Thursday, 31 October 2013

Muhammad Ali: An icon for all seasons - by Jim Black

FEW of us are fortunate enough to get the opportunity to meet our heroes.
I have been blessed these past 40 years in my job as a sportswriter to meet many of those others can only admire from afar.
But if I had to pick just one from the many it has been my privilege to encounter up close and personal - from Pele to Palmer, Baxter to Best, Nicklaus and Watson and their Duel in the Sun - it’s no contest.
It was 20 years ago and Muhammad Ali had come to Glasgow to promote the publication of a pictorial history of his career.
HowardBingham’s “A Thirty Year Journey” charts Ali’s rise from Olympic gold medallist at the Rome Games of 1960 to his status as a three-time world heavyweight champion, the only man to achieve the remarkable feat.
Ali declared himself to be “The Greatest.” Others will argue a case for Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano or Mike Tyson et al. But, for me, Ali was the Greatest and always will be.
Not only was Ali the most famous sportsman on the planet, he was arguably also the most famous human being of his generation.
Ali transcended Presidents and Prime Ministers. They knew his name in the deepest jungles of Africa and the wilds of the Australian outback.
He is also a controversial and charismatic figure who has polarized opinion. But it has never mattered to me that he changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay, converted to Islam, and refused to be conscripted into the U.S Military.
I idolised Ali and still do, so having the opportunity to meet the man face-to-face in October 1993 represented one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
I can still recall the butterflies in my stomach and the dry mouth as I approached the King of the World that Friday afternoon for a brief audience lasting no more than five minutes.
In truth, there was never any hope of conducting an in-depth interview, not least because the hellish disease which has ravaged his body and mind had already taken hold.
Ali sat behind a small desk next to his close friend Bingham. His facial features appeared unchanged. Still handsome and clean-cut, Ali was smartly suited and booted and exuded a presence that permeated the entire bookstore.
I could think of nothing better to stammer than “Muhammad, can I shake the hand that shook the world?”
He nodded, rose slowly and offered his right hand. I took it and I swear had he been wearing a ring of papal proportions I would have kissed it. Instead, I settled for a simple handshake.
I cannot recall for exactly how long I held the hand that “shook the world” but I do remember telling him what he meant to me and when I had finished my wholly inadequate delivery, he replied in a barely audible voice hardly above a whisper, “Thank you.”
I think I wanted to burst into tears at that point. Here was my all-time hero, a victim of Parkinson’s syndrome, thanking me when all I wanted to do was stand and soak in every moment of an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life and one that I doubt will ever be surpassed.
I can still picture clearly in my mind as if it were only yesterday the fine-boned fingers of hands that had inflicted such terrible damage in the ring and yet appeared to belong to a concert pianist.
Ali hid those hands from view most of the time due to a developing tremor and the book signing consisted of Bingham pasting down labels bearing Muhammad’s signature in the flysheets of his splendid book.
Having secured my own copy and been photographed with my hero, I slowly and reluctantly left the stage for others to savour their moment in the company of true greatness.
Of course the cynicism that has grown in me over the years, dealing with the inflated egos of much lesser mortals, was not nearly so prevalent back then. But even if it had been it wouldn’t have made a scrap of difference.
I am not sure how long I remained on a high, but, suffice to say, when I entered my local that evening I was already partially drunk on adrenalin.
And, like a boy with a new toy, I proudly showed off my signed copy, explaining in detail to all those who were willing to listen that I had achieved a lifetime’s ambition.
One of the assembled drinkers, a Glasgow businessman offered me £1,000 for my prized possession. He would still have been wasting his time had he tried to tempt me with ten times as much.
Some years ago, someone asked me if I had really wanted to meet my hero when he was no longer perfect.
You bet I did, for whenever I catch sight of Ali in his wheelchair I don’t see a figure with a broken body.
I still see only the Adonis who transformed boxing and who transcended all other sportsmen of his or any other generation.
Ali has enriched the lives of so many, so why should he now be shut away in his twilight years?

