Thursday, May 9, 2013

To Sir, With Love

'It’s all about managing people and relationships, in the end’

Following Manchester United’s treble-winning campaign in 1999, cameras were allowed unprecedented access to the club the following season. ‘Manchester United: Beyond the Promised Land’ is a largely forgettable documentary, the access-all-areas schtick providing little in the way of memorable moments. There is, however, one notable exception.

At one stage, the squad and management take part in a harmless table quiz. Sir Alex Ferguson sits alongside members of his backroom staff. ‘Which name is given to the tracks on which tanks and bulldozers run?’ There’s a brief pause. Ferguson answers in that thick brogue, ‘Caterpillars’. ‘Correct’. There’s a collective sigh from the players. The next question is for Roy Keane’s team. ‘Who composed ‘Rhapsody In Blue’?’ Keane shouts out at the quizmaster, knowing what’s about to happen. ‘John, were you asked to change the questions about two minutes ago?’ There’s some awkward sniggering. Keane continues, ‘You were asked to change the questions’. He swears under his breath. His team is pushed for an answer. Keane bellows, ‘What’s the question, man?’ ‘John’ duly repeats it. Time is running out. They go with Tchaikovsky. ‘Wrong’. The question is passed along. Teddy Sheringham offers a guess. ‘Schubert?’ ‘Wrong.’ Ferguson answers. ‘Gershwin’. ‘Correct’. Another sigh from the players. ‘Which sailor was captain of a ship called The Black Pig’?’ Ferguson answers again. ‘Captain Pugwash’. ‘Correct’. Ferguson’s team wins. He likes winning. He’s good at it.

In March 2009, Alastair Campbell interviewed Ferguson for The New Statesman. They chatted about a book Campbell had sent to Ferguson the previous summer, Team Of Rivals, about how Abraham Lincoln appointed a cabinet featuring three of his biggest critics, united them and won the Civil War. Ferguson was mesmerised – ‘What was fascinating was how he held together all these big personalities…to make sure they stayed roughly on the same track. I can learn about the art of team building and team management from all sorts of places. It’s all about managing people and relationships, in the end’. And therein lies his greatest success.

Firstly, he surrounded himself with the right people. He told the BBC earlier this year, ’When you go right down to youth level, there are members of my staff that have been with me for twenty years or more. That creates a loyalty from both sides, from me to them and from them to me. There’s a value in loyalty and consistency’. Secondly, he’s relied on fundamental principles to remain at the top and has never strayed far from them. In conversation with Campbell, he outlined ‘control, managing change and observation’ as the most important qualities required for leadership. Even at 71, Ferguson was a constant presence at training sessions. On a training pitch, players are in their natural habitat. If something is awry, however small, it will crop up there. And for Ferguson, he specialised in spotting things others failed to see, best illustrated by his selling of Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis in the summer of 1995 and his promoting of raw, unproven youngsters who’d become the spine of the side for the next decade. When Ferguson erred, he carried it with him for a long time. In the case of Jaap Stam being sold to Lazio in 2001, Ferguson still considers it his greatest mistake. 

Like any leader, Ferguson’s career will be defined by the biggest decisions he made. Very rarely did he choose incorrectly. He seemed to flourish most under-pressure, when so many pretenders tend to crack. Many point to the FA Cup success in 1990 as the turning point in his United career. And it certainly was an important milestone. The following season, they lifted the European Cup Winner’s Cup, defeating Barcelona in the final. But in 1992, when the club had looked set to win their first championship since 1967, they lost three of their final four games and Leeds pipped them. The hangover lasted well into the following campaign. After 15 games, they sat slumped in 10th and couldn’t score goals. Two weeks later, Eric Cantona was signed.  From his 21 league appearances, United lost once. They had finally won the league. Ferguson had taken a risk by signing the ill-disciplined, volatile Frenchman. Cantona had repaid his manager’s belief and through everything Cantona involved himself with over his remaining years at the club, Ferguson always stood by him. Players can be replaced. But Ferguson could see that Cantona was much more than that. Ferguson said Cantona was a ‘catalyst’ for that mid-90s side. Perhaps he was Ferguson’s too.

His working-class background has ensured a lifelong admiration and appreciation for hard-graft and determination. He also holds a deep fascination for education. Every Manchester United side he has built features a mixture of raw, developing youngsters, imposing athletes who enjoy a battle and quick-witted, smart ball-players. His desire to produce a steady line of young players came as a result of Manchester City’s successful underage setup in the 1980s. Ferguson would often be an interested spectator at City’s youth matches and quickly went about setting up United’s School of Excellence shortly after arriving at Old Trafford. The success of returning the club to its post-war roots – as an academy for the country’s finest players - must surely rank as one of his greatest achievements.  

Ten years ago, a period of instability began under Ferguson’s watch. He faced the most severe challenge to his leadership since those dark days of the early 90s. Arsenal and Chelsea dominated domestically. United disappointed in Europe. Ferguson’s off-field problems quickly became on-field issues as Magnier and McManus questioned his management and his morals. More damningly, they questioned his future. In many ways, Ferguson had lost sight of his principles. A team in transition, badly in need of direction was allowed go through the motions. His observations were not as sharp as they had been.  He’d grown sloppy. He wielded the axe and went back to basics. He built another side – arguably his most successful ever. In his mid-sixties, his sheer competitiveness made him more relevant than he had been twenty years earlier. In the pantheon of great British managers, Paisley was 64 when he retired, Shankly was 60, so too was Busby. Clough retired at 58, Bill Nicholson at just 55. Different eras, certainly but in many ways, Ferguson has followed the path of his mentor, Jock Stein - the game proving so consuming, so addictive, so difficult to walk away from, regardless of the advancing years and inevitable health problems. Perhaps, Ferguson’s decision to retire had much to do with the haunting, lingering memory of Stein’s death in 1985 – Ferguson sitting alongside him in the Ninian Park dugout when he suffered a heart attack. Perhaps, at 71, he is smart enough to know that he’s pushed himself hard, maybe harder than he’s ever done, over the last six years particularly. 

His replacement is someone Ferguson has admired for quite some time. In 2009, when asked to name the best managers in the Premier League, he answered ‘Arsene Wenger, David Moyes and Martin O’Neill’. In 1998, Moyes (then at Preston) sat down with Ferguson who was looking for a new assistant. Moyes didn’t get the job but by 2002, he was in charge of a Premier League club of his own. Showing similar leadership traits as Ferguson, Moyes has spent a decade spectacularly overachieving at Everton. David Weir, now a coach at the club, recently told Simon Kuper in a Financial Times article that ‘he (Moyes) is always looking for a little half a per cent to make you better.’

There will be doubters, of course. Those who feel Moyes lacks the big-game experience, the big-money transfer history and the personality to carry off such a demanding job. But, 15 years ago, Ferguson saw something in Moyes that he liked. Perhaps he saw a will to win. Perhaps he saw the obsessiveness. Perhaps he saw a reflection of himself.  

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