Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial career is unique in the modern game, with his 27 years in charge of Manchester United lending him an omnipotent presence in British football. Even those uninterested in the sport would almost certainly be aware of Ferguson’s achievements – ask anyone what the manager’s greatest triumph was, and they could offer up a variety of different answers.
Some might choose the 1999 Champions League final, when that extraordinary period of injury time allowed United to wrestle the European Cup from Bayern Munich. Others may plumb for the 1995-96 season, where his team chased down Newcastle United and their 12 point lead to win the championship and push Kevin Keegan towards a nervous breakdown. It might even be the revival of his Manchester United career, which in 1990 appeared to be in serious doubt after his first four years in charge failed to yield a trophy.
While many will be familiar with the most celebrated of Ferguson’s comebacks, they would be hard pushed to remember his very first. It did not take place in an arena as opulent as Camp Nou, nor was it witnessed by 90,000 spectators. Instead, it happened at Station Park, Forfar in front of less than 500 supporters on 10 August 1974.
Alex Ferguson’s competitive debut as a manager was not going well. His East Stirlingshire side were three-nil down at half-time in a League Cup tie against the Loons, with his first ever signing, goalkeeper Tom Gourlay, culpable for each goal. At the time, Ferguson was only 32 and one can only imagine if at any point during that dismal opening period he had wondered if he was cut out for the rigours of football management.
The role at Firs Park had become vacant in the summer of 1974 following the sudden resignation of Bob Shaw. A board statement said the club’s directors had “regretfully accepted” Shaw’s decision but in truth, they were quietly thankful they didn’t have to dispense with his services themselves. Although the 1973-74 season had begun in excellent fashion with five wins from the opening six league games, a horrendous second half saw the Shire’s form badly decline, and the club concluded the year with 14 defeats in 19 matches. A campaign that had started so impressively ended with the team finishing in 16th place in the 19-team Second Division.
Interestingly, in Ferguson’s autobiography Managing My Life, he claimed that when he took over the Firs Park club they were the worst side in Scotland and had finished bottom of the league the previous season. Whether this is simply an oversight or an intentional massaging of the facts is unclear, but the small section of the book devoted to his time at East Stirlingshire contains several erroneous facts.
What is not in dispute is that the Shire board were looking to appoint their fifth manager in just eight years. The recently retired Ferguson was by no means the frontrunner to take over – Alloa Athletic boss Dan McLindon, who had a spell at the club two years previously, was the early favourite while former Albion Rovers manager Ralph Brand had also declared his interest. It was Brand who was eventually offered the job but to the club’s frustration, he turned it down to take up a coaching position with Dunfermline Athletic instead.
At that point, Ferguson was linked with the managerial vacancy at Queen’s Park but by his own admission, he interviewed poorly and subsequently missed out on the role. And as fate would have it, Ferguson, spurned by Queen’s Park, and the East Stirlingshire chairman Willie Muirhead, rebuffed by Brand, sat down together for a courteous chat which ended with Ferguson agreeing to take on the part-time position for £40 a week.
It was a difficult task ahead of the young manager, but the myth surrounding the size of the squad he inherited differs from reality. Ferguson has claimed the Shire only had eight players (and no goalkeeper) on their books, but an interview with the Falkirk Herald the week after he joined tells a slightly different story. “I’m happy now that I’ve got the job,” he said. “My first aim is to improve the pool and I’ll be after a goalkeeper. We have 12 players signed at the moment but I have one or two others in mind. I have a big job on my hands.”
Ferguson went on to outline how he intended to improve the fortunes of one of country’s least successful clubs, giving an insight into the philosophy that underpinned his success as a manager. “A lot of hard work has to be done by the players, the backroom staff and myself,” he asserted. “I always wanted to be a winner as a player, and I want all my players and staff to have the same attitude. It’s my job to motivate the them and I’ll be doing just that.”
