Few people would deny that Alex Ferguson is the most successful club manager in British football history. His achievement with Manchester United is unparalleled, but - at least from my perspective as an Aberdeen supporter - so too was the raising of that provincial Scottish club to the pinnacle of European football for a brief period in the 1980s. Whilst others may debate what made Fergie such a footballing strategic genius, in his mind, as becomes clear to readers of his autobiography, 'Managing My Life', there is no mystery at all. It is all down to Govan, and his upbringing in what was formerly the shipbuilding capital of the world.
I have no doubt it is true, that any success I have has in handling men, and in creating a culture of loyalty and commitment in teams I have managed, owes much to my upbringing among the working men of Clydeside.
And I say Govan, not Glasgow which city figures very marginally in Ferguson's account of his life; geographically unaware readers might struggle to realise that Govan is actually a part of Glasgow from his book. In this Ferguson is a typical Govanite. For this is the area of Glasgow with the strongest local identity- almost exactly 100 years after it was annexed by the city this still survives. Wandering around Govan its former coat of arms (representing a ship's engineer and a ship's carpenter, and a vessel on the stocks) is everywhere, but you will struggle to see the famous Fish, Bird and Tree of Glasgow. And this local iconography reflects the local mindset, echoed by Fergie when he states, "To call Govan a district is an insult." However this local patriotism does not breed parochialism, for Govan was the cradle of the labour, co-operative and trades union movements in Scotland, and this intense local pride combined with such wider perspectives informs Fergie himself, possibly the area's most famous son.
It is many decades since Alex Ferguson left Govan (though in some ways mentally he has never left it, and he revisits the area frequently). In those decades Govan has seen a heartaching decline in its industrial base with the closure of most of the former shipyards and engineering works, and a brutal decline in its actual population which- now at 30,000 - is much less than half of what it was when Fergie was a lad kicking about the streets. In addition much of the Govan he knew has been obliterated from memory by the demolition of many of the old tenement buildings (over three quarters of the area's tenements were demolished), factories and other physical landmarks.
When he was born in 1941 Govan was a tightly packed high population density area of mainly tenement dwellings. The three great yards ( Stephens, Fairfields and Harland and Wolff) fronting the River Clyde were working flat out at wartime production, after the depression of the 1930s had seen four in five Govan men out of work. And for twenty years thereafter not a lot changed as the yards continued booming in the post war reconstruction period and, despite the expansion in council house building after 1945 most of the old tenements still stood- if some of the poorer quality ones amongst them, still stood only just . That is the Govan Ferguson grew up in, and it might seem to be one that only remains in memory and photographs. But surprisingly there is enough left of Fergie's Govan to merit a perambulation around scenes and sights that might - who knows, one day become staging posts on a pilgrimage for Manchester United fans in the way they have been for a long time part of his Govan walkabouts with this Aberdeen fan.
Number 667 Govan Road is no longer there. Though he was born in an inter-war council house in Drumoyne, about a mile away on the southern fringe of Govan, Alex Ferguson spent most of his early years in his parents' rented tenement flat on Govan Road. From the front windows of the house the occupants looked over across Govan Road, beyond which was the Harland and Wolff shipyard. This was the first of the great Govan yards to close - in 1962 - and its site was infilled and overbuilt by an uninspired 1970s social housing development. The Govan Road tenements were also demolished and replaced by what passes as a "landscaped" area of grass and a few trees. The Ferguson block stood roughly where the Fire Station lies today, where Neptune Street meets Govan Road. Although his father was a skilled worker in the Fairfield's shipyard about a quarter of a mile west of here, the Fergusons had to sub let part of their flat to an Irish couple to make ends meet. In one respect however, they were lucky; unlike many Govan tenements, theirs had an inside toilet. Their neighbours, the Laws were not so fortunately housed, and had "about sixteen" people in a room and kitchen. Almost all of the tenements on this stretch of the Govan Road were demolished and only now - more than 30 years afterwards, are many of the vacant sites being built upon.
