By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
SIR ALEX FERGUSON has broken just about every record in English football during his 26 years as manager of Manchester United. The most ignominious, however, is that the Scot has banned more journalists from the club than any other, a matter which greatly concerns the Football Writers’ Association.
Clubs can ban any journalist, or any person, from their property as they wish and United, sadly, are not the only club to ban reporters for what, in many cases, is being guilty of no more than printing a story that is 100 per cent accurate. Football writers are not cheerleaders or public relations executives for clubs; they are there to write independent, honest, accurate views and news yet ironically what every club should demand from a football writer can still lead to a ban.
Covering Manchester for a national daily newspaper is enjoyable, challenging and competitive with City and United rarely leaving writers without a decent story. Yet the difference between Roberto Mancini and Ferguson could hardly be more different and while the Italian is an occasional no-show at press conferences, the Scot dodges the written media after domestic games, MUTV the source of managerial quotes for those covering the Reds.
The obvious conclusion is that football writers should take a firmer stand with Ferguson, but as leading Manchester-based correspondents told a packed audience at the Barclays-sponsored FWA Live evening, it is not quite as easy as that.
“You have to handle Fergie in a certain way,” said Ian Ladyman of the Daily Mail. “Believe you me, we have all tried to stand up to him in, let’s say, an aggressive or confrontational way, and it won’t work. He’ll either refuse to answer you or ban you. So you have to be pragmatic.”
Neil Custis of The Sun said: “In the old days at Carrington, there used to be a small media room with about half a dozen press guys, the TV cameras weren’t there, but now there are seven or eight cameras present. We used to have rows which he seemed to enjoy, he was able to call me any name and it wouldn’t bother me. The cameras are there now and I remember two years ago I had a row with him in the middle of a press conference and he banned me for 18 months for standing up to him.
“As Ian said, you have to handle him in a different way. Ferguson does not like being challenged. After I was banned my boss sat me down and told me I had to play politics to work things out with Fergie.”
Mancini always seems to be in the middle of a crisis, despite leading City to success in the FA Cup and winning the title last season. Custis said: “I think Roberto Mancini has become too easy a target for some people because he doesn’t have the longevity [of Ferguson] and they don’t think he has the staying power. Sometimes they are too disrespectful to him.”
Custis stressed that despite the perception of some fans, the media cover clubs in a balanced, neutral manner. He said: “It all depends on how the club’s doing. They think we pick on people, we go for certain people…if Manchester United are doing badly we have to ask Sir Alex Ferguson why this is happening…we’ll ask him the same questions as anyone.”
Mancini was unhappy at the projection given to his disclosure that he had talks with other clubs last season before signing a new five-year deal with City in July. Ladyman believes Mancini has been too honest for his own good. He said: “We don’t go to a press conference thinking ‘what question can we ask to get the right answer?’ If Roberto Mancini thinks he’s being taken advantage of then maybe he should consider not being too open with his answers.”
The two Manchester managers share one common bond: both clubs are in the hands of long distance owners – City by the UAE-based Sheikh Mansour and United by the publicity shy Malcolm Glazer, who also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the National Football League.
Steve Bates of the Sunday People said “From day one, Malcolm Glazer, like Roman Abramovich, has never engaged the fans so there has been a disrespect towards him. I don’t think he’s ever been to a United match and nobody is pleased with the way they’ve loaded United up with the debt.”
Former United full-back Gary Neville made the point the American is not the first unpopular owner/chairman at Old Trafford. He said: “There has been absolutely no interference from the Glazer family at all. [Former chairman] Martin Edwards wasn’t that popular.”
Ladyman added: “When they unveiled the statue of Sir Alex at Old Trafford last month people came from all over the world to be there, but there was no member of the owner’s family present. When we put that to Manchester United we were told it was because it was Thanksgiving Day.”
“If Sir Alex Ferguson had not been at Manchester United they would seriously struggle. He has kept the club together in the face of so much debt…for so much of United’s profits to go to paying a debt is an absolute disgrace.”