Bedside vigil by the only person on the planet who can tell Fergie what to do.

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His achievements have won him a legion of international admirers far beyond the world of sport. 

Politicians, financiers, academics and leaders from every walk of life have studied his techniques to find out what it is that has elevated Sir Alex Ferguson above the rest to make him primus inter pares, the general’s general, the Winston Churchill of football in the nation that invented the game.

But if you really want to find out what it is that makes this mercurial genius tick, then don’t spend hours rewinding his finest sporting moments.

You need go no further than the front of his autobiography. ‘To Bridget,’ says the dedication, ‘Cathy’s sister, rock and best friend.’

For it is his wife Cathy who has always been the power behind this formidable throne.

Ferguson attended the Champions League quarter-final tie between Roma and Barcelona with his wife Cathy in early April

Football family: Sir Alex Ferguson with his wife Cathy and their three sons 

Those who know the man best have always pointed to the real secret of his success: Lady Ferguson. Pictured, Sir Alex and Lady Cathy Ferguson

Sir Alex and Lady Cathy Ferguson pictured on their wedding day in 1966

How many sporting legends would dedicate their best-selling memoirs to their sister-in-law? 

But then how many footballing giants have managed to emulate their achievements on the pitch with similar successes in everything from racing to wine-buying to international academe?

While most elder statesmen of football can look forward to the odd pro-celebrity golf tournament and the after-dinner speech circuit, Sir Alex was snapped up by Harvard Business School, for heaven’s sake.

Few students on America’s most celebrated campus would know their Matt Busby from their Stretford End. But they know a leadership guru when they see one. That’s why they sent a team of academics to study Sir Alex before he retired and why they hired him to share his philosophy when he finally left Old Trafford.

Those who have sat through his lectures have learned about the importance of trust, of the corrosive dangers of complacency, of the value of communicating with everyone from the chairman to the groundsman.

Rangers' Alex Ferguson leaps higher than Arsenal's Terry Neill to direct a header at goal

Sir Alex with the European Champions League Cup pictured in 1999

The Scotsman is the most successful manager in the history of British football, with 38 trophies to his name, including the 1999 Champions League (pictured)

Ferguson also oversaw the rise of United legend David Beckham, with the duo enjoying consistent success at Old Trafford

The veteran boss was responsible for moulding Cristiano Ronaldo into the formidable force he is today

Ferguson won 38 trophies in 26 years in charge of Manchester United and quickly became a living club legend

But those who know the man best have always pointed to the real secret of his success: Lady Ferguson.

And it is Cathy, the epicentral figure in the great Ferguson saga, who is now pivotal to his recovery as he lies in intensive care.

We know that because he has said it time and again. ‘A bedrock of both stability and encouragement,’ he has called her. ‘Words are not enough to express what this has meant to me.’

They met during a strike at the Remington typewriter factory in Glasgow where they had both worked. He was an aspiring footballer rising through the ranks at Queen’s Park, St Johnstone and Dunfermline. They met again at a local dance, where he had his leg in plaster following an injury.

‘She was pretty, had a lovely walk and a nice bum, and I made it my business to find out that she was Cathy Holding from Toryglen, near Hampden,’ he recalled years later. They were married in 1966, crossing Glasgow’s toxic religious divide to do so. He was a Protestant and she a Catholic in a city where sectarianism could make or break job prospects in many industries.

For Ferguson, however, this was no big deal, since his father had been Protestant and his mother Catholic.

Yet it was still an issue at his first major club, Rangers – Glasgow’s secular temple of Protestantism. One of the directors even asked Ferguson point-blank if it was true he had married a Catholic. The man was mollified only on learning that the wedding had taken place in a register office.

From then on, all through his playing career and on through his decades as the pre-eminent gaffer in the British game, Cathy’s role never varied. Alex did his football thing and she ran the home, raising three boys and keeping her football-obsessed husband grounded.

As he has often pointed out, whenever he came home, whatever the time of night, he would find her waiting up for him.

But, equally, he could never take her for granted.

Having yet again forgotten to buy her a Christmas present, he tried to make amends one year by inserting a cheque in his Christmas card. She tore it up.

