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May 9, 2013

A private audience with Sir Alex

There was nothing more intimidating than preparing for a private audience with Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, yet the figure who offered me his hand in friendship was a long way from the tyrant many warned I may be confronted with.

At the tender age of 21, I received my first invitation to conduct a one-on-one interview with the figure whose reputation gave me a sleepless night before I tentatively made my way towards United's old Cliff training base back in 1996.

As I shuffled nervously outside his office waiting for the call to enter, it seemed as if an appointment with an angry dentist would be more appealing, but Ferguson's bark turned out to be far more brutal than his bite.

In my role writing content for match day programmes for Wembley Stadium, Ferguson's office became a regular stopping off point due to United's relentless success in the second half of the 1990s, yet I need not have worried that fresh faced naivety would be used by the most fearsome manager of all as an excuse to dismiss my presence.

Even though he was a man capable of severing the nerves of the most placid of visitors, the Ferguson I was greeted with was welcoming, charming and humorous. He was great company, with my novice reporting status seemingly acting in my favour as he went out of his way to help me on my way.

As former United players and staff will readily confirm, Ferguson has the capacity to be both generous with his time and charming to nervous newcomers, which was my experience back in the day when I was a regular visitor to his kingdom.

"Right, let's get on with this as I'm a busy man," would be his regular start to our chats, with every subject open for discussion as he treated me with the sort of respect seasoned reporters rarely seemed to be afforded.

Talking at length about what makes him tick, his relationship with players and the media and that burning desire to "put United on the pedestal Liverpool have been on for too long". His enthusiasm to give me an interview that would enliven my FA Cup final programme surprised me. Contrary to popular reports, Fergie, it seemed, was one of the good guys after all.

His assistance did not end when I turned my tape off and left his office. Ferguson would help me in setting up interviews with his star players, though he was less than certain when he found me chatting in the corridor with David Beckham, who granted me one of his first ever interviews after a young Gary Neville pulled him out of the dressing room.

"Did I tell you it was okay to talk with him?" Ferguson asked me, inspiring me to offer a bumbling and incoherent response. With that, Fergie's face broke into a broad smile as he chuckled at my discomfort and gave me an assuring tap on the shoulder. My interview with Beckham was not interrupted again.

Then there was the occasion when I was sitting with Fergie when the humble figure of Sir Bobby Charlton was welcomed into the room, ahead of what turned out to be a half an hour chat about all things football. Two football gods and little old me.

What a moment it was for a star-struck kid to spend some time in the company of Ferguson and Charlton, with both listening to my views as if they were as valid as their own. 'Did that really happen?' was my reaction as I left the room. The tape of the conversation I still have in my office desk drawer confirms it did.

I also witnessed an example of the mind games Ferguson played with his players as Gary Pallister knocked on the manager's door and popped his head around the corner mid-way through one of my chats with the United boss.

"I know what you want Pallister," bellowed Ferguson. "We'll talk about that later, now get off." When I asked whether he did know what his central defender wanted, he broke into laughter before muttering. "Of course I don't. But he will go away now thinking he's going to get a telling off later. Ah you've gotta love it."

Ferguson didn't need to be so helpful to a wannabe hack who must have been an annoying interruption to his busy day, yet he was more than keen to help me on my way as the image of this scary monster rapidly melted.

You can only judge a person after meeting them in the flesh and those who portray Ferguson as a bully who uses his position to throw his weight around would be wise to consider an alternative character assessment.

The volcanic despot who has a reputation for having a brief temper was, in fact, a man who was always generous with his time, both for charities and with youngsters who have long been star-struck in his presence.

It is a side of Sir Alex Ferguson that was rarely reported, and on the day when the greatest manager of them all finally called time on his career, those of us fortunate to have spent a few moments in his company can be grateful to have spent fleeting moments in the presence of greatness.

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