If Fergie's house is gone, his primary school is still there - though only just. Proceed up Orkney Street from Govan Road and you come to Broomloan Road and Broomloan Primary School, or rather the abandoned and boarded up Edwardian sandstone building that formerly served as such. Depopulation, and a declining birth rate, has left Govan with a large surplus of buildings - including schools - and this one is a good example. In more salubrious areas of Glasgow the building might become converted into loft apartments, but not here alas. It was a rough school in Fergie's day- he notes that it sent a higher portion of its graduates to borstal than any other Glasgow primary, but he appears to have been a fairly well behaved kid and enjoyed his schooling, speaking very highly of his teachers, especially one Elizabeth Thomson on who he had a crush and with whom he kept up a long contact afterwards. The strong family ties of his respectable working class background probably helped account for Alex's good behaviour when so many of his peers were to lead more erring paths..
If you continue up Broomloan Road until the end you come to a more famous place about which Ferguson has less warm memories, Ibrox Park, home of Rangers Football Club. Religious sectarianism was anathema in the socialistically inclined Ferguson household. His father was a secular humanist who married a catholic wife. The Ferguson brothers supported Rangers whilst the father was Celtic minded. Ferguson himself later married a catholic wife, as his father (whom he massively admired) did. Fergie came initially to Rangers' serious attention when, as a St Johnstone player, he became the first person to score a hat trick against the Gers at Ibrox. Though he later (1967-9) was to play for Rangers, the team he had supported as a boy, Fergie's time at Ibrox was fraught with difficulties and conflicts, and he parted with the club on less than amicable terms. In his own mind Fergie feels that sectarian bias made his time less successful at Ibrox than it might have been. The 1960s was still a time when Rangers had a No Catholics policy and operated a culture that saw someone who had married a catholic as probably not True Blue. This conflict and the bitterness it left, in all probability contributed to his turning down the job of Rangers manager when it was offered to him after his outstanding success with Aberdeen in the 1980s. Govan has an exceptionally fine collection of public sculpture. One day there may well be a statue of Alex Ferguson. It is unlikely, however, to stand outside Ibrox Park
Going along Edmiston Drive to the westwards you soon come to Helen Street. Proceeding southwards down Helen Street brings you to Harmony Row, a place which has fonder - and continuing - footballing associations with Alex Ferguson. After being fitba daft at Govan High with the school team and also in the Life Boys and later Boys Brigade line-ups, Ferguson's footballing odyssey continued here at the Harmony Row Boys Club. Fergie's talent got him a place in the team which played in the Glasgow Boys Club League. As well as learning footballing skills there, the team had to learn street survival skills. Their greatest rivals were Bridgeton Boys Club and at an away game Harmony Row won 4-1. The pitch was ringed with fanatical Bridgeton supporters and the rumour spread that the victorious visitors would be attacked after the game. On the final whistle the entire Harmony Row team ran for a tram, which luckily arrived just before an enraged mob caught up with them. With experiences like thus under his belt it is little surprising that Alex appears unfased by what footballing life later threw at him. And despite the passing of much time, Fergie still has strong links with the Harmony Row Club. This has recently acquired new state of the art facilities compared to the ash and blaize "puggy" pitch upon which Fergie played.
Further down Harmony Row you arrive at central Govan and, a little to the right, at Govan Cross - for generations the heart of the community. At the moment this formerly bustling area is rather a wasteland, with a bleak 1970s shopping centre facing the derelict area around the former pride of Govan - the ruinous Aitken Memorial Fountain. A 2.5 millions scheme to restore this area to its former glory is underway and should be completed by the end of 2010. Fifty years ago hereabouts presented a different picture, when the area was ....alive with noise and movement as organ grinders, fruit sellers, backcourt singers and bookies' runners competed for whatever few shilling people had to spare....Maybe I was easily enthralled, but at times I felt I was in the midst of a carnival.
