AFTER a quarter of a century with one man at the helm, it is only natural an organisation reflects its boss’ personality. Sir Alex Ferguson’s is stamped over more than just Manchester United.
Sunderland are just one of the clubs to try to tap into the formula which has brought 37 major trophies in an Old Trafford career which enters its 26th year tomorrow. They have been invited to the party this afternoon.
A procession of former Ferguson employees have moved to the Stadium of Light – Steve Bruce, Eric Black, chief scout Bryan “Pop” Robson and fitness and conditioning coach Michael Clegg in the backroom, and plenty more on the field.
While the contacts which brought Danny Welbeck, Jonny Evans and Danny Simpson on loan helped, it is the Ferguson mindset the Black Cats were most eager to benefit from when they appointed ex-Manchester United men as their last three managers.
Since crossing Hadrian’s Wall on November 6, 1986, Ferguson has seen off a host of more talented teams with the hunger still obvious in the 69-year-old. A product of the youth system Ferguson revamped, Phil Bardsley recognises that desire in Sunderland manager Bruce.
“There are similarities,” says the full-back, who left his home town club for the Stadium of Light three years ago. “He (Bruce) is not particularly happy when things aren’t going right – he expects things. The standards he sets are really high.
“He’s frustrated when we’re not scoring or not defending properly or whatever. That’s the way it should be – I can understand his frustration because he knows the quality around the place.
“They’re different managers, different characters – different man-managers.
“On a Friday morning, when the English boys take on the rest of the world and we get the gaffer on our side, he thinks he’s Bobby Charlton or Denis Law. ‘Denis Law is coming out of the washing machine,’ he says. When he starts playing it’s all serious again. He wants to win, seriously.”
It is easy to imagine Ferguson pretending to be Law, his favourite player, equally desperate to win a kick-about. Quite a few have been viewed as the on-field embodiment of Ferguson’s will-to-win. His third signing, Bruce was instrumental in the overhaul of a club whose glamour far outshone its silverware back in 1986.
Bruce was fundamental to a victory which epitomised Ferguson’s United. Having again choked in the title race 12 months earlier, they trailed 1-0 at home to Sheffield Wednesday in April 1993.
Captain-for-the-day Bruce, a prolific centre-back, had not netted in more than six months until two late headers. He jokes the second was “27 minutes into injury-time”. They won the next five games and the inaugural Premier League.
Bardsley has seen Ferguson in circumstances few have. “I first met him when I was 16, when we all got taken on as apprentices,” he recalls. “My year was Kieran (Richardson), David Jones (at Wigan), (former Stockport County player) David Poole and Phil Picken, who was at Bury. We went into his office and he found out Poolie was a City fan.
“I can’t say what happened after that but it was interesting! It was all good fun but still, you go into his office and you are a bit scared.
“Even that knock on the door and the brief silence, then it’s the cough and him clearing his throat before ‘Come in – who is it?’ You pop your head around the door... it’s a bit frightening at first when you’re a bit young. You get used to it after a bit – especially when you get called in there so many times!”
The latest players to refresh Sunderland’s Ferguson connection are Wes Brown and John O’Shea. The latter’s hamstring injury will allow Bardsley a first start since stamping on Chelsea’s Juan Mata in September.
“Wes and John have been at Manchester United a long time – they’re top, experienced players who know the game,” says Bardsley.
“They know the Premier League inside out, they bring vital experience to us and they’ve settled in really well.
“It’s quite difficult coming here at first when you’ve come from a massive club like Man United – it’s tough, the expectation is win, win, win every week.
“You come to Sunderland and people might not think it, but it’s hard. You’re still expected to win and you’re fighting, scrapping every week to get points on the board to finish as high as possible.”
It has made for a difficult start to the season. “We feel it is beginning to turn,” he adds. “Performance-wise, we don’t feel we’ve done too much wrong all season. Liverpool away, Swansea away – couple of good points there.
“The big turning point was Newcastle at home when we lost, but dominated for 70 minutes. As they say in football, if you don’t score you’re always vulnerable.
“That was a sore defeat and it knocked us a little bit but recent results and performances have got us back on track a bit.
“We deserve to be higher in the table but we can only do that by picking up more wins and more points.”