Sir Alex Ferguson was looking for an escape. He put his longevity as a manager down to four factors: enthusiasm, determination, delegation and the fact that he had learned to switch his mind away from football. The last reason was the most recent. The Manchester United manager harboured regrets for not spending enough time with his family as his three sons grew up in Aberdeen, in Scotland, and the north west of England. By 1999, he felt like football had an unhealthy dominance over his life.
"I was going home at night and getting straight on the phone to scouts," he said. "It was becoming an obsession. Football was taking over me and eating into me. In the sense that I'd nothing else. Nothing." Ferguson accepted an invitation to go to the Cheltenham Festival as part of a group hosted by Mike Dillon, a United fan who was also a public relations manager. Ferguson took his wife, Cathy, and enjoyed the day so much that he suggested to her the idea of buying a race horse.
Within months, Ferguson had found the escape he was looking for. The morning after a European tie at Old Trafford, he would catch the 6.40am flight from his home near Manchester Airport to London Stansted Airport . "You could be at Newmarket in 20 minutes," he said. "You're out on the gallops and no one can get you. You're watching the horses train and taking in the fresh air. And I'd come back into training on the Friday and be buzzing."
Ferguson says horse racing was behind the 2005 deadline he had initially set for his retirement, but his tendency to get over-involved would lead to long lasting repercussions. Dillon introduced him to top breeder John Magnier, the self-made multi-millionaire owner of the Coolmore stud in County Tipperary, Ireland. The pair got on and Magnier introduced him to JP McManus. The pair were not football men, but they took Ferguson into their inner circle. Then they set up a company called Cubic Expressions which bought shares in United.
Within six months they were United's second biggest shareholders with seven per cent. A year later, they offered Ferguson a share in a two year-old colt named Rock of Gibraltar. The horse was very successful and by 2002 had won six consecutive first-class races. The horse was retired that year, with a stud value of £50 million (Dh290,861m). Amid speculation that Ferguson would earn £4m a year from the breeding activities of the horse, he wrote to Magnier asking about his "rights".
"The slow-burning fuse was lit on a very large bomb," writes Patrick Barclay in Football - Bloody Hell! his new biography of Ferguson published today. "Ferguson and Magnier started to talk and Magnier made various offers, culminating in one of £300,000 a year for the entirety of the Rock's stud career - expected to be about 20 years - or a flat payment of £7m. Ferguson rejected this but reduced his demand for 50 per cent of the horse's earnings to 20 per cent.
Meanwhile, Cubic Expressions increased their stake in United to become the biggest shareholders with 10.4 per cent. They then bought out Sky Television's share and increased their holding to 23.15 per cent. The second biggest shareholders were the Glazer family with 9.6 per cent. Ferguson issued a writ to Magnier. Angered, Magnier took the gloves off. In January 2004, he sent the United board a letter containing "99 questions".
Issues raised included "conduct of player transfers", "commissions paid in relation to large transactions" and "conflicts of interest". The latter was the most damaging, because Ferguson's son had been acting as an agent. "There are some individual transfers where the fees and payments made to players and agents are particularly large … what we cannot understand is the necessity for the relative secrecy in which the agents conduct their role and also the astonishing fees which have been charged to the company on the completion of transfers."
Ferguson was uncomfortable about the disclosure, backed down and sought an out of court settlement on Magnier's terms. There would be nothing like the £7m Ferguson had rashly turned down. He got £2.5m. So much for horse racing being a relaxation. In May 2005, McManus and Magnier sold their shares to the hated Glazer family, making a profit of £130m. The Glazers took control of the club, plunging United into a billions of pounds worth of debt which is still growing, still outraging supporters and still ensuring that United's substantial profits turned into a loss because of the onerous debt repayments.