From the dockyards of Glasgow to Pall Mall: Sir Alex Ferguson completed an improbable journey on Tuesday.
Rows of journalists sat in reverence at the grand headquarters of the Institute of Directors before a shipbuilder’s son who rose to be the most successful football manager ever as the boss of Manchester United.
A giant image of his classic dour expression summed up the man and his career: My Autobiography.
The 45-minute press conference to mark the launch covered more ground than Old Trafford: from the power of money in football, to Sir Alex’s love affair with the free-flowing play in the Bundesliga – and of course the dilemma vexing many a multinational chief executive: managing talent.
To a question on his falling out with David Beckham via Posh Spice: “He fell in love with her. That changed everything.”
His performance was, as ever, in his customarily blunt way, a masterclass in the art of leadership – and maximising the power of a brand.
Beyond the inevitable questions about Wayne Rooney’s fitness, the cohorts of foreign journalists were a tribute to the internationalisation of brand Manchester United and to the star power of Sir Alex, alongside his multimillionaire players.
The correspondent of Israel Radio and the Manchester Jewish Telegraph wanted to know how to combat racism in football and what Sir Alex would do about the “Yid” chanting controversy at Tottenham Hotspur.
“Education. Tolerance,” replied Sir Alex, citing his own background in Glasgow where his father was a Protestant and his mother a Catholic. “It [religion] was never an issue.”
La Repubblica wanted to know which Italian manager – Roberto Mancini, Carlo Ancelotti or Fabio Capello – brought him the better bottle of wine. “Roberto always brought good wine,” Sir Alex said of his erstwhile rival at Manchester City.
A Russian reporter asked him about the approach from Roman Abramovich to take over as manager of Chelsea. And the Sky Sports correspondent made the mistake of asking three questions. “Typical Sky,” Sir Alex said. “Greed.”
But the most pointed answer came via Hungarian Radio. Is commercialism killing off the joy of football? “It’s a difficult one that,” he admitted. “The most important thing is how do you control the salary structures. I find that difficult to come to terms with. I don’t know the way around that . . . We’re in dangerous times in terms of salaries.”
His comments – the first since he stepped down as manager last May – were partly intended as a rebranding exercise.
Sir Alex, who remains a director and ambassador for United, wants to spread his management gospel worldwide. He has already begun a relationship with Harvard Business School.
He was generous to his successor, David Moyes who, like his own opening run 26 years ago, has had a rocky start to the season. “He will be fine.” But at times he was unable to refrain from commenting on current players, including the niggling injury to United midfielder Shinji Kagawa.
All that was missing was a hint of the “hairdryer” treatment – the legendary public dressings-down – of errant players and unfriendly media. At 71, Sir Alex is not quite ready to hang up his tackety boots.