot in the offensive third, it did appear that the visitors’ defence was, indeed, missing Jaap Stam.

In retrospect, pointing out the bleeding obvious was, I agree, brave bordering on the foolhardy.

It wouldn’t have been a surprise if a manager renowned for dishing out the ‘hairdryer treatment’ to his own players had told the impudent hack from the North East’s regional daily to stick his dictaphone where the sun doesn’t shine and ended the press conference there and then.

Instead, Ferguson delivered one of the most measured, calm, lengthy and informative answers to a question I ever had the pleasure of noting down.

Expecting a volley of abuse, I was privy to an incredibly insightful response. Each of the four goals Manchester United conceded was painstakingly picked apart before Sir Alex reached his concluding point: even a defence including Jaap Stam would have been powerless to prevent any of the four goals given the calamitous errors that had occurred in the build-up.

I didn’t necessarily believe him.

But I was still alive.

There was a collective sigh of relief as the rank and file of the nation’s football media readied themselves for a second question.

However, there was to be no follow-up.

Fergie wrapped up his answer to my question, got up from his seat and departed the scene without uttering another word.

One question from QT Associate Editor Simon was more than enough for Sir Alex Ferguson

I could almost sense my irate colleagues leafing through the aforementioned training manual and landing on the page relating to the ‘order of questions’.

Heads were shaking. Tuts of disapproval were uncomfortably audible. One tabloid hack just couldn’t hold back. “You’ve f****d it up for all of us,” he bellowed, before realising he’d forgotten to press ‘record’ on his tape machine and didn’t even have the one answer Sir Alex had offered up.

It turns out Fergie had, indeed, taken umbrage at my rather direct line of questioning.

I later learned that he could barely believe the bare-faced cheek of the Geordie journo who dared to question his defensive strategy. 

But it was only weeks and months later that I realised the true fallout from that fateful day.

Apparently, Manchester United’s manager decided he’d had enough of the written press following that miserable trip to Newcastle and a perceived lack of respect from the floor.

He barely said a word to my colleagues in the North West after that and, by the time I rocked up for the return fixture at Old Trafford I was treated like some kind of pariah: blamed for a complete breakdown in the relationship between Sir Alex and the print media and identified as a troublemaking maverick by my peers.

Asking the tough question first is a fool’s game. It’s a frankly ridiculous tactic that risks everything — including the interview itself

But once Fergie became used to the sound of silence, things only got worse.

Famously, he stopped talking to the BBC for seven years. That one wasn’t my fault. In 2004 the Beeb released a documentary focusing on the business dealings of Sir Alex’s son Jason and daddy didn’t like it.

In 2011 he banned Sky News from Manchester United’s press conferences and even the club’s in-house broadcaster, MUTV, felt Ferguson’s wrath: the former Old Trafford boss giving his own colleagues the silent treatment after a row about formations.

Sky Sports’ Geoff Shreeves was told to ‘f**k off’ after suggesting Cristiano Ronaldo might have dived to win a penalty and countless members of the written press were verbally abused and subjected to indiscriminate bans during the Scot’s colourful tenure.

Had I asked about Jaap Stam within the corridors of Old Trafford then there’s little doubt I’d have joined the long list of journalists punished by football’s answer to Taggart. I might still be locked up in a Salford cell as we speak.

But it’s always been the job of a journalist to ask the hard questions. Even to a cantankerous Knight of the Realm who once said: “If anyone steps out of my control, that’s them dead.”


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