How Maurice Watkins – Ferguson’s confidant – wrote a Manchester United book like no other

When the time was right, there was one person they knew they had to see. So they went together, mother and daughter, to Sir Alex Ferguson’s house and knocked on the door to visit the most successful manager in British football history.

It was May 2022, nine months after the death of Maurice Watkins, the long-serving Manchester United director who had been such a confidant and ally to manager Ferguson at Old Trafford.

Elaine, Watkins’ partner, had come to think of the Scot as a friend of her own. She was with her daughter, Emma, and they wanted to speak to Ferguson about publishing a book, titled Legally Red, that had come to mean so much to Watkins and his family. 

Not just any ordinary book, though.

Watkins had devoted himself to writing his memoir during the Covid-19 pandemic when, fighting a long battle with cancer, he used the time in lockdown to put together the story of his career at United, including 28 years as a director.

Every day during those months of lockdown in 2020, it was the same routine: hours and hours in his home office, surrounded by the 68 boxes of documents that provided so much background material and watertight details. Even when his health was faltering, Watkins was still hard at work. By the time of his death, he had put together almost 120,000 words, all of it initially in long hand.

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Maurice Watkins working on his book at home (Courtesy of Emma Shaw)

“During the writing of the book, he was going through chemotherapy,” says Emma. “But he had this routine that he focused on every day. Mum would bring him cups of tea and, every morning, he would start writing.”

But then the cancer that had been inside his body for 17 years took hold. Watkins died, aged 79, on August 16, 2021.

So how do you publish an autobiography when the subject of the book is no longer there to oversee everything?

It has been, Emma says, emotional.

“A week before he passed away, we were going through the acknowledgements in the book. He wanted to thank Mum. Then he said to me, ‘Promise me, Emma. Please promise me you will make sure the book gets published’.

“I got upset, because I knew how hard he had worked on it. It upset me to think that he wasn’t going to be around to see it.

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Maurice Watkins with his daughter, Emma (Emma Shaw)

“It was important for me to say, ‘I promise you, I’m going to make sure it happens’. It was a promise, and I was adamant I would fulfil it. I wasn’t going to see him sitting there for two years during chemotherapy, putting his heart and soul into this book, for me not to do anything about it.”

Legally Red is published posthumously tomorrow (Thursday), containing a level of detail and documented evidence that you would not ordinarily expect to find in a book about the inner goings-on at a top football club.

It helped that Emma, a sports lawyer herself, was a devoted United fan who had already been reading and rereading the various chapters as de facto editor. Tim Rich, a football writer who had covered many of Ferguson’s glories, was brought in to help. Plus the family knew they could rely on Ferguson himself for contacts and advice. He also put them in touch with Roddy Bloomfield, his own publisher at Hodder & Stoughton.

“When Maurice was very ill, Alex wanted to come round to see him,” says Elaine. “Maurice was too ill at that stage. So Alex, myself and Maurice had a conversation together on the phone. What Alex said to him was really beautiful. They had an incredible relationship, with great respect for each other.”

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Maurice Watkins with Rio Ferdinand and his agent Pini Zahavi (Emma Shaw)

That is made clear in Legally Red, even if the book opens with a chapter, The Phone Call, recalling the awkwardness when Ferguson, having announced his plans to retire as United manager at the end of the 2001-02 season, rang Watkins to say he had changed his mind.

United had lined up Sven-Goran Eriksson to replace him, amid great secrecy and high sensitivity given that the Swede was England manager. But Ferguson knew. “Why Eriksson?”, he wanted to know. And, never reported until now, it was not a gimme that United would just abandon Project Sven.

“The fact Alex wanted to stay as manager did not mean his wish would be granted,” Watkins writes. “Initially, there was a feeling Alex had left it too late and we should tell him that.” Ferguson stayed another 11 years, winning six more Premier League titles (for a total of 13) and his second Champions League.

Watkins was born in Manchester when the city was scarred by the Blitz of the Second World War, and Old Trafford was so bomb-damaged that United could not use their stadium, instead becoming tenants at neighbours City’s Maine Road. He studied law in London but returned to his hometown to begin work for legal firm James Chapman & Co.

“I thought I might stay for two or three years,” he writes. “I would spend the next 38 years there. There was a reason for that. Ever since the Munich air disaster, James Chapman & Co had acted as solicitors for Manchester United.”

His memories are not exclusively about the Ferguson era, therefore.

