With Sir Alex Ferguson celebrating his 80th birthday on New Year’s Eve, Danny Murphy met Manchester United Champions League winner Wes Brown to get the inside track on Britain’s greatest manager…
I don’t usually venture to Old Trafford for obvious reasons but Sir Alex Ferguson’s birthday was worthy of a special visit to meet my old foe Wes Brown to chat about the Premier League’s most iconic figure.
Growing up a Liverpool fan, I was taught to detest Manchester United. But once I started playing, that feeling turned to admiration because Fergie had made them the yardstick for any professional footballer.
Like the Class of 92, Wes was guided by Sir Alex all the way from the Manchester United academy to winning the biggest trophies in the game.
Wes Brown (left) has given the inside track on Sir Alex Ferguson to Sportsmail’s Danny Murphy
For a kid from Longsight in south Manchester, to share those moments with superstars from around the world must have been an incredible experience.
Sitting with him in the International Suite underneath the world-famous Stretford End, Wes was able to give me a real insight into how Sir Alex worked; from his interest in developing young players to the hairdryer, motivational team talks and creating an environment that made players enjoy their daily work.
‘I was 13 when I first met him,’ recalls Wes, who assures me he’d started as a “skinny, quick winger” before becoming a defender.
Brown was guided by Ferguson all the way from the Man United academy to winning trophies
‘Nobby Stiles got me in at United and I’d started training at Lyttleton Road. The gaffer would pop his head round to say Hello to the young lads. I didn’t say much back, I was in awe.
‘There was a kind side. He could see I was a good prospect and tried to help. I didn’t know much about life as a young kid, if he saw me do anything wrong, he’d guide me in the right direction.
‘It wasn’t necessarily by shouting and snapping, more a quiet word “Maybe you should do this, try that.” When I moved home, he helped.
‘When you got into the first-team, the fearsome side was a bit more evident. My first experience was half-time against Leeds at Elland Road. I thought I’d done OK but he was onto me straight way. Looking back, I can see it was a test to see what sort of character I was.
Ferguson created an environment that made stars enjoy their daily work, which bred success
‘I am one of those players who responds to a telling off and he understood that. If we had a game that looked easier, he’d be on to me, I don’t like your concentration, everything is slow.
‘He could judge how to handle each player. Wazza (Wayne Rooney) was fiery, the gaffer would sometimes have a go because he’d try even harder.
‘Cristiano (Ronaldo) had a spell where he won us so many games, if he hadn’t played well you’d put your hands up and say OK. The rest of the lads respected that.’
It’s interesting to me that Ferguson made a point of visiting those very young players who were the club’s long-term future. Not many managers would have that foresight.
Brown (left) says Ferguson knew how to handle every player, and related to their personalities
Ferguson is viewed as a brilliant man-manager but it couldn’t have been to the exclusion of understanding the game tactically. To be as successful as him, he needed a bit of everything.
‘He definitely knew his football,’ confirms Wes. ‘He wanted the best coaches and people who understood him. But while he wouldn’t put on the sessions himself, he was there every day, watching every single thing in the building. If something needed fixing, he would be the one to do it.
‘He had a way of relating to personalities from different countries and communicating with them.
‘In my earlier days, there would be a quiz at the team hotel the night before games. At first you’d think “I’m not sure about this” but it was fun and got everyone involved. John Peters (club photographer) would set the questions and we’d all get into teams, including the coaches. You couldn’t do it now, the lads will have their own games on their phones.’
Ferguson took an interest in developing young players, but also was not afraid to lambast them
Wes won five Premier League titles and the Champions League in 2008. Though part of the 1999 Treble squad, he didn’t get on the pitch for the final game in Barcelona but did start against Chelsea in Moscow as part of a fantastic back-four alongside Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra.
‘It was the best team talk I heard the gaffer do,’ he explains.
‘He went around every player, said a few things about where they’d come from and what they had achieved.
