However hard you stare at football to understand its complexities the ears offer a higher level of comprehension when the speaker is one of the great managers. Anyone who spent large swathes of time with Jock Stein Bill Shankly or Brian Clough will guess at how much there was to learn from writing a book with Sir Alex Ferguson.

Ferguson’s My Autobiography which is published this week brought us together for many a midweek afternoon to retrace the steps of his life from Govan shipyard boy to master of a multi-billion empire at Manchester United where he retired last May with a palpable sense of relief after winning the title back from Manchester City.

“I’ve never spent so much time in the video analysis room” Ferguson said of his final season in charge. In that mini-cinema he burned countless hours studying his own team as well as opponents for clues about how to knock City off their new perch.

There was more plotting more intensity more detail than ever. City winning the title was the greatest single blow to Ferguson in his near 27 years in charge. He would not stand down until the insult was reversed.

The afternoon we spent discussing City’s first league win for 44 years revealed the draining nature of his addiction. He spoke again and again of United’s tradition of responding to setbacks. Almost as pleasurable to him as bestriding English football was climbing off the floor after a knockout blow from Arsenal Chelsea or City.

The theme of his memoirs – which pick up where the earlier Managing My Life left off – were immediately clear to him. The subject was managing seismic change. Players owners agents rivals and the whole industry had been in constant churn especially in the first decade of this century after United’s unprecedented Treble of 1999.

When the call came to ghostwrite the book my response was part pride part terror: and not because I feared his wrath. My trepidation stemmed from the sheer scale of the enterprise. It felt like taking on the life story of a Prime Minister.

Kind older colleagues had put in a good word for me with Ferguson in my early days in journalism and our relationship was always cordial despite the ticking off he once gave me over the phone for something I had written about Roy Keane (perversely I was flattered that he had bothered to call in the first place).

An earlier assignment as co-writer to Sir Bobby Robson probably also helped me get the gig because Robson and Ferguson were great friends: two survivors who loathed the thought of retirement and spurred each other on.

The main attraction was the chance to answer a question that held the whole football world in its grip: how exactly was Ferguson able to establish such autocratic power at United and keep building title-winning teams one after another with only the briefest lulls?

An avid reader himself he wanted to take stock of his varied and super-eventful life. Arranging his memories (and counting up his victories) would help him in the next phase of life as a statesman ambassador and expert on management.

He wanted to make connections between controlling a team and a boardroom and running other big enterprises. A devotee of Vince Lombardi the great Green Bay Packers coach he is fascinated by strong personalities and how they wield power or “control” (the term he prefers).

This explains his current ubiquity at the Harvard Business School on major American chat shows and on the book promotion circuit. Though he says he is relieved “not to have to read about myself any more” in a footballing sense he sees a new role for himself almost as an academic explaining how he dealt with the rolling challenges of football’s billionaire age.

In all cases he was forthright candid and lyrical in his descriptions of players games and conflicts. My ear kept picking up on the natural storytelling qualities of his Glasgow background which was apparent also among his friends many of whom had been alongside him for 60 years. They spoke truth to power telling him when he was being too grand or his team were average or his singing was “rubbish” in all the times he would have them to stay at his Cheshire home.

His hospitality was unfailing and his professionalism impeccable just as it had been with Robson another who would clear whole days to talk and conveyed infectious enthusiasm. In both cases it was clear that the greatest managers have unusual minds.

They can think on many levels simultaneously and see months and years ahead. Hullabaloo is all around them yet the best ones can make big decisions almost instantly see straight to the heart of a problem spot weakness assess talent be ruthless be caring and inspire others to surpass themselves.

For the ghostwriter it could be surreal. I recall one evening watching a Champions League fixture with him and thinking: “I can’t believe this. I’m watching TV with Fergie. Just me and him.” However comfortable he makes you feel it is hard not to think you might provoke his displeasure with a loose remark: a legacy perhaps of his increasingly fractious relationship with the press.

But behind Ferguson the dictator you find a totally different man. One who laughs incessantly tells great stories of his early days in Scotland and seeks out the fun in life.

Everyone who knows him says this: he is a frustrated comedian and crooner and raconteur who applied the Japanese ‘masks of life’ principle to his work. On the drive to the training ground at Carrington he would problem-solve and think four moves ahead. He prides himself on being able to enter a room and fill his eyes with information and evidence.

When he looks at you studiously you feel he is working out your character. You feel there is nowhere to hide. My only real hellish moment came when I woke five minutes before we were due to meet for breakfast for another interview. Five minutes. I imagined myself being sold to Rochdale or Rotherham.

The core phrases he uses stick in your head. In his early days in Scotland at East Stirlingshire and St Mirren he taught himself about power about psychology. An example: a player who defied him with trips to the pub or unauthorised holidays would be told quietly coldly: “You’ll need to find another club. You’ll not be playing.”