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FWA Interview: Neil Custis on Sir Alex Ferguson

NEIL CUSTIS of The Sun looks back on an unforgettable Sir Alex Ferguson era at Manchester United and says despite the press bans…

“WE HAVE BEEN VERY FORTUNATE TO BE DOING THE JOB IN A TIME WHEN FERGUSON HAS BEEN AROUND”

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

NEIL CUSTIS, who has covered Manchester United for The Sun for 14 years, is like the newly-crowned Barclays Premier League champions – top of the table. Custis has been banned “about five times” by Sir Alex Ferguson, believed to be a Football Writers’ Association record.

Yet Custis is sad that Ferguson is set to retire at the end of another successful season. The bans and the media rows are all part of a complex man who has managed Manchester United with an iron fist yet behind the occasional anger at headlines or true stories he would rather have not been printed Ferguson will be missed by football writers everywhere.

He refused to speak to the BBC for seven years. The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor was red carded six years ago after his exceptional book “This Is The One – The Uncut Story Of A Football Genius” was published. It was generally full of praise for Ferguson, but reliving some hairdryer moments upset the Scot.

Taylor told football365.com: “He got a press officer to read it on his behalf, who gave it this professional, over-the-top report with sub-headings and everything, and the recommendation of this report was that there’s nothing wrong with it, and it’s completely fair, and he basically said ‘I’ll ban him anyway.’”

At the beginning of the season the Daily Telegraph’s Mark Ogden was banned for revealing [correctly] that Rio Ferdinand would miss the game against Everton because of injury.

More recently one national newspaper was excluded for printing that Antonio Valencia left the training ground on crutches while two others were banned in the wake of stories about Wayne Rooney’s future. Ferguson is the only manager in the Barclays Premier League to snub after-match press conferences with the written media yet for all his extremes Custis said the United manager has given all football writers an era they will never forget.

Custis said: “I think I’m probably top [of the banned table] because I’ve done the job longer than the guys from the other dailies.

“The thing is, I’d get back in, we’d make up and have a laugh about it. I have always got on with him, despite the bans. I’d stand up to him, we’d have rows…battles…I think he enjoyed it, though I’m not sure if I did all the time. I think occasionally reporters would get a ban because he saw them as a threat.

“After my last ban I was stuck in traffic…Ferguson arrived early and I sneaked in at the back. He said ‘Custis, you’re back in and you’re late.’ I replied that I was sorry but I went to The Cliff it’s been so long.

“I shall miss him. Newspapers spend thousands of pounds so football writers can travel around the world with United pre-season and the reason is for the 45 minutes we get with him. He enjoyed the banter, the game he played with the media, the challenge of the press.

“As football writers we have been very fortunate to be doing the job in a time when Ferguson has been around. It’s been the best time to cover Manchester United.

“He would come out with phrases like ‘squeaky bum time’ and ‘football, bloody hell’ that are part of the game’s lexicon.”

Not to mention the hairdryer or Fergie time.

“He has a wonderful way of talking about football that took it away from being just a sport into a drama that encapsulated everybody.”

Luke Edwards of the Daily Telegraph has just been banned by Newcastle United and the publicity this generated surprised Custis because in Manchester such things are a regular occurrence. He said: “People have been discussing the lad who’s been banned by Newcastle and it is wrong to be banned from games. But I thought someone had just invented the wheel.”

The announcement of Ferguson’s retirement came as a surprise, but Custis said in hindsight it should not have been. He said: “I suppose it’s always been on the cards because the guy’s 71 yet he seemed so full of life though he always has the capacity to shock. The thing that made me wonder was the fact he was so emphatic that he wasn’t going, almost too emphatic.

“For me it’s not just what Manchester United have lost, it’s what football has lost. Sir Alex Ferguson can say something mundane and it’s a back page lead plus inside spread. Someone else can reveal they’ve landed on Mars and it wouldn’t have the same impact. OK, I exaggerate, but the guy was the embodiment of the Barclays Premier League…his teams and Ferguson himself have created so much drama that without him the league would not be the same. Ferguson sums up not just what is great about Manchester United, but what is great about English football.

“The reason the Barclays Premier League is so popular around the world is in many ways because of Ferguson.”

When Ferguson was appointed manager of United on November 6, 1986 they were 21st in the old First Division, finishing the season in 11th place. It was four years before Ferguson won his first trophy, the FA Cup – 37 trophies have followed in 23 years.

Cuistis said: “If you want to know about Ferguson’s legacy you just need to walk around Old Trafford and then look at photos of how Old Trafford was when he arrived. It is now a monument to Manchester United and to Ferguson.

“His record will be impossible to beat because nobody will have the chance to beat it, to dominate in the way he has. No one will be given the time to create something that can have such longevity. Ferguson was allowed the time to build a foundation that would need be just tinkered with each year, but not a major overhaul.

“He’ll be remembered as the man who created the modern day Manchester United, the man who put down a marker for all football clubs in how to operate. There is a lot of short-term thinking at clubs now, but United have thought long-term. No other club would have stuck with their manager to the extent United did with Fergie in his early days.

“In the time he’s been in charge Chelsea have had 18 managers, it’s a similar story with Manchester City.” For the record, Real Madrid have had 24.

Many believe that the best job in football is the man who follows Ferguson’s successor. Custis disagrees and said: “Ferguson has said that while people call it ‘the impossible job’ it isn’t. It was an impossible job when he took over given the state Manchester United were in. It seemed impossible that almost 27 years on they’d be in the position they are now.

“The new manager has everything set up for success, from the training ground, the academy, the current squad…far from being an impossible job, it’s the best job.”

Inevitably it is United’s two Champions League successes, won in the most dramatic squeaky bum fashion, that give United fans their greatest moments.

Custis said: “He’s touched so many people’s lives, not least United supporters who were at the Nou Camp in 1999 or in Moscow in 2008. Those memories will remain forever. It’s not just what he’s done for United, but for a whole generation who have stories to be passed on to their children.

“Some have done this for a short time like Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, but he quit after five years because he was finding it a bit tough. One of Ferguson’s finest achievements was keeping the club together amid all the turmoil when the Glazers took over [in 2005]. The fans were in revolt, the club were suddenly in debt, the future was uncertain, but the one person who kept his foot on the ball was Ferguson. He was the glue that held the club together at a very difficult time.”

Covering United has given Custis many unforgettable moments, but one Fergie memory stands out.

“It has to be when he said ‘there are too many Custis’s.”

Neil’s brother Shaun, The Sun’s chief football writer, had been banned by Ferguson who had an identity crisis, saying to Neil: “What are you doing here, you’re banned.”

Custis said: “He tried to throw me out of a press conference for a story Shaun had written. I pointed this out and he replied laughing: ‘There are too many Custis’s.’”

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