Cheers, chants again as retired Ferguson takes to London stage to recall United's good times

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LONDON — Ninety minutes after the return of "Fergie Time" at Old Trafford, the man himself returned to the limelight — in an interview on a London stage.

Alex Ferguson was preparing to appear at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on Sunday evening when the Theatre of Dreams witnessed the first stoppage-time goal of Louis van Gaal's tenure as manager of Manchester United.

Robin van Persie, whose scoring prowess ensured Ferguson retired in 2013 with a 13th Premier League title, rescued a point for the 20-time English champions against Chelsea.

"It's been one step forward and two steps backward for them so far this season," Ferguson told actor James Nesbitt in the interview.

In fact, United is in the exact same position — eighth — as it was after nine games last season, although David Moyes was a point better off despite navigating a tougher opening schedule. The owners fired Moyes only 10 months after he succeeded Ferguson, and Van Gaal was hired to prevent another costly seventh-place finish.

Ferguson is already starting to rewrite history by downplaying his role in the appointment of Moyes despite co-owner Avie Glazer stressing in May 2013: "Alex was very clear with his recommendation."

Inside the theater, it seemed slightly condescending of Ferguson to praise Moyes for having the "courage" to leave Everton for a bigger job, although he did urge potential employers to now recognize his fellow Scot's work ethic and loyalty.

If Ferguson wanted to make anything clear to the audience, it was that he no longer calls the shots at United.

"I had no involvement" in Moyes' firing, Ferguson said, despite his role as a director, adding: "Now I'd left I was no longer involved in the process."

But Ferguson remains at the heart of the club — particularly when discussing Van Gaal: "He has that philosophy, stubbornness and determination to succeed."

Ferguson won't put up with suggestions that the squad required significant upgrades after his retirement.

"It was an insult to say that I left an old squad, an aging squad," the 72-year-old Ferguson said. "In your early 30s today, that's your peak."

While Ferguson trotted out statistics, there was no denying another. Six members of the starting lineup against Chelsea were Moyes or Van Gaal signings, and Radamel Falcao was out receiving treatment. Ferguson will concede that United seem "fragile at the back" while blaming injury problems.

This, however, was not an occasion when Ferguson was peppered with anything but soft questions from Nesbitt, his friend, in front of a congenial crowd. The combative media grillings Ferguson endured to promote his autobiography a year ago are not being repeated for the updated edition.

Instead, many answers were greeted by raucous cheering.

In the 351-year history of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where Britain's national anthem was first played, the venue is unlikely to have ever heard football chants from the stalls before.

"Fergie, Fergie give us a wave," they hollered before he obliged from his seat alongside Nesbitt.

Since being freed from daily training ground duties and stresses of the dugout, Ferguson has seized new opportunities. Watching Europe's Ryder Cup victory in person last month was "outside football the greatest experience I've ever had," Ferguson said.

There was also an appearance on the red carpet at the Oscars in Hollywood in March, taking up a page in his updated autobiography where he boasts about getting into the "big one": the post-awards Vanity Fair party. And Ferguson took great pride from being invited to address students about the art of management at the Harvard Business School.

"Talking and taking questions has also helped me understand my own time in management," Ferguson writes in the autobiography, which documents the last year in two new chapters.

Sunday was not an occasion for taking questions from anyone but Nesbitt, despite the audience coming to worship British football's most successful manager.

Ferguson did admit to one "quite justifiable criticism of my time at Manchester United": only winning two European Cups.

And fittingly, an appearance billed to last for an hour went deep into "Fergie Time," with almost 90 minutes on the clock by the time he left the stage.

With no training session to oversee on Monday morning, Ferguson is not short of time to reflect on one of the most remarkable careers in sport. But there was no Ferguson encore in the theater, leaving friend Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager, to satisfy selfie seekers and autograph hunters by the stage.


Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris

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