Tangling with Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and the Raging Bull – the inside story of 24 years on the MEN sports desk

Monstered by Fergie, mauled by the Raging Bull and called “Yoda” by Pep Guardiola. The last 24 years as a sports writer at the Manchester Evening News have been surreal at times.

But as Geoffrey Chaucer said, all good things must come to an end. And for me, as Daffy Duck said, “That’s All Folks!”

Covering Manchester United, Manchester City and boxing for a newspaper with which I grew up has been a blast, but it was not without the odd baptism of fire. And the formidable Sir Alex Ferguson certainly handed me one of those, a few weeks after I had been made number two on the Reds’ coverage back in 2000.

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That was when the MEN still had the privilege of ringing the United boss every morning to get updates, to try to eke out a “line” for that night’s paper. When our number one Reds reporter Stuart Mathieson took a week off, that job fell to me. The last thing I wanted to do was upset the apple cart on day one so I rang Fergie at 8.30, on the dot, with a few easy questions prepared in my mind.

I never stood a chance. Little did I know that he was still seething from the MEN coverage of the Manchester derby, the second-to-last one at Maine Road, when David Beckham’s free kick won the game but the Blues had pushed their old rivals all the way.

The feisty United boss did not like the fact that Paul Hince, our chief sports writer, had taken the line that we learned nothing new about United in victory, stating we already knew that they can grind out results when they do not play well and that Beckham’s setpiece delivery was a frequent match-winner for the Reds. Hincey went on to say that we HAD learned plenty about City – principally that they had the guts and the drive to win their relegation fight, a prediction that proved unfounded.

Fergie was not pleased, even though he actually missed the game to be at his son’s wedding in South Africa. I introduced myself and was about to ask my first question when I was hit by a hurricane of invective, the infamous hairdryer switched to “full”.

“Youse are a **** ing disgrace! The **** ing Manchester Evening Blues! City this, City that – there’s only one team that brings glory to this town and that’s not **** ing City! You’re all City fans on that sports desk, I know… ”

With hindsight, my best course of action would have been to stand up for myself and the desk, but I was completely taken unawares and wary of spoiling relations at first contact. Instead of contesting his wildly inaccurate assertion, I let his fury – pre-meditated, no doubt – blow itself out and then asked meekly: “And how’s Giggsy’s hamstring?”

I was lucky to get the gig as boxing writer when I first started at the MEN, at a time when the sport in Manchester was on the up, with terrific fighters like Ricky Hatton, Michael Brodie, Carl Thompson and Robin Reid winning world titles and helping make the city an epicenter of the fight game. All great guys, unafraid to tell their stories, warts and all, and always honest and respectful.

In 2000 I traveled to Carlisle with our boxing photographer Mike Cleary to watch Brodie’s first defense of his European title against Salim Medjkoune. Tough fight, but once the job was done, I was asked by Brodie’s promoter Jack Trickett to give Brodie and his trainer Ray Farrell a lift home to Salford, as he was staying with a friend in the Lakes.

No problem. Brodie was a tough lad with a difficult past, someone who was a straight talker and made a fine champion. We set off down a deserted M6 at 2.30am, the four of us in my battered old Nissan Sunny.

It was a sight that alerted the Cumbria constabulary, keeping an eye out for a gang of Manchester villains who had been burgling big houses in the remote Lakes, and they had clearly done a reg check on my motor and decided we had been up to no good.

Pulling us over on a pretext, I was asked to accompany one officer back to his patrol car while the other shone his torch on my passengers. We must have looked the part – I was six ft two ins and heavy set, with Cleary in the back, a squat figure with a squashed nose from his own amateur boxing days, alongside Farrell, who was shaven-headed but with a goatee and little round specs, like the brains of the operation. All with broad Salford accents.

The copper’s eyes lit up when his torch lit up Brodie, sitting passively in the front, his face battered and bruised, one eye swollen shut, and an ice pack being held to it. “What have you been up to?” asked the excited bobby.

“Fightin ‘,” came the terse reply from Brodie, staring straight ahead. “Oh yeah, and what have you been fighting about?” came the reply as the cop got really interested.

“European title,” Brodie said. Only then did the disappointed officer twig what was going on, and that he and his pal had not just busted a gang of violent robbers.

I was sent to interview the Raging Bull himself, Jake La Motta – played by Robert De Niro in the brilliant film of that name – when he came to Manchester, and I was warned beforehand that at 84 he was not a great speaker, due to old age and having spent half of his life being punched in the head.

Asked to get audio for the website, I decided the best course of action was to get him to relate some of the multitude of great stories he had told in the past. My favorite tale was when he and another great champion, Rocky Graziano, went on one of their infamous drinking benders in New York in the Fifties, and ended up lying side by side on a pavement on a dull gray day, having lost all sense of time.

“Hey Rocky, is that the sun, or the moon up in the sky?” asked La Motta. “How would I know?” replied Rocky “I ain’t from dis parta town!”