Friday, 25 October 2013

Sir Alex feels the calm before a Snow storm

By Bryan Cooney

AS far as this armchair pundit could discern, Sir Alex Ferguson demonstrated in his recent London press conference that he might not be so resistant to restraint after all.
For once adopting an air that correlated with his status as a benevolent grand-dad, he downloaded his reasons for writing that book.
This was, remember, his ninth and perhaps most significant tome. It was the one that contained a farrago of trenchant observations about those who served him at Manchester United (think Keane, Beckham, Rooney, etc); the one which spectacularly punctured a myth he helped create - that all things controversial should be confined to the dressing room.
There was little evidence of the infamous Fergie intensity on this day; certainly no finger-jabbing, no stares that would have unhinged anyone other than Roy Keane, no minatory threats and, blissfully, no language of an unsatisfactory nature.
I would venture, however, that his triumph became in many ways the Fourth Estate’s humiliation. The so-called cream of Britain’s sports journalism ensured that this was not so much a major media event as the deification of a football legend.
To use a boxing colloquialism, they rarely laid a glove on him, let alone a finger. Oh, there were a couple of questions that led to a tightening of the lips and the head lowering in desk-studying mode - especially the one concerning the intriguing and apparently never to be sufficiently explained Rock of Gibraltar affair.
But, in general, the atmosphere was heavy with sycophancy and it seemed Ferguson was luxuriating in the deodorant.
As a former sports editor who once encouraged investigative reporting into football’s more intriguing issues, I’m sometimes alarmed by these events. Particularly so when they feature a collection of rampant egos who normally can’t wait to thrust their faces onto television screens and declare their insider knowledge to the world. I’m talking about some members of my own profession hereabouts.
Well, this was their big day, their Cup Final if you wish to use that clich├ęd analogy, and I’m afraid history will state that most of them - although not all - lost badly.
So, what went wrong? Why did the majority of Fleet Street’s finest turn into fruit flies? Were they intimidated by the man and his towering status on such an auspicious occasion? Were they simply wearied by all the bollockings and bans that had been levied upon them in earlier years? Or did they simply want to forge friendships with Fergie, now that he claims to have mellowed?
I’ve heard it said they were frustrated in that their time was consumed by the amount of foreign journalists asking banal questions. Sorry, I’m unable to buy that one. There were enough unnerving silences during proceedings to suggest that people had forfeited their nerve.
Look, if there’s any mitigation out there, I’ll concede it’s scarcely appealing to enter a public confrontation with a behemoth, and even less so if that behemoth is named Ferguson. There is more than a chance that you’ll lose.
But as John McEnroe used to proclaim: ‘You don’t ask, you don’t get!’ If you want to retain credibility and your objectivity as a journalist, certain occasions demand you have to start standing on toes, and big ones at that.
Where were all the questions that the public - especially a (£25) book-buying public - were entitled to demand of a man who has gone through life occasionally occupying the role of rogue elephant?
One of the memorable lines featured Roy Keane. Fergie said: ‘His eyes narrowed to wee black beads. It was frightening - and I’m from Glasgow!’ Hey, I can appreciate such apprehension, but what do they say about what goes around comes around?
Might someone not have pointed out that this was sheer hypocrisy and that he (Ferguson) had been attempting to intimidate people all his life? Yeah, even those who liked and admired him.
Hereabouts, you should absorb the words of the late Aberdeen vice chairman Chris Anderson, once Fergie’s mentor. He once privately confessed to television reporter Frank Gilfeather: ‘He virtually runs Pittodrie. Every area of the club and the media, he wants an element of control. He needs to know everything that’s going on. But, then, you’ve got to realise that he’s a megalomaniac.’
Gilfeather asked why they tolerated such a figure. ‘Because he’s a winner!’ was the immediate response.
