Step forward, Sir Alex

By: Elite Soccer

Once, Tony Blair asked Alex Ferguson for some advice. Ferguson told him: “The most important thing in my job is control. The minute they threaten your control, you have to get rid of them.”

Ferguson’s autobiography, published after he stepped down as Manchester United’s longest serving coach, is littered with moments where his control was potentially threatened. In a sense, the whole book is an exercise in how he kept his teams on track to win championship and after championship, cup after cup.

He can be placed alongside the great coaching achievers. After a good if undistinguished career as professional footballer in Scotland, Fergie worked his way through semi-professional coaching (while running two pubs in Glasgow) before he joined Aberdeen. His European Cup success with the Dons, pretty much against the odds, led him to one of the biggest jobs in world football, Manchester United.

Ferguson’s trick was see through players quickly. He knows that everyone wants to play. If he took away this privilege, they would end up either begging to come back or to leave. If a player asked for a leave of absence, Fergie would always say yes. “Because who would want to miss a training session at United?” He wanted to help players find a solution to a problem. However, he also knew that some of his players could be scamps or lose sight of why they were playing in the first place.

He banned a player for life when he had lied about why he was missing from training. Eventually he reinstated him, only after that player had begged for his place back. When Rio Ferdinand was asked out to America to interview the rap star P Diddy, Ferguson asked Ferdinand: “Is he going to make you a better centre-half?”

There are whole chapters dedicated to individual players and rival managers. Though these have been the sections to boost sensationalism and copy sales, his attention to these particular relationships is actually very revealing. We all have players (and adversaries) who are both vital and frustrating. Of course, a club like United could attract some of the biggest names in world football. Some even went on to greater things after their time with Ferguson, but the way he dealt with them gives us an insight into how we all might balance the needs of the team and the individual.

He says: “The moment the manager loses his authority, you don’t have a club. The players will be running it, and then you’re in trouble”. He does not seem to lean on too many management gurus, but he had learned that the hard way from other “tough” managers like Jock Stein.

Players like tough managers or a manager who can be tough. He says they prefer a manager to be a man. “There’s a reward. The player will be thinking: ‘1. Can he make us winners? 2. Can he make me a better footballer? 3. Is he loyal to us?’” If the player says yes to all three, then he will “tolerate murders”!

Indeed, Ferguson has a reputation for his anger, and he does little remove this notion. He says he sometimes feared the consequences of his outbursts. Yet come Monday morning, all was back to normal, though the players certainly knew who was boss.

In the modern age of a more player-centred approach, perhaps it is hard to see how we can learn from this old-fashioned method of management. In that sense, Ferguson cuts a lonely figure, craving someone to knock on his office door in the afternoon. He knows that he is revered and feared. He knew it made no sense to offer a chance for his players to think that the manager had “lost it”. He worked extremely hard to know the detail, refreshing himself regularly.

Ferguson is renowned for building a team from within. At United, he rarely built a jigsaw of a team, finding the exact match to replace what he had just lost. While he did buy players to fill gaps, he looked to take good players and make them more complete. Though he did fall out with some, he also retained some of the best for many, many years. He says more than once that he would worry if he could not give them enough football. These players were not sheep who were happy to just get the odd game in the first team. Ferguson knew they all craved to play and needed the footballing life force of high-octane competition.

His youth policy is world famous. He also bought players young. It is interesting that he is quite candid about the mistakes he has made in his choices. “Too quick a decision, not enough information, should have seen the signs” are laments to his tried-and-tested formula. His seemingly unscientific methods for success are commonsensical: look at their mother and father, study what they did. Watch how the players train, how they conduct themselves. Did he want obedient players? No, he wanted players with a bit of devil in them. They needed to have the self-confidence to express themselves on the pitch, when and where it really matters.

When it comes to referees, Ferguson is quite clear – they are not fit enough and they do not impose themselves.

On the press, he grudgingly acknowledges they need to sell papers. However, he is protective over his privacy and his family. When he is in front of the camera, he wears his “Alex Ferguson face”. He revealed nothing about his torments or strains. He would never criticise a player publically. His answers were plain. Over the years he had learned not to score intellectual points. The focus was always on the next game and what would need to be done.

There is a golden chapter on psychology. In fact it should be required reading for any coach. It starts by dealing with players who have lost form. He says to tell the truth, and do it a way which gives the player some hope. On other teams, he would convince them that Manchester United always played better in the second half of the season. He would furiously tap his watch at the end of matches, putting pressure on the referee and opposition. They thought he knew exactly how long there was to go, some inside knowledge – of course he had as much idea as the next man.

This is a passionate book that seethes and revels in the maelstrom of top-flight football. Alex Ferguson hated losing and strained every sinew to make sure his sides didn’t. Few sports coaches can boast his record. He is candid about his mistakes and pulls few punches. Whether you love or hate football, love or hate Manchester United, and even love or hate the man, you might well draw plenty of lessons from the manager.

It is a compelling read for any coach who knows that player management is one of the most difficult and time-consuming jobs. Tactics and training are the fun parts. Ultimately, it takes hard graft dealing with the all the paraphernalia that goes with young men who have lots of money and adoration.

Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography, Alex Ferguson.