I tried to get La Motta to recant that story into the mike, as he sat, stern and stetson-hatted, in a restaurant. Trouble was, he could not get my Mancunian accent.

After I asked him to tell us the tale, he roared “Speak English!” in his best Noo Yoik tones, before drawing the attempted interview to a rapid conclusion with a series of verbal right hooks.

I had the privilege of charting Ricky Hatton’s rise from fresh-faced Hattersley kid to world champion, an English and Mancunian sporting icon – and a great lad. That took me to Las Vegas a couple of times, the last to see him fight Floyd Mayweather, for me the greatest pure boxer ever to pull on gloves.

Vegas was even barmier than usual, with tens of thousands of lively Hatton fans descending on the Nevada oasis, at the same time as the World Rodeo Championships were taking place. As I wrote at the time, Vegas was full of cowboys, half from Texas, the other half from Tameside. It might have been a recipe for disaster, but the bars were full of Mancunians and Roy Rogers lookalikes from all over the planet, drinking and singing together.

Myself and two fellow boxing journos secured tickets for a night at the rodeo, not knowing what to expect and one of them – a broadsheet type who was a vegetarian and animal lover – was perturbed when the first event involved a calf being pursued across the arena by a mounted cowboy, who lassooed it, dismounted, dumped it on its back and tied its feet together to stop the clock.

The first rider up was a big success, but when the hollering and whooping died down, our veggie friend, stunned by what he had seen, said loudly: “Poor little cow”. It felt like the entire Hole in the Wall gang turned round to glare at us – we were just glad they had to leave their guns outside!

Getting the City job in 2009 was another stroke of luck. As I have reminded my predecessor Chris Bailey more than once, he got to do the hard yards at Macclesfield and York, while I have been swanning off to Los Angeles and Melbourne, Barcelona and Munich.

Charting the rise of the Blues has been a privilege, from Roberto Mancini’s feisty ground-breakers to Manuel Pellegrini’s slick outfit and on to the incredible side Pep Guardiola has molded – even a cynical old hack like me has sat open-mouthed at the audacity and genius of some of their football.

Pellegrini was not best pleased with me on the Blues’ summer trip to Australia in 2015, however. I was congratulating myself on not suffering from any jet-lag during the flight around the globe, and headed off to Pellegrini’s press conference on my first day in Oz.

I sat front and center, hoping that a familiar face might induce Pellegrini – who was deliberately dull in any form of media interaction – into speaking freely.

When an Australian TV interviewer threw him the first question, Pellegrini launched into an answer that was soporific. Unfortunately, at that moment I was hit by the jet-lag, like I had just run into a brick wall.

My eyes were streaming tears as I tried to keep them open and I was yawning uncontrollably. I could see Pellegrini glancing at me, certain I was taking the proverbial p * ss. Not that he ever got any more interesting, even if his side was brilliant to watch.

City moved up another notch when Guardiola took over in 2016, introducing a brand of football that was quite remarkable and which has changed the English game, undoubtedly for the better.

I’ve had the Nathan Redmond treatment a couple of times from the Blues boss – you might remember him having to answer to the FA after a vigorous chat on the pitch with the Southampton player following a game a few years back. Turned out it was Pep just being passionate Pep, and handing him some advice.

He did the same to me, playfully slapping me round the face, and nearly removing my glasses, in the tunnel at Leicester, as I was peering intently at my phone and had not seen him approaching.

But Pep was not impressed with my Zoom skills, honed to imperfection during lockdown. Dodgy home wi-fi and company policy on downloading the correct software meant my interactions at online press conferences were hit and miss, to say the least.

His exasperated amusement spilled over when I tried asking a question while muted, not for the first time. “Stuart, you are the worst!” he said. “I’m going to send a hacker round to your house to sort out your computer!”

I pleaded that my age meant I was not as tech-savvy as younger colleagues, but he replied “You should be wiser, like Yoda!” Cheers Pep, my family and friends now call me Yoda.

I’ve never been a lucky person. I won two things by chance in my life, a goldfish that died before I got it home from the fair, and an uncooked mixed grill which I picked up from a Morecambe pub raffle in my student days, and which I dropped in the gutter as I unsteadily made my way home with it.

But when it comes to my job I have been incredibly fortunate. My first job was covering Stockport County through promotion and four Wembley trips.

Then at the MEN I followed Ricky Hatton and the rest to world, European and British boxing titles, as well as being part of United’s glory years, and lately have charted City’s rise and rise, bearing witness to the best football I have ever watched.

Back in 1998 I gave the most honest job interview I have ever had, when I said working on the MEN sports desk had long been my ambition – brought up on United, City, Salford rugby league and Lancashire cricket, I really wasn’t interested in Fleet Street with its Arsenals and Chelsea. Manchester has always been the center of my sporting universe, and it continues to be so.

So it’s a farewell fund, and thanks for the memories.

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