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red rage ‘Youse are f***ing idiots!’ – Alex Ferguson’s infamous X-rated rant 20 years ago and what it was like to be there

It’s 20 years since the former Manchester United manager’s infamous X-rated rant to journalists over the future of Juan Sebastian Veron

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At tape of Alex Ferguson's X-rated rant against journalists in 2002 has been unearthed.

At tape of Alex Ferguson's X-rated rant against journalists in 2002 has been unearthed.

At tape of Alex Ferguson's X-rated rant against journalists in 2002 has been unearthed.

The mythology around Alex Ferguson’s temper became a useful part of his armoury in the Manchester United manager’s most productive years, whether it was directed in private at his own players, at referees or, as was often the case in the days before every word was caught on camera, football journalists.

Yet there are very few examples of Ferguson’s temper in action – the anger, the industrial language and the determination to crush a dissenting voice. As Ferguson once famously said of his profession: “The manager can never lose an argument.”

Today marks the 20th anniversary of one of his most famous outbursts, to a small group of Manchester-based reporters at the club’s Carrington training ground. It was reported in part at the time and spawned one of Ferguson’s most oft-quoted lines.

The trigger for Ferguson’s fury was a question about Juan Sebastian Veron, the Argentina international, who had been bought the previous summer for a then club-record fee of £28 million, having been considered in Italy the most talented midfielder in Europe. But he had struggled to make his mark in the United team of serial winners.

The previous November, at United’s annual meeting, in an era when the club was publicly owned, Ferguson had angrily defended his player against one shareholder’s accusation that Veron was “a carthorse”. Six months later, as questions about Veron’s form persisted, Ferguson’s temper reached boiling point. He famously erupted with the immortal line: “He’s a f***ing great player! Youse are f***ing idiots!”

Reader, I was there. In those days, Ferguson spoke to newspaper reporters separately, away from cameras and radio microphones but not, as he may have sometimes forgotten, the journalists’ tape recorders.

I had assumed the details of that five- minute press conference were lost forever. But a recent house move turned up a box of micro-cassette tapes. There, on the side of one, was a memorandum scribbled from 20 years ago: “Fergie goes mad.”

Twelve months after this explosion, Veron was sold to Chelsea, newly wealthy under the ownership of Roman Abramovich. Back on May 6, 2002, however, the correspondents were at Carrington to hear Ferguson’s thoughts ahead of what was already threatening to be a dark day: the visit to Old Trafford of Arsenal, where victory would seal Arsene Wenger’s second Premier League title.

In that era, Ferguson’s briefings took place in a small room off the reception. Relations with the media were strained, to say the least. Bans were often issued to some newspapers, including at that time the Daily Mail, but on this occasion, Ferguson’s main target was The Sun’s long-serving Neil Custis. The story Ferguson blamed Custis for was an alleged row between Veron and unnamed team-mates, although, on this occasion, he was wrong: the story had actually been carried by the Sunday Mirror, which later, under pressure from United, retracted the story.

In the past, Ferguson had been a keen reader and contributor to newspapers, especially during his playing career in Scotland. But now he increasingly resented press conferences in which he claimed to see little value. As the reporters he had known since his arrival in Manchester 16 years earlier moved into retirement, he became less tolerant of the new generation. “You just want a f***ing story” was one of his lines on this day, which neatly summarises the cross-purposes at which both sides found themselves.

Eventually he would refuse to attend post-match press conferences for domestic games entirely (the Premier League could have fined him but chose not to) while his pre-match briefings were also, by the end, conducted in front of television cameras. That meant there were none of the raw days such as this one, when his temper was short and the reporting required liberal use of the asterisk.

Tales of Ferguson’s rages were passed down from one generation of reporters to the next. Sometimes he would lay into the entire group, sometimes just one person, and they had to be ready to stand their ground. He was once famously caught on camera chastising John Motson, the BBC commentator – “You f***ing know the rules here” – who attempted to defend himself by saying he had been told to ask the question.

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In the days when relations with the press were better, there had been a tendency for his rages to go unreported. This time it was differen, we took the view that Ferguson’s outburst should be publicised, and for good reason.

It was in an era when the notion of “mind games” between Ferguson and Wenger were discussed in all parts of the football media and if ever there was a case of Ferguson losing that psychological battle, this was surely it. The press conference was brief and for mostly consisted of the dispute between Custis and Ferguson. Custis kept his eye on the ball, however, and with nothing to lose launched the all-important question: What had happened with Veron? For the rest of us in the room, there would have been a measure of relief that the nettle had been grasped.

My favourite moment, however, was a late intervention from Richard Tanner, then of the Daily Express. Ferguson has already exploded by that point – “Absolute nonsense! You know it’s nonsense! Absolute lies!” – when Tanner sized up the situation and decided to approach the issue from a different angle. He wondered politely whether Ferguson might like to talk about Veron in general. The response was fairly emphatic. “On you go! We’re no f***ing talking! He’s a f***ing great player! Youse are f***ing idiots!”

In the end, Veron did start against Arsenal, coming off in the 58th minute, just after Sylvain Wiltord had scored the goal that would ensure Wenger’s team won the title at Old Trafford. Those reporting on United were not invited to another audience with Ferguson for the final game of that season.

Twenty years on, Custis, who has covered United and Manchester City for his newspaper since 1999, looks back on those years with Ferguson with great fondness. “The difference then was that there were only nine of us in a room – no camera, no radio mics,” Custis says.

“He could blow up if he wanted. And I felt I could have a bit of a go back. The only occasion he had a real problem with me was when I had a go back a few years later when the cameras were there. Fergie respected people who didn’t argue for argument’s sake, but would stand up to him.”

Back in 2002, Custis took a different view from me and others who reported Ferguson’s explosion that day. His report the following day mentioned that Ferguson had been angry, but not the details of what had been said and, 20 years on, he stands by that decision.

“It [the reporting of Ferguson’s outburst] was the beginning of the end of those smaller press conferences where he knew us all as a group and he could express how he felt – whether you agreed or not,” Custis says.

When Ferguson retired in 2013, it was Custis who delivered the farewell speech on behalf of the Manchester media – proof that what Ferguson said about someone in anger never lasted for long. Back in the summer of 2002, United broke their transfer record again to sign Rio Ferdinand and embarked on what would be the last of their low-key European pre-season tours in Holland and Scandinavia.

It was suggested to the reporters covering the club that we come to the Amsterdam Hilton where United were staying and John Lennon had once taken to his bed with Yoko Ono in the cause of world peace. Ferguson seemed of a similar mindset, ordering pots of tea and chatting away amicably about how his players had lost their edge the previous season, hinting at the big contract renewals some of them had been given.

By the following summer they were Premier League champions again, and the usual hostilities had been resumed.

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