On very special occasions, Cathy might come to watch a match but was never greatly enthused.

Who can blame her? 

One for the future: Sir Alex with David Beckham signing his first football contract at the age of 14

After one crunch match during his spell in charge of Aberdeen, he returned home to find the children asking what had happened to their mother. 

Ferguson had been so absorbed in his thoughts that he had left her locked inside the stadium.

Yet all through the highs and lows, all through his volcanic feuds – with rival managers, racehorse owners, disgruntled players, the Press and the BBC – he always knew that he could retreat to his £2 million mock Tudor family home on Manchester’s Cheshire fringe. There, he would find the unswerving support of his greatest ally.

This was also one place where he was not in charge. 

When Cathy told him she no longer wanted to see his medals and trophies cluttering the house (and few, surely, have amassed a collection quite like Sir Alex’s), he meekly took them down.

Loyalty and respect have always been as important to him as an ability to plant a ball in the back of the net.

Reporters covering the Manchester United beat would be routinely taken to task for looking sloppy, just as they would receive a grudging acknowledgement for turning up in a suit and tie.

One distinguished Fleet Street journalist recalls arriving for a short pre-match interview one morning. 

The interview had been scheduled for 8.30am but the reporter arrived 15 minutes early, smartly dressed and with polished shoes.

Ferguson was not in a good mood (no surprise there). 

Yet he was also impressed by the demeanour of the journalist and told him so. 

The result was that instead of a terse appraisal of the match in prospect, the journalist enjoyed a wide-ranging two-hour tour d’horizon of the entire football scene.

For, deep down, despite his contempt for Margaret Thatcher and the Tory brand – a loathing born of his early years on Glasgow picket lines – Sir Alex is still a small-c conservative traditionalist for whom good manners, old-fashioned codes of decency and shiny shoes count for a very great deal.

On the first occasion that he contemplated retirement, in 2001, it was Cathy who was the roadblock.

Having secured the agreement of all three sons, she informed him that he would not be stepping down. 

‘We’ve just had a meeting,’ she told him. ‘You’re not retiring. One, your health is good. 

Two, I’m not having you in the house. And three, you’re too young anyway.’

That was the end of the matter.

But the tables were turned 12 years later following the death of Cathy’s twin sister, Bridget.

‘I saw she was watching television one night, and she looked up at the ceiling. I knew she was isolated,’ he said in 2015. ‘Her and Bridget were twins, you know?’

He realised that the time had come to devote more time to what mattered most.

‘When I told her, this time, I was going to retire, she had no objection whatsoever,’ he said. ‘I knew she wanted me to do it.’

In truth, this has hardly been most people’s idea of retirement.

Ferguson has spent the past five years acting as an ambassador for Manchester United and for the European footballing body, UEFA. He has remained a hugely influential sounding board to his former players as they seek to emulate his success in management. He still enjoys his racing but also finds time for a few of those treats that were never an option during a busy season – like a trip to the Oscars.

Star signing: Sir Alex with Cristiano Ronaldo as the player signed for Manchester United in 2003

A lifelong fan of all things American – and a serious student of its history – he was immensely proud to find himself on the syllabus at Harvard Business School and, latterly, to be asked to lecture there. In recent years, he has also attempted a spot of self-improvement – taking lessons in French and the piano.

Yet, as he has said before, he remains ‘baffled’ by those who lose touch with their roots. He has never forgotten his origins in and around the shipyards of the Govan district of Glasgow. His large house in leafy Wilmslow is named after the shipyard in Govan where Sir Alex’s father and brother, Martin, were employed. Ferguson also named one of his first racehorses Queensland Star after a ship which his father had helped to build.

Though it is Cathy who has been his ‘bedrock’, his father, Alexander, has been a crucial influence in his career choices. For having retired from the shipyard at the age of 65, Ferguson Snr was dead within a year. His son was adamant he was not going to do that.

It is why, until he was laid low at the weekend, he had a strict daily ritual. After breakfast, he would never put on a pair of slippers but a pair of shoes. That way, he explained, his whole body would be equipped for a day of action rather than genteel indolence.

The world of sport – and the entire nation – will be looking forward to the day he ties his laces once again.

 

 

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