Red Faced: Ferguson’s Bullish Nature And A Taste Of Humble Pie

Sir Alex Ferguson, widely regarded as the greatest manager in Premier League history, was proudly known for his formidable and redoubtable reputation. In a ludicrously successful tenure, that in fact almost ended after his first four barren seasons, Ferguson went on to win 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champion League trophies in his 26 years at Manchester United. 

Whilst seeing his tomato-like complexion, fiercely chewing a stick of gum in the dugout, was a fact of normality, there was once a time, when the indestructible Scotsman was left decidedly red-faced off the pitch, in an unceremonious battle with the club’s shareholders.

Back in 2004, Ferguson was the subject of a highly publicised fallout with significant Manchester United shareholder, John Magnier, an undisputed kingpin of the horse racing world. Up until then, they had supposedly been great friends, and when Magnier first began compiling shares in the club, he’d allegedly gifted 50% ownership of the highly-touted stallion, ‘Rock of Gibraltar’ to Ferguson. An odd deal, between shareholder and manager of a PLC, that ultimately would become bitterly contested between the two parties.

Rock of Gibraltar had a prolific career on the track and became a glorified name in racing. Thus, the stud rights became exponential; reportedly up to £10million-per-year. This led Ferguson to sue Magnier for 50% of the stud fees for the horse.

In retaliation, Magnier, went to Kroll Inc, an infamously reputable investigative and risk consultancy firm, based in the heart of Wall Street, which was often referred to as the ‘private eye’. They began to look into Ferguson’s supposed ‘dodgy dealings’ at Manchester United and famously presented the Manchester United board with a list of ’99 Questions’, all of which concerned the clubs dealings and integrity.

It threatened to throw the whole Manchester United hierarchy into disrepute. It allegedly exposed deals between Ferguson and his agent son, Jason, which would later become the subject of a BBC documentary; ’Fergie and Son’. It also cast doubt over the integrity of 13 transfers made by the club, involving the likes of Jaap Stam, Juan Sebastián Verón and even Cristiano Ronaldo. The club was deeply concerned over it’s ‘dirty laundry’ being publicly aired and the matter came under increasing scrutiny from both the media and fans alike.

Answers weren’t given to the ’99 Questions’ and Ferguson’s contract talks with the club were put on hold until the matter was settled. Magnier continued to buy shares in the club, threatening to become the majority shareholder and assume control of the club. The future of Ferguson and significant figures on the club’s board, such as CEO, David Gill, were put into jeopardy. As a shareholder not sitting on the board, Magnier would’ve been able to call an emergency meeting to discuss the ’99 Questions’ in front of all shareholders. If the questions were proven to put the club’s reputation in jeopardy, it would’ve almost certainly led to Ferguson’s departure.

The battle resulted in Sir Alex Ferguson accepting an out of court settlement that was comparatively minuscule in relation the £110million he’d initially sued for. This occurred two months before the BBC documentary on Ferguson’s alleged dealings were released. Magnier had blatantly outmanoeuvred the Manchester United manager and had him firmly backed into a corner.

Ferguson’s distinctly bullish nature had to face an embarrassing public humbling, and for once, the proven winner had to endure the unfathomable taste of defeat. Upon the documentary’s release, Ferguson would begin a seven-year boycott of the BBC, which saw him repeatedly receive fines that were paid for by Manchester United. The matter would only be resolved after intervention from Premier League officials and bosses at the broadcaster itself.

Magnier sold his shares to the Glazers and will have walked away from Manchester United entirely delirious, after making a monumental profit. Today he’s considered the most influential figure in global horse racing and his family’s Coolmore Stud breeding facility, where the infamous ‘Rock of Gibraltar’ would ultimately reside, is thought to be worth around €4billion.

Ferguson’s tenure and legacy at Manchester United was preserved, as well as the future glories he would go on to bring, but for once the the Scotsman’s untouchable aura and air of invincibility had fuelled him into a battle outside of the pitch, that left him entirely overmatched. It did nothing to tarnish Ferguson’s footballing legacy but it’s certainly an interesting episode in the glittering career of one of the sport’s greatest ever managers.