Motivated or not, the squad was certainly in need of freshening up, and the manager was handed £2,000 to bring in new players. At £800, Partick Thistle’s Tom Gourlay was his first and most expensive acquisition, while striker Billy Hulston signed up after his release from Airdrieonians. Hulston was supported in attack by Jim Mullen, another former Jag signed on a free transfer, and ex-Aberdeen forward George Adams, who also joined after rejecting terms from Alloa Athletic. Adams would be Ferguson’s final signing before the start of their pre-season games.
The friendly fixtures proved sobering for the new manager, who watched his side lose all six matches. Once again, Ferguson mischievously tells a slightly different story in his autobiography. “A pre-season game against a young Celtic team produced a 3-3 draw and, more importantly, proof of a gathering confidence among my players,” he wrote.
East Stirlingshire might have played well and came back strongly in the second half, but they ended up losing the match 3-4. They also went down to Partick Thistle 0-1, Tranmere Rovers 1-2, Ayr United 0-3, Hibernian 1-4 and Nuneaten Borough 0-3. Despite a pre-season campaign that saw six defeats and the concession of 17 goals, Ferguson was adamant he could turn things around. Speaking to the local papers, he concluded an interview with a final sentence that was as blunt as it was understated: “I’m still finding my way around, but I can assure the Shire fans that we are prepared for the new season and we are prepared to work hard. And I’m a bad loser.”
At the half-time interval on that late summer’s day at Station Park, Ferguson presumably demonstrated to his players just how bad a loser he really was. After the break, East Stirlingshire emerged a changed side and pulled a goal back on 65 minutes through an Ian Browning penalty. Five minutes later, the score was level after new signing Mullen scored an opportunistic brace and had it not been for a great save from Forfar ‘keeper Jim Milne to deny Hulston in the last minute, the Shire might even have won it. On Ferguson’s competitive debut, he had overseen an excellent fight back. No-one would have been aware of it at the time, but that match 39 years ago would come to emblemise everything good about a Ferguson team: exciting and attack-minded and imbued with an attitude that rejects the notion they are ever beaten, no matter what the score-line is.
The opening stages of the League Cup were split into sections, meaning that East Stirlingshire had to play five cup matches before the beginning of the league campaign. After the draw with Forfar, their hopes of progressing were boosted when they defeated newcomers Meadowbank Thistle 3-1 in their next game, Ferguson’s first match at Firs Park played out front of 300 fans. Their ambition was all but extinguished, however, when they lost 1-2 at home to Albion Rovers three days later. Despite playing good football, described as “dazzling” in the local press, their lack of a ball-winner in midfield (a position Ferguson had pinpointed as a weakness pre-season) proved their undoing. A 2-0 win over Stenhousemuir and a 3-2 triumph against Brechin City, where they came back from being two-one down with less that a quarter of an hour remaining, was not enough, and it was Albion Rovers who progressed at their expense (and would subsequently lose 2-8 on aggregate to Falkirk).
Lamenting missing out on a local derby, Ferguson still took positives from the opening games. “We should have been going forward to the quarter-finals,” he stated. “We only lost one game against Albion Rovers and that was a game that we could, and perhaps should have won. It’s tragic that we haven’t qualified but at least we know we are on the right lines. We can compare against any of the Second Division sides.”
Despite his confidence, the league campaign got off to a difficult start. A 2-1 win over Queen’s Park at Hampden was bookended by a controversial 3-4 loss at Montrose and a 0-2 home defeat to Berwick Rangers. To compound matters further, Ferguson was informed by midfielder Jim Meakin that he was planning to give a Monday training session a miss because of a trip to Blackpool with his father-in-law, who was also one of the club’s directors.
Although Ferguson warned him he didn’t have permission to go on holiday, Meakin, as expected, didn’t attend training. The player’s connection with the boardroom held him no sway: upon his return, the manager informed the midfielder (who had been Man of the Match in the previous game) that he would be suspended indefinitely and immediately transfer listed. The run-in with Meakin was the first example of Ferguson demonstrating exactly who was in charge; it would not be the last.
