Govan relishes Ferguson link

A funfair atmosphere set up for the Commonwealth Games near the Glasgow Science Centre which is next to BBC Scotland located at Pacific Quay. This is the part of Govan which has been revitalised.

The Commonwealth Games Festival had come to the edge of Govan, a historic town 4km west of Glasgow, once renowned for its shipyards that fed Britain's navy in wartime but now forgotten by time and politicians alike.

In the 1940s, men worked for a pittance at the three great shipyards fronting the majestic River Clyde, with business continuing to boom in the post-war reconstruction period.

In this setting was born one Alexander Chapman Ferguson - Sir Alex to reverential Manchester United fans.

Silverware has come to define his football managerial career but, back then, his father slogged for 70 hours each week in the Fairfields shipyard, and still the family had to sub-let part of their flat to an Irish couple to make ends meet.

A fire station now sits on the site of the Ferguson family home, which was one of many red sandstone tenements demolished in tandem with the decline of local shipbuilding.

To understand the genius and enigma that is Ferguson, one has to delve into Govan. After all, he once said: "Loyalty has been the anchor of my life and it is something that I learnt in Govan."

A sign of "Acumfaegovan" (I come from Govan) once hung at his office. And throughout his 26-year stint as United manager, he has always shown that loyalty was his best policy.

Players were never criticised in public but, as David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy discovered over the years, one wrong word or action against the United cause and Ferguson would not think twice to discard the culprit.

This was a man who would keep in touch with his old primary school teacher, Elizabeth Thomson, by ringing her every few months to say: "This is your favourite pupil."

That primary school is still standing, an Edwardian sandstone building deserted and in disrepair, festooned with mould and mice.

Yet, this was where Ferguson first learnt to play five-a-side football in a sunken gymnasium hall. It was a rough place - he once noted that it sent a higher portion of its school leavers to detention centres than any other Glasgow school.

Like its favourite son, Govan - which has a population of around 30,000 - has more to offer behind an ageing exterior.

At a decrepit bus stop, The Sunday Times was approached on four separate occasions by locals, who offered unsolicited advice on places to visit once they put their wariness of non-locals aside.

It is a kinder side of Govan, even as its residents are fiercely proud of their heritage and loyal to their cause.

"We're not Glaswegians - we consider ourselves independent from the rest of the country," said seventh-generation Govan resident Stewart White, 58, thumping his chest for dramatic effect.

Patrons at Govan's famous watering holes like the Old Harmony Bar or the Old Govan Arms continue to celebrate acts of Ferguson's generosity.

His portrait is the centrepiece at a local community centre after he donated £50,000 (S$105,000) to prevent its closure.

At the Harmony Row Youth Club, which has a shipping container as its clubhouse, a pristine field sits on the site now known as the Alex Ferguson Park.

He campaigned for 15 years for better facilities at the club where he began his football career at the age of 10.

Agnes Nisbet, the club chairman, said: "We were on the brink of disappearing when Sir Alex came on board and literally was our saviour.

"He became our patron, and it wasn't just in name - he has been so hands-on and with us every step of the way to ensure we continue to have good facilities for local kids to use."

The Scot never forgets his roots; his current dwelling, a mansion in the outskirts of Manchester, is called Fairfields, after his father's former employers.

In Govan, however, only one shipbuilder remains in operation, which explains why an employment office draws the biggest crowd at the Govan Shopping Centre.

Ferguson pops by his home town monthly, with Watsons Bakers given advance notice to have his favourite tarts and cake at the ready.

Had he dropped by last week, he may be surprised by the absence of Commonwealth Games paraphernalia around town - no posters of famous Scottish athletes or inflatable statues of Clyde the Games mascot.

"That's happening on the other side, yeah - it's a different world there," said pub owner Jim Hastings, referring to the river separating Govan from central Glasgow.

But there is a glimmer of hope. In a council house, a young boy watches television and mimicks the breaststroke motion of Scottish swimming sensation Ross Murdoch, who won the 200m breaststroke and was third in the 100m.

Maybe one day, Ferguson will not be Govan's most famous sporting export.

This article was published on Aug 3 in The Straits Times.

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