So, on November 6 1986, Manchester United and Martin Edwards, the often derided former chairman, quite legitimately sourced this winner (and alleged megalomaniac), and, after an initially tortuous few years, found themselves taking the road to untrammelled success.
Incredibly, the journey would last nigh on 27 years. Ferguson is responsible for that and we should never forget it. Thus, he is entitled to take every plaudit that’s going, enjoy both his retirement and the handsomely remunerated globe-travelling role that has been awarded him by a grateful football club. Bloody good luck to him. God knows, there is little gratitude in this game.
But equally there are matters that still require at least a little explanation. Why, for someone so proud of his legacy, did he leave Manchester United with a team that was beginning to groan with age and required refurbishment?
And why, considering his insistence at keeping things in-house, did he break the issue of Wayne Rooney’s disaffection with the club and therefore saddle David Moyes with a problem of gargantuan proportions?
Mind you, those reporters had company in their ineptitude. At this juncture, the formidable form of Adrian Chiles takes centre stage. He’s the man, armed not only with a big fat, ITV contract but also a rather destabilising accent; you imagine he could fit into the next series of the BBC Two drama, Peaky Blinders, without anyone noticing. I loved Peaky Blinders. Not so sure the love extends to the big fella, though.
On Tuesday evening, he was hosting coverage of Arsenal’s Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund. And with Roy Keane being one of the resident pundits, Chiles might have been expected to play a blinder, if you’ll pardon the expression.
But here, apparently overwhelmed by the importance of the moment, he said something jokey about Keane not being too popular with Ferguson. The Irishman, displaying the nerve of a man who has been playing stud poker all his life, claimed he wasn’t upset by this, but then questioned Fergie’s regard for loyalty.
In reality, the question was a cop-out. Keane should have been asked about his propensity for instilling fear not only among his Manchester United players but also his former manager. It was another golden opportunity lost.
But, before I dismiss Tuesday, October 22, as a bleak day for journalism, let me tell you about the rescue act that presented itself in the slender shape of Jon Snow. Anyone tuning in to the Channel 4, demanding objectivity and journalism at its finest, was rewarded with a bravura performance from the 66-year-old.
Sir Alex, so benign, so self-assured, so omnipotent facing friendly fire earlier in the day, suddenly was presented with an authentic hoop to jump through. There were times the physical feat looked beyond him. I’ll give you a flavour..
Snow: The interesting thing about you is you brought on all these incredible young players. But you fell out with all of them?
Ferguson: You have to deal with issues as they are at the time. The important thing is dont lose your control. Manchester United cannot afford players to run the club.
Snow: So control is all?
Ferguson: Not all, but its really, really important. If you want to stay in a job, you need to have that.
Snow: It sounds a bit Stalinist?
There was much more. Snow put it that Ferguson had been weak in his handling of the media; that his banning of people suggested he ‘couldn’t take the rough with the smooth. You banned a lot of people; you loved to chuck them out of your press conferences.’
Ferguson’s answer failed to convince, stressing that there was no recourse with the press. If Snow was impressed, it didn’t inhibit his next line of attack. ‘You seem to demonstrate a very thin skin. And yet you’re a God head. People know who you are.’
Ferguson attempted to raise the siege by claiming that he never held grudges. Snow despatched that statement through the covers for a four, emphasising that the Scot had banned BBC for seven years over a documentary about his son, Jason. It had been a very poor documentary, claimed Sir Alex, again unconvincingly.
Towards the end of the 11-minute one-to-one, Ferguson looked as if a cold shower might be appropriate. But there was one final question: would he be writing another book?
I might be mistaken in my analysis here, but his whole demeanour suggested that a 10th book would never be an option. Ever.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Fergie and Keane: no fairytale finale to this relationship