East Stirlingshire won their next two fixtures, gaining revenge on Albion Rovers by beating them 1-0 and then defeating Meadowbank Thistle 2-0. Ferguson went on to sign winger Jim Murray from Shettleston Juniors, even although the player was being courted by Liverpool – not only was the manager slowly coaxing his team into a winning habit, he was also recruiting players from underneath the noses of one of Europe’s biggest clubs. The acquisition of Murray did not immediately lift the team and the Shire’s indifferent form continued, with a third encounter with Albion Rovers ending in a 2-6 drubbing, while draws with Cowdenbeath and East Fife came either side of a another win over Queen’s Park. By the end of September, Ferguson’s side were sitting in tenth, significantly lower than the third place he claimed in his autobiography.
They took their wayward form into their sternest test of the season so far, a home match against Falkirk. In comparison, their close neighbours were sitting in fifth, despite having four matches in hand over the teams above them. This was due to their involvement in the League Cup, where an impressive two-legged victory over Heart of Midlothian set up a semi-final against Hibernian.
Ferguson had little regard for either side’s form, or the history of a fixture where East Stirlingshire were without a win in seven against their rivals – the miserable run stretched back 15 years and had seen the Shire concede 23 goals, scoring just three in return. Ferguson, in a move that he would apply time and time again throughout his career, used the media to his advantage and planted doubt in the minds of his full-time opponents.
“I know everything there is to know about Falkirk and I’ve passed this information onto my own team,” he boasted to The Falkirk Herald. “I know all the players from my own time at Brockville, how they play and what their strengths and weaknesses are. This information is of great value at a time like this. If you know what you’re up against, you can plan accordingly. I know we can win – Falkirk are a good side, but not a great one. If they were then they wouldn’t be in this league.”
Behind the scenes, however, Ferguson was delivering a slightly different message to his players: “I know them all, and they’re useless.”
On the day, East Stirlingshire won 2-0 in front of a crowd of 5,000 at Firs Park. The score-line was a misleading reflection on the game, not because their victory was undeserved, but because they should have won by far more. Only poor finishing preventing the Shire from racking up a more impressive score-line; the game was even described as Tom Gourlay’s easiest of the season.
The nature of the victory suggested that Ferguson’s fearlessness had rubbed off on his players, and the side embarked on a four-game winning streak. Hamilton Academical, unbeaten in the league, were efficiently dismissed, while Alloa Athletic were hammered 4-0. But just when the Shire support began to believe the team could challenge for the championship, their manager announced that the Alloa match would be his last.
Ferguson had been offered the manager’s position at St Mirren, replacing the retiring Willie Cunningham (coincidentally, his old boss at Dunfermline Athletic). Despite his initial scepticism, Ferguson was eventually persuaded to move after seeking the counsel of Jock Stein, his great mentor; his four month, 17-game spell at Firs Park was at an end. When he left, the club were sitting in fourth place in Division Two with seven wins from 12 league games, a highly credible achievement. His replacement Ian Ure could not sustain the promotion challenge, however, and the Shire would eventually finish in tenth, with Falkirk going on to secure the title.
The beginning of Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial career has, relatively speaking, been rarely touched upon over the years. In a sense, this is understandable given the brevity of his tenure with East Stirlingshire compared with the extraordinary longevity and great successes elsewhere, but Ferguson himself admitted to having learned so much in his early days. The winning attributes he became so famous for during his time at Aberdeen and eventually Mancheter United were all in evidence back in 1974. The English Premier League may operate on a completely different discourse to the bottom tier of Scottish football, but the “mind games” and the use of the media to his advantage were all put into practice at the Shire. Furthermore, while players such as Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane would all fall foul of Ferguson over the years, it was the dispute with Jim Meakin that first displayed his ruthless streak and the importance he placed on letting the dressing room know exactly who was in charge.
East Stirlingshire might be nothing more than a footnote in the managerial career of Sir Alex Ferguson, but the club’s importance in his development should never be underestimated.
The sources used in the research for this article were Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography Managing My Life and Patrick Barclay’s Football, Bloody Hell! The large majority of information, however, was sourced from archived editions of The Falkirk Herald (in particular, issues from May-October 1974).