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The British are coming

Nicol, Ferguson rivalry lives on

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / March 30, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH – Sir Alex Ferguson and Steve Nicol battled each other in one of sports’ greatest rivalries in the 1980s and ’90s. But, before Ferguson became manager of Manchester United and Nicol a player for Liverpool, they nearly joined forces.

“He was a fantastic player,’’ Ferguson said. “I wanted him way back in the early ’80s but, unfortunately, he went to Liverpool and had a great career there.’’

Ferguson was speaking during a conference call yesterday announcing a five-match Manchester United tour, which kicks off against the Nicol-coached Revolution July 13 at Gillette Stadium.

The stakes will not be comparable to Liverpool-Manchester United matches, but organizers are expecting a 50,000-plus crowd, and Nicol is expecting a competitive event.

“They won’t be on holiday,’’ Nicol said. “They’ll be getting ready for the season and he’ll have them ready to play.

“I’m sure he knows we ain’t going to roll over, put it that way. At the end of the day, we’re in the middle of our season and they’re trying to get their players in condition and get some good games.

“Obviously, both teams are going to want to do well and be competitive. But we’re not going to go out making crazy tackles, that’s not what we’re about.’’

Ferguson first made his mark on the coaching world with Aberdeen FC, guiding the Dons to the UEFA Cup title over Real Madrid in 1983. Nicol began his Liverpool career in 1981 and was a starter in the 1984 and ’85 Champions Cup finals.

Their careers intersected during Scotland’s qualifying campaign for the 1985 World Cup, when the team was guided by Jock Stein, who would exert a strong influence over the coaching careers of both Ferguson and Nicol.

Scotland advanced to the World Cup finals in one of the most dramatic contests in qualifying history. The Scots scored on a late penalty in Wales, clinching a place in the finals, but Stein sustained a fatal heart attack in the closing seconds of play.

Ferguson, an assistant at the time, took over as head coach for the team’s appearance in Mexico. The experience served as a bond for Ferguson and Nicol.

“We were in a difficult group, they called it the ‘group of death,’ ’’ Ferguson recalled. “Germany, Denmark, Uruguay. I thought we acquitted ourselves well. Stevie had a great career as a player and I think he’s done well over there [as a coach].’’

Stein was an inspiring figure. He had worked his way out of the coal mines to become an excellent motivator and tactician, taking Celtic FC to the 1967 European Cup title using all local players. Stein’s belief in camaraderie and discipline, learned in the mines, is fundamental to team-building strategies of most Scottish managers.

But Stein also cast a large shadow, and Ferguson is among the few who have been able to escape it. Ferguson this season equaled Sir Matt Busby’s 25-year tenure as Manchester United coach and has the team in first place in the Premiership, in the FA Cup final, and in the Champions League quarterfinals.

“Absolutely, aye, he’s up there, if not one of the best,’’ Nicol said. “Look at his record. You talk about longevity, it’s incredible. We Jocks [i.e. Scots] like to think we have a bit of fire in the belly and you like to think you’ll never lose it. And he’s certainly still got that fire in the belly.’’

The Revolution-Manchester United game is scheduled for 8 p.m. United also will meet the Seattle Sounders (July 20), Chicago Fire (July 23), the MLS All-Star team (July 27) at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., and Barcelona (July 30) in Washington, D.C.

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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