Westwards along Govan Road from the Cross is another building which has Ferguson associations, past and present, that is the Pearce Institute. When Alex was a boy this was the community heart of Govan, with many clubs and associations meeting there. He himself learned to play five a side football in a sunken gymnasium hall (it was to have been a swimming pool - but there was no money to carry the necessary works out) in the building. When the PI was faced with closure about 10 years ago, Ferguson gave of his time to back the campaign to keep the building open, and today he retains strong links with the PI, and provided the Foreword to its Centenary Celebration publication (one to which I was also honoured to provide a contribution.)
Further westwards again from the PI, after passing through the main remaining area of Govan tenements (which, with the associated public buildings, have recently been given Conservation Area status) lies the Fairfield shipyard where Fergie's father and his brother worked. This enterprise remains open today, the last yard in Govan, but with a labour force of about 1500 compared to the 5000 there when it provided the Ferguson family's income. Fergie talks of waiting for his father after a shift when thousands of men came out in a tide of "bunnets" (cloth caps) and he trying to recognise his dad amongst them. The loss of this industry, the fabric of Govan's existence is felt as a personal pain. On the very first page of his autobiography Alex comments,
"When, in the 1970s, Jimmy Reid and James Airlie and other outstanding trades unionists lost their brave fight to save the industry from the virtual extinction that has overtaken it, an irreplaceable element was removed from Govan life forever."
Ferguson's house in Cheshire is called "Fairfields" after the yard where his father and brother worked. As he himself comments, "I like plenty of echoes of Govan around me."
But Fergie was not to follow his father and brother into the yards. Across the road from Fairfields is the Elder Park. This was Govan's small green lung and during the summer Glasgow Fair holidays it was thronged with those who could not afford a trip away from Govan. A walk through the park takes you to Langlands Road, where formerly stood Govan High, which was Fergie's secondary school. (The present Govan High is located to the south-west on Ardnish Street). Govan High is another local institution with Alex Ferguson maintains links with, having been the guest of honour at its recent centenary celebrations in 2010, and recalling the strong influence on his provided by the school team's coach George Symington.
Although illness had interrupted Ferguson's education and probably prevented him getting qualifications enough to go on to University, he nevertheless got enough decent grades to enable him to move a step up from the yards and engage as a skilled toolmaker in a series of factories on the Hillingdon estate a couple of miles west of Govan; this was better paid, cleaner and less physically demanding work than in the shipyards. He completed his apprenticeship in toolmaking, and was an active trades unionist, before going on to become a full time footballer. He took part in several industrial disputes including blooding himself as the apprentices shop steward at Remington-Rand in 1961 during a national strike and later becoming the toolroom shop steward and bringing the men out in an (unsuccessful) strike to get re-instatement for a victimised worker. If Fergie had not become such a successful football manager it is not difficult to imagine that his man management skills might have enabled him to become a powerful and prominent trades union official.
Alex Ferguson is a man who has achieved more than most in his life and whom many people - especially in Govan - would feel has everything he could possibly want. Much of that which he has gained he puts down to his Govan roots, whilst realising that that Govan which nurtured him has gone. There is thus one thing he cannot have, and that is to go back in time, as well as in place.
"Survival was the essence. Ambition had nothing to do with their lives. Yet there was an incredible warmth of fellow feeling among them, a loyalty that was as deep as the marrow. I wish I could revisit, however briefly, the sense of community that existed in the Govan of my childhood. It could be a rough world but there were wonderful values at the heart of it. Loyalty has been the anchor of my life and it is something that I learned in Govan."
It is to be hoped that the new Govan which is slowly - incredibly slowly - rising from the ashes of the old will be able to build on these values of loyalty and community, which, despite the ravages of the last 40 years, are, as anyone who knows Govan is aware, far from extinct. Alex Ferguson's continuing commitment to Govan is a good example of those values.