There is the story of manager Tommy Docherty’s sacking in the summer of 1977, for having an affair with the wife of United’s then physiotherapist. Watkins recalls in great detail how the media mogul Robert Maxwell went about trying to buy the club in the 1980s.

Michael Knighton’s attempted takeover at the end of the same decade is also explored. Plus there are all sorts of other stories about United’s transfer dealings, the formation of the Premier League, representing Eric Cantona in his 1995 court case for aiming a kung-fu kick at a frothy-mouthed Crystal Palace fan and one tale, in particular, that could be described as a Sliding Doors moment for the Ferguson era at Old Trafford.


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Maurice Watkins bought the court sketch made of Eric Cantona’s trial for assaulting a fan (Courtesy of Emma Shaw)

Watkins, it transpired, took a call in the summer of 1986 from Joan Gaspart, then Barcelona’s vice-president, asking if he could recommend a coach to replace the one they had at the time, Terry Venables.

His suggestion was the Scottish guy doing great things with Aberdeen. Thankfully for United, it never came to anything and Watkins headed up to Scotland himself a few months later, among a carload of United directors, on a clandestine mission to offer that same Scotsman a job. “Ferguson, I told Gaspart, would make someone an excellent manager,” he writes.

What is interesting is that there is only one occasion across 296 pages when Watkins uses the word “cancer”, and it is not referring to himself. Watkins never strays into self-pity, even though he had to live with the disease for the best part of two decades.

He was, according to his family, a private man who, like Ferguson, worked endless hours. He did not want people to know he was unwell, so he chose to keep it quiet. And when it came to writing a book, he preferred to focus on United rather than going too deeply into his own life.

“When the club signed Wayne Rooney (from Everton at age 18 in summer 2004 for around £25million, then a record for a teenager), Maurice wasn’t there for that,” says Elaine. “No one understood where he was. He was actually in hospital, having surgery for his prostate cancer. After his surgery, he got on the phone to United and they had no idea.”

All of which makes it feel even sadder that his departure from Old Trafford, in June 2012, felt so unsatisfactory.

Watkins questions in the book whether it would have been such a bad thing, on reflection, if Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB company had got its wish to buy United in 1999. “The club went to the Glazers (six years later) and can it really be argued they have been better owners than Murdoch would have been?”

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United players pay tribute to Watkins in 2021 (Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

If you recall the Rock of Gibraltar affair, it is also worth noting that Watkins is unusually critical about the events that led, ultimately, to the Glazers taking control. United’s board, he writes, were “never so ham-fisted” than when dealing with the feud between Ferguson and the club’s biggest shareholders, John Magnier and JP McManus.

And that, unfortunately for Watkins, had ramifications for his own place in the boardroom.

David Gill, then United’s chief executive, delivered the news, inviting Watkins to lunch at an Italian restaurant and informing him the Glazers thought it was time he should call it a day. Watkins was 70 when he departed and, to his dismay, age was cited as a factor.

“I was the only person to whom the age element was applied,” Watkins writes. “It was not applied to Bobby Charlton, who was then 73, or Mike Edelson, who remained on the board after turning 70. I wonder why not. The Glazers must have had their reasons, but what surprised me was the lack of support from my fellow board members.”

For what it’s worth, Gill left him to settle the bill following that final meeting. “Sacked over a lunch you have paid for must be a first of sorts,” Watkins notes, and it bruised him, to begin with, that he suddenly found his Saturday afternoons spare. 

Don’t get the wrong impression, though. His book is never a score-settling exercise. Elaine is clear: “Maurice always said to me, in his two years writing the book, ‘I don’t want to upset anybody’.”

Instead, he threw himself into different projects. Watkins went on to become the chairman of British Swimming, overseeing two highly successful Olympic Games for Team GB, as well as holding several other titles, including an interim role as chairman of the Rugby Football League.

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Maurice Watkins, then at Barnsley, with partner Elaine and her son James (Emma Shaw)

He was a director of Lancashire County Cricket Club and chair of the British Basketball Federation and the Greyhound Board of Great Britain. He wasn’t done in football, either, spending four years as chairman at Yorkshire club Barnsley, meaning he developed an affinity for another team who, like United, play in a red and white kit. He was, as Ferguson says, a man of many different hats, including many years of charity work. Before his death, it is understood he was under consideration for a knighthood.

“He was also great company and a true gentleman,” Ferguson writes in the foreword to Legally Red.

“His energy levels must have been exhausted dealing with all the situations that come up at a club the size of Manchester United. But his calm demeanour and his wisdom helped steer the ship through all manner of situations.”

(Top photo: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

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