‘The message was about a group all coming from different places, nobody growing up the same, but we were all here now, United. It was very good, inspiring.
Brown (third from L) was a member of the United side which won the 2008 Champions League
‘The game was a real battle. Cristiano scored from my cross, Frank Lampard equalised. Chelsea had the same mentality as us, nobody would give in, so it went to penalties.
‘The gaffer took me off near the end of extra-time and I felt this enormous sense of relief afterwards because I’d not taken penalties since I was 14. It doesn’t work for all managers but it did that night, Anderson scored in the shoot-out and we won it.’
Wes and I were involved in some great United-Liverpool tussles. Some we won – my free-kick was decisive at Old Trafford in 2000 – and some they won, Diego Forlan twice at Anfield.
We weren’t as close to challenging United as Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal but Wes reveals Ferguson regarded our clashes as their biggest fixtures of the season.
Both Ferguson and Brown were involved in some memorable tussles with arch rivals Liverpool
‘Going off the team talks, I would say 100 per cent it was the Liverpool games that counted most to him,’ he said. ‘When it came around, you could feel this is the one we had to win.
‘History showed Liverpool were the best team before the gaffer arrived. He got a squad together to to change that but he never forgot Liverpool’s past achievements. He wanted to stay on top.
‘He didn’t need to explain it to me because I was local but maybe he needed to stress to other players it was the most important game by far.’
You don’t become a top leader without making tough decisions. Ferguson let a lot of good players leave in his time – Gordon Strachan, Paul Ince, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy – but United kept on winning.
A tough and top leader, Ferguson let a number of good players, like Roy Keane, leave the club
‘Becks (David Beckham) was the biggest surprise because he was world-class and only 28. But still nobody questioned the gaffer inside the club because he’d done it successfully before.
‘I played in three great United sides and realised he always knew when to move with the times and build another one.
‘It’s a cliché but the team always came first. I spoke to Berba (Dimitar Berbatov) about it, he said at Tottenham he was the best player with Robbie Keane and everyone accepted it.
‘At United, there were many great players who’d won things like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs but every player still worked hard and respected each other.
Ferguson also ensured that every player worked hard and respected each other in his reign
The gaffer created that atmosphere. When I went to other clubs, I realised it wasn’t a guarantee.
‘Not every decision proved right but he corrected it. Juan Veron was an unbelievable player but for some reason it didn’t fit. So he left and the team quickly moved on.’
All good things have to end and while Roy Keane never forgave Ferguson for his departure, most former United players left on good terms.
It was certainly the case for Wes when he joined Sunderland in 2011. ‘I knew it was coming. I wasn’t the same player after the knee operations, not as sharp,’ he admits. ‘I couldn’t get to the winger and be as tight.’
Brown left United for Sunderland in 2011, but the defender enjoyed a fine stay at Old Trafford
‘I had a year left on my contract and the gaffer told me about other clubs coming in so I said “Yeah”.
‘I could have stayed an extra year but I wouldn’t have played more than the occasional game.’
In a parallel universe, it might have been Danny Murphy of Manchester United. A scout called Alex Gibson tried to sign me but when he went from United to Crewe, I joined him there instead.
As a player, I only saw competitive Fergie, complaining about our tactics when we beat them. But I saw the human side many years later when I bumped into him waiting for a cab in London.
Ferguson’s humour remains intact as he nears 80, particularly after his health scare in 2018
“Oy, you!,” was his playful introduction before telling me that Steven Gerrard was the one player he would have wanted to play for Man Utd. I did reply that was never f***ing going to happen! It was nice to have a chat and some banter with him away from the pitch.
It’s reassuring to hear from Wes that Fergie’s humour still remains intact as he approaches 80, particularly after his health scare in 2018.
‘I bump into him at games at Old Trafford and he’s looking well,’ says Wes. ‘If I don’t see him first, I know he’s there because he slaps me on the back of the head!’