By Andy Ritchie
BROADWOOD, January 8 2006. Roy Keane’s glorious career was suffering more than mere signs of distress: it was falling apart in front of the sad eyes of a sell-out crowd.
He’d joined Celtic - the club had always dominated his boyhood dreams - and had taken part in the famous huddle. But the narrative was short of a Hollywood script writer.
I mean, if you were looking for a superstar on this day, you’d be sorely disappointed. The superstar of yesteryear had been left at Old Trafford. This vintage model was struggling very badly against a young and very energetic Clyde side in the Scottish Cup.
You remembered better times when Keane was robust, physical and appeared to have all the athleticism in the world. You knew that these attributes had disappeared, and that he was never going to get the ball down and stroke it around the middle of the park.
I was watching all this and attempting to analyse how I felt. I was going to say sad, but truly I wasn’t sad, because before me was this multi-millionaire who’d had a decent run round the racetrack. In your heart, it’s hard to feel sorry for rich men.
Besides, having been a footballer myself with Celtic and Morton, I knew you’ve got to be man enough to face reality: when your best years are over, that’s it. Nothing can recreate them. Cancel all thought of fairytale finales.
No, this wasn’t the Roy Keane I saw charging through the middle of Bayern Munich’s midfield, causing mayhem in German ranks. Nor the same Keane who stared down the big Arsenal boy, Patrick Vieira, saying: ‘Come on, you and me, we’ll sort it out on the big green bit.’
But I also knew another thing. When Fergie saw that incident in the Highbury tunnel, he would have had a great big smile plastered all over his face. For this was the Fergie modus operandi - the way he wanted men like Keane to be. It was all part of the master plan of domination for Manchester United.
So you can imagine my surprise this week when I saw Sir Alex, publicising his new book, turn round on television interviews and take more than the average length of stick to the character that Keane became. I don’t think it was really on. It was a bit tacky.
You imagine he should have been saying: ‘He was my leader. He was the guy who pulled me clear of the compost heap so many times.’ Instead, here was him savaging him, calling him a bully and insisting that the other players were frightened of him.
It may have been a bit more prudent if he’d just relegated that particular matter to a few inconsequential words - much like his version of the Rock of Gibraltar affair. He said that his row with John Magnier had been a misunderstanding. Some misunderstanding. It almost brought the club to its knees.
But rejoining the Keane debate, I’ll never forget the contribution he made to United’s glory years, or, for that matter, how quickly Ferguson forgot.
To bite the hand that fed him so consistently was somewhere over the top. When Keane was in the team, half of Fergie’s job was being done for him. And if I remember it right, the manager defended him tooth and nail when his skipper was putting himself about. Fergie wanted it that way. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have had him there in the first place. Hey, Fergie was the top man and he could have had him out of there as quick as manure off a hot shovel.
At his peak, any club in Europe would have taken Roy Keane. I’ll bet Arsenal would have taken him. But think on it: would you sell a Trident submarine to Iran, or North Korea? No, you wouldn’t want to be doing that unless your head was residing in your nether regions. So Keane stayed and his gaffer prospered.
Ferguson shares a lot of similarities with Jock Stein, my old boss at Celtic. The latter bullied players, without question. There were big personalities in the Celtic dressing room, but they weren’t bigger than Big Jock. Yes, there was fear at times and apprehension. But there was another factor: to be praised by him was something else. And see if he smiled at you. Haw! Bloody hell! You felt about 8ft tall, almost on equal terms with King Kong.
I saw him do it when I was a wee boy. Smiling and putting his arm round wee Jimmy Johnstone and others. These guys were great players, but you could take a tape measure and confirm that their chests were swelling with pride.
Now you could take that to the other extreme. When he went for you, it was like an early form of cage fighting - and there was no chance that you were going to exit that cage in one piece. There again, he could bring you down to an area when you could inspect snakes’ bellies. It only took one statement from him to do it.
I got a bit of Stein at the end, not the best years. But the aura was still there. And I imagine it was with Ferguson. He is a man with a phenomenal record and it’s been glory all the way with him, except for those first few years when his feet were encased in Old Trafford quicksand.
No doubt just one encouraging word from him would put the cap on a very satisfactory day. It would have driven players on. And I’d imagine that Keane, as his captain, was there to do just that: drive and cajole the team on to new platforms.
Keane, of course, has responded on television by questioning Ferguson’s interpretation of loyalty. I suppose he feels a bit betrayed and thinks his contribution has been diminished.
After all, can you imagine Ferguson going into the dressing room and telling him to pull out of tackles, encouraging him to let someone else boss the midfield?
Listen, when Fergie got out of that dug-out, came romping down the touchline and put his fist up, he wasn’t doing it to Olly Gunnar Solskjaer. He was doing it to Roy Keane. You can listen to the snarl if you indulge your memory.
There’s no getting away from it: he’s dumped on his first lieutenant. Which begs the question: would he have said the same about another of his great lieutenants, Bryan Robson? I think not.