Listen to this article
Lights, cameras, action! Sir Alex Ferguson strides on stage to thunderous applause. The Boss claps back. We might as well be at Old Trafford, scene of so many of Manchester United’s triumphs under Sir Alex, the most successful football manager in history.
Tonight the venue is London’s Barbican and I am facing one of the toughest assignments of my career: an hour-long conversation with a man whose prickliness toward journalists is legendary. The good news is that Sir Alex, who retired last May, looks to be on best behaviour. He is promoting his new book, unfussily entitled My Autobiography (his second, in fact), which he tells me has already sold more than 300,000 copies. My job is to encourage him to talk about leadership, management and football.
Sir Alex’s team, led by his son Jason, have been meticulous in their pre-match preparation: no audience questions, no recording, no video-streaming and no tweeting. One hour, and not a minute more. But I am no slouch either: I have read dozens of press cuttings, a Harvard Business School case study on his 27-year tenure at Manchester United, and three books, including Michael Crick’s highly readable if irreverent biography The Boss.
My opening shot: does Sir Alex realise he is being interviewed by a Spurs supporter whose loyalty goes back to 1961 when the team won the double? “No problem,” retorts the super-manager, “that was the last time Spurs won the League, right?” One up to Fergie.
I want to know how Sir Alex spots and manages talent. Football players, not unlike (some) journalists, combine the diva and the insecure. I gently suggest that Sir Alex was not averse to using fear and intimidation as a weapon against opponents, referees and some of his own uppity players. The manager politely demurs. Still, even his closest friends agree that his favourite word is “control”.
Thus Beckham must bend, and Keano must go. Sir Alex’s heroes, he says, are so-called “foundation players” around whom the team is built: Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes. But he also has a soft spot for Eric Cantona, the mercurial French striker whose kung-fu kick against a foul-mouthed Crystal Palace supporter remains the stuff of legend.
Our conversation over, Sir Alex invites me back to his dressing room to drink and chat over a glass of top quality red wine – a post-match ritual he used to share with the likes of Arsène Wenger of Arsenal and José Mourinho of Chelsea. We discover a mutual interest in American presidential biographies, notably Robert Caro’s four-tome tribute to Lyndon Johnson. A highly civilised end to a memorable encounter.
And so to Tehran, a long-planned trip designed to test the mood in Iran after the decisive presidential victory by Hassan Rouhani, a self-styled pragmatic reformer. There is a tenuous connection to Sir Alex, a native of Glasgow: Rouhani completed a PhD at Glasgow Caledonian in the late 1990s and is said to retain an affection for Scotland.
Our 2am touchdown in Tehran, via Turkish Air, could not have been timed better. Within 24 hours, Iran and world powers in Geneva announce an interim deal to curb the Iranian nuclear programme. Israel denounces the agreement as a historic mistake, but the mood of relief is palpable on the streets.
The Iranians we meet are happy to talk, often in excellent English. The exception is the francophone diaspora now back in town. Many fled to Paris after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and their sentences are peppered with nostalgic references to life “avant la révolution”, though little evidence, apart from the odd cool café and restaurant, of life before the Ayatollahs remains.
Tehran today is a vast building site. Iranians are putting their money into construction, the safest bet in an economy ravaged by inflation, sanctions and colossal mismanagement by the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad. His clownish antics isolated Iran and set the country back at least a decade.
Everyone in the west wants to know: is the new Iranian president for real? Is he a genuine reformer open to ending tensions with the west? Or is he merely the media-friendly face of a theocratic regime bent on exporting radical Islam abroad and shoring up an authoritarian democracy at home? In search of the answer, our long-time Tehran correspondent Najmeh Bozorgmehr set up a more than a dozen high-level interviews across the political and business spectrum. My tentative conclusion: Rouhani wants reform but he is no Gorbachev, yet. He alludes several times to “other centres of power”, an oblique reference to conservative hardliners.
Without doubt our most fascinating encounter, apart from with the president himself, was an hour-long conversation with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former two-term president and one of the leaders of the Islamic Revolution.
We meet in the stunning Marmar palace museum surrounded by a vast garden filled with giant plane trees. Parrots squawk in the autumnal sun. Only the pollution mars an idyllic setting. Inside, I experience the mild thrill of anticipation knowing I am about to meet a historic figure. Aides stir the sensation, telling me Rafsanjani writes a diary entry every day (“he will write about your meeting”) and is still capable, aged 79, of striding up the museum stairs to his book-lined office.
The interview goes well, though simultaneous translation leaves little time to think. Rafsanjani is also the master of ambiguity, except on the topic of Israel. Asked about the threat of Israeli military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, he replies, “Israel is so small. No small fish can eat big fish.”
A good interview always elicits a good quote. The late Sir David Frost was a master technician. He was genuinely interested in other people and was a great listener. That quality can easily be mistaken for modesty. Frost was very good at keeping his ego under wraps, most of the time.
I remember Frost talking once about his famous interview with former president Richard Nixon in 1977. The series was turned into a play and later a film. Frost took great pride that in both cases the title was Frost/Nixon – and not vice versa.
• Lionel Barber is editor of the Financial Times