Tactical Insights

How Man United managed to ensure they got Sir Alex Ferguson as their new boss in the 1980s, before Barcelona could pounce to replace Terry Venables

  • A new book reveals how Man United made sure they got Sir Alex Ferguson 
  • Barcelona were interested in hiring him as a replacement for Terry Venables 
  • Have a day off, Pep! Guardiola’s lecture to Grealish on the Etihad pitch was unnecessary, says Ian Ladyman – It’s All Kicking Off

A new book has revealed how Manchester United managed to make sure they signed Sir Alex Ferguson in 1986 ahead of Barcelona.

Maurice Watkins, who died from cancer in 2021, was a club solicitor and later a director at Man United for 28 years.

His autobiography, Legally Red, looks at some of the moments behind the scenes at Old Trafford that are not normally shared with football fans – including one conversation that nearly changed the entire history of the game.

In the summer of 1986, he took a call from Joan Gaspart, then Barcelona’s vice-president, asking if he could recommend a coach to replace Terry Venables in the hot seat at the Catalan giants.

Watkins suggested Ferguson, who was achieving success with Aberdeen at the time.

Sir Alex Ferguson could have joined Barcelona in 1986 following a telephone conversation
Maurice Watkins, who died from cancer in 2021, revealed the story in his posthumous book

In his book, serialised in The Athletic, Watkins wrote: ‘Ferguson, I told Gaspart, would make someone an excellent manager.’

While nothing came of it, Watkins and other Man United directors went to Scotland a few months later to offer Ferguson the top job at Old Trafford. 

Ferguson announced his plans to retire from the club at the end of the 2001-02 season, and Man United lined up Sven-Goran Eriksson, the England manager, to replace him. 

He rang Watkins to say he had changed his mind, and wanted to know why they had selected Eriksson to be his replacement. 

‘The fact Alex wanted to stay as manager did not mean his wish would be granted,’ Watkins wrote in his book. 

‘Initially, there was a feeling Alex had left it too late and we should tell him that.’

However, he remained at Manchester United for another 11 years, and bringing more success to Old Trafford, including a second Champions League trophy and six more Premier League titles. 

Barcelona’s vice president had phoned Watkins for advice on who to replace Terry Venables
Watkins’ posthumous autobiography Legally Red shares other stories from behind the scenes

Watkins remained with Manchester United until June 2012, when the Glazers felt that at the age of 70, he was too old to be involved with the club in that capacity, even though Sir Bobby Charlton was 73, and others also remained in place beyond that age. 

Sir Alex Ferguson wrote the foreword for Watkins’ book Legally Red, which is posthumously released on Thursday by Hodder & Stoughton.  

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