Sculptor shows softer side of formidable Ferguson

Story highlights

  • Alex Ferguson will be honored with a statue outside Man Utd's stadium
  • The nine-meter bronze sculpture will be unveiled on November 23
  • Briton Philip Jackson is the artist commissioned to produce the artwork
  • Jackson has worked with United on two previous commissions

Alex Ferguson is the legendary Manchester United coach who once sent a boot flying into the face of David Beckham, but a British sculptor has revealed a softer side to the formidable Scot.

Ferguson recently celebrated 26 years as United's manager this week, during which time he has won trophies at home and abroad as well as gaining a fierce reputation for the "hairdryer treatment" he dishes out to his players.

But that was not the man sculptor Philip Jackson encountered after being commissioned to produce a nine-foot bronze statue of Ferguson which was unveiled on Friday with a host of United legends in attendance.

"He's a very interesting character," Jackson, based in the English county of Sussex, told CNN when asked about the 70-year-old United boss.

"He's much more than you seen on the television.

"When he came down to the studio he said, 'Did you know that Gore Vidal had died?' and 'Have you read the new biography of Charles de Gaulle?' He's a very well-read man."

Over the last quarter of a century, Ferguson has overseen United's ascent to the top of English football.

The Old Trafford team has won 12 league titles under his stewardship, helping it to a record 19 English championships overall, in addition to two European Champions League triumphs.

Benign expression

Raised in the working-class district of Govan in Glasgow, the 70-year-old Ferguson is a staunch supporter of the British Labour Party.

As a manager Ferguson has a no-nonsense reputation, letting go of top players like Beckham, Roy Keane, Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy when he senses they have outlived their usefulness to the United cause.

A long-running spat with the BBC saw Ferguson refuse to speak with the British broadcaster for seven years after a 2004 documentary made unproven allegations of wrongdoing against his football agent son Jason.

But fellow Scotsman Jackson wanted to capture a different side of Ferguson for the sculpture which was unveiled during a ceremony ahead of Saturday's match with Queens Park Rangers -- the team he faced in his first match in charge at Old Trafford in 1986.

"I wanted him to have a slightly benign expression on his face, so that's what he's got. He's wearing the sort of clothes he would wear at a match in the winter."

Amalgam

Jackson was already known to United's hierarchy after producing sculptures of former manager Matt Busby and the legendary playing trio of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law.

"I'd already done the Matt Busby sculpture for Manchester United some 12-15 years ago," said Jackson, who in his role as royal sculptor has produced works ranging from the archangel Gabriel and Constantine the Great to the young Mozart.

"I did the United trinity of Best, Charlton and Law and when that was completed we talked about doing Alex. I didn't do anything immediately.

"There was an opportunity when his 25th anniversary came up and they decided to name a stand after him. So it was decided it should be done to go in front of that."

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In order to do justice to a man as respected as Ferguson, Jackson built up an in-depth knowledge of his personality and appearance during several meetings.

"I went up to see him, took a lot of photographs of him and spent some time watching him at a match," explained Jackson, who also produced a sculpture of England's World Cup-winning squad of 1966 which is outside Wembley Stadium.

"I got a lot of photographs from the Manchester United archives and also a lot of books that had been written about him.

"To start of piece of sculpture is almost like researching for a book, you have to get to know the person very well.

"It's an amalgam of everything I've seen of him and the meetings I've had with him. I've done him fairly pensive. He often stands on the edge of the pitch deciding on what's going to happen next. That's the moment I've chosen to record."

When capturing a character like Ferguson, how did Jackson select one stationary pose to epitomize a coach who is most often seen wildly gesticulating from the sidelines?

"I imagine him standing on the touchline in deep concentration, about to say something to the team which is going to change the tactics somewhat," he replied.

"One of the things he does is when the team has won or someone has scored a goal, he tends to put his hands in the air and wave them backwards and forwards.

"That's a very good pose for film, but it's not a good pose for sculpture as it makes him look like he's surrendering."

Ancient tradition

Sports stars have long been the subject of works of art, with the athletes of ancient Greece often honored with carvings and statues.

"Sports sculptures, the tradition goes back to Greco-Roman times," said Jackson.

"If you look at Greek sculpture, it's all of athletes or people who took part in the Games. It is carrying on a very long tradition."

There are practical advantages of depicting sportsmen for sculptors.

"They have generally come to a job through being young, athletic sportsmen," added Jackson.

"The theme of fitness continues throughout their life. It makes them easier to sculpt because their bodies are well proportioned."

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The sculpture of Ferguson will be the latest in a long line of monuments proudly displayed by English football clubs.

Ferguson's fellow Scot Bill Shankly has a tribute outside Liverpool's Anfield Stadium for the three league titles he won for the club between 1964 and 1973.

Newcastle United unveiled a statue of much-loved former manager Bobby Robson earlier this year. Robson, England's coach during the 1990 World Cup, was a native of the north east and occupied the Newcastle hotseat for five years.

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