Wednesday, 8 May 2013


DEATH ON THE TOUCHLINE: Jock Stein collapses in Cardiff, 1985... a
young Alex Ferguson can be clearly seen behind him

SIR ALEX FERGUSON is 71. Next month he is due for a hip operation, delayed until the end of Manchester United’s 20th title-winning season.

Unless you live on Uranus, you’ll know Sir Alex Ferguson retired today, giving an eloquent statement and suggesting “the time was right” just days after insisting he had "no plans to walk away".

Curious. Why would Sir Alex change his mind so abruptly? What sparked his decision?

I think I may have the answer. On 10 September 1985, Scotland drew 1–1 with Wales at Ninian Park in Cardiff, securing a play-off against Australia which would lead to qualification for the 1986 FIFA World Cup.

On that fateful day 28 years ago, the legendary Scottish football manager Jock Stein suffered a heart attack at the end of the game and died shortly afterwards in the stadium's medical room.

He was 62 years old, nearly a decade younger than Sir Alex, who considered big Jock a hero and his mentor.

Sir Alex was there that day. Right next to the man he considered a father figure. He was Scotland’s assistant manager, in recognition of his phenomenal achievements at Aberdeen. Ferguson went on to lead the team in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, without great success, months before moving to Manchester United.

Here’s how Sir Alex remembers that day: “When Davie (Cooper) put the penalty in, Jock didn’t say a word. Shortly afterwards the big man rose to move towards Mike England (the Wales coach).

"But as he did, he stumbled. I grabbed for him as he started to fall. The medics came out of the tunnel. I held him until he was helped inside.

“When I left to speak to the press I saw Graeme Souness (suspended that day and on the bench) and he was crying. “I think he’s gone,” Graeme said. I couldn’t believe it.

“When we filed on to the bus there were thousands standing outside and the quiet sadness of the atmosphere was unforgettable. The abiding memory is of a solemn silence.

"It was as if the king had died.”

Stein was later found to have suffered a massive heart attack. Professor Stewart Hillis, the Scotland doctor that night, was also Big Jock's general practitioner. Years later he recalled: “Near the end of the game, all the photographers were cramming around the Welsh bench at 1-0.

"Everything changed though when Cooper's penalty went in. The focus changed to our bench.

"Jock ushered at least one photographer away. He looked his normal self, strong and vital.

Close: Jock and Alex on the Scotland bench
"But with around two minutes to go, the referee's whistle sounded and Jock thought the match was over. He got up and then collapsed to his knees.

"We had a full medical team in the stadium's medical room. We were trying to revive him.

"His last words were, 'I'm feeling much better now, doc'. But I knew there was nothing more that could possibly have been done. We had all the available equipment.

"I stayed with Jock after he was gone. He had heart muscle disease and was supposed to be taking tablets to help remove fluid from his body. It was later revealed he had been skipping the tablets."

Sir Alex will never forget that night. Is it possible that, during preparations for his hip operation, the world’s greatest manager was told he had blood pressure problems? He often looks red-faced, as most do at his age. A “dodgy ticker” as they might say in England?

Pure speculation of course, from 5,000 miles away. We may never know the truth. There may not be one. But I’d suggest Sir Alex’s abrupt turnaround and decision to quit won’t have been made without images of that night in Cardiff clear in his mind. Death on the touchline tends to linger in the memory of a football coach.

After all, today was quite a shock for United fans and shareholders. Just last Sunday, in his programme notes before the 1-0 defeat against Chelsea at Old Trafford, Ferguson responded to questions about his future by saying: “I certainly don’t have any plans at the moment to walk away from what I believe will be something special.

“This team of champions is not going away - we are here for the long ride.

“We will get better and if we apply ourselves in our normal fashion, I see our 20th league title as nothing but the start of another decade of success.

“Whether I will be here to oversee another decade of success remains to be seen, but I certainly don’t have any plans at the moment to walk away from what I believe will be something special and worth being around to see.”

Working on in to your 70's is hardly unusual these days. But managing a football team? Particularly Manchester United? Such pressure would tax a man half his age. As Sir Alex said today: “I am looking forward to the future now."

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