The meetings I've had with Sir Alex Ferguson have probably been the highlights of my career. He has always been charming, enlightening and impeccably polite. He also did me an enormous favour when he generously agreed to write the foreword for my biography of Pep Guardiola—something for which I will always be enormously grateful.
That said, the resurrection in his autobiography of his feud with Rafael Benitez, which I thought was over, is slightly surprising.
Their prickly relationship stems from a press conference in 2009 (full transcript can be found at The Guardian's website) when Benitez read out a list of "facts" about Ferguson and United in 2009—including claims about the Manchester United manager's relationship with the FA.
These were "facts" which, needless to say, Ferguson was swift to deny. In fact, the threat that came from Liverpool in those years was the real reason behind the feud, and the "facts" press conference was cleverly used by Sir Alex—who knows better than Rafa how to use the media and fans to his favour.
In his new book, which I've read, Ferguson clearly demonstrates that Rafa is still under his skin. He labels Benitez as a, "silly man," a "control freak" (interesting, isn't it?), calls his teams dull and unimaginative and claims he was lucky to win the Champions League in 2005, when Liverpool fought back from 3-0 down to beat AC Milan (Hmmm, luck in big games, interesting too).
Ferguson also claims that the Spaniard spent huge amounts of money on players, and it's here that Sir Alex really does get it wrong—and I am pretty sure he knows it too The "fact" is that, while it is true that Benitez spent around £230 million pounds during his tenure at Liverpool, the only way he could do that was by selling players like Xabi Alonso. And when he left, the sale of Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres confirmed the valued added in the squad during his tenure.
And when you sell your best players, you struggle. The truth is, with the bosses he had at the time (Tom Hicks and George Gillett), he had to do without money. Rafa had in his six years at the club £20 million gross to spend a year. At the end of his tenure, his net spending was practically zero (some would say even positive, he brought the club more than he spent).
Benitez wanted Dani Alves and Florent Malouda and what he got was Jermaine Pennant and Ryan Babel. That is what he was dealing with. While people may use the figure of £230 million as a stick to beat him with, the reality is different.
Are we still really arguing that he is not an extraordinary manager? Did you see what he did with Chelsea, Valencia, Liverpool and what he's doing with Napoli now? It is also worth noting that when he arrived, the Manchester United squad was also worth at least £100 million more than the one Benitez had to work with at Liverpool.
I’m at a loss to understand why, in certain quarters of the UK, there is so much interest in destroying Benitez. What he achieved in a short space of time at Chelsea, by getting them into the Champions League and winning the Europa League, was nothing short of remarkable, and due testament to his strength of character and trust in his own ideas.
I just don’t think his story has been told properly, and I think that Sir Alex is more than happy for that to be the case. But actually, at the end of the day, the fact that Sir Alex and, of course, Jose Mourinho, have gone out of their way to publicly express their dislike for the Madrid-born manager is probably the biggest compliment they could ever pay him.