Alex Ferguson

I was never a Man Utd fan. But I was interested in reading about Alex Ferguson, because it seemed so clear to me that Man Utd performed fantastically under his leadership, and then it didn’t perform so fantastically afterwards.

Listening

Fergie cites David Frost and Charlie Rose as great listeners. Charlie started an interview with “You know I’m half Scottish”, which put him at ease.

In 1984, Fergie was offered manager’s position at Glasgow Rangers by John Paton, one of the club’s largest shareholders. He was at Aberdeen, so was unsure about going to another Scottish club. He called Scot Symon, who had managed the club for 13 years. Scot noticed Fergie hadn’t talked to the vice-chairman Willie Waddell (the ultimate authority at Rangers), so urged him to decline the offer since it probably hadn’t been officially sanctioned by the board (no group buy-in).

Fergie listened to players’ analyses of the match, and their prediction of the lineups of their opponents. He sought advice (intel, IMO) from other managers and journalists about players he was buying.

Advice from Jock Stein, British manager of Celtic who beat Inter Milan in 1967:

  1. “Make sure you are the second team on the ground for training on the day before the game because then your opponents will think you are watching them while they work.”
  2. Take a bottle of Macallan whisky for Real Madrid’s manager Alfredo Di Stéfano. (The idea was to make Real feel like Aberdeen was over-awed and felt defeated already, which apparently worked.)
  3. Never lose your temper with your players right after the game. “Wait till Monday, when things have calmed down.” Fergie said it was sound advice that just didn’t happen to suit his style.

Jimmy Sirrel: never let all your player’s contracts expire around the same time because it allows them to collude against the manager and the club.

Watching

Fergie used to micromanage the training sessions until assistant manager Archie Knox asked him why he had been hired. Said he had nothing to do since Fergie insisted on doing everything. Archie said Fergie should be on the sidelines watching and supervising. Fergie worriyou ed this would hamper his control of the session, but discovered that it allowed him to broaden his focus from the ball to the entire session – players’ moods, energy, habits. Cites this as the most important decision he made about managing and leading, and that “Archie’s observation was the making of me.”

If told by a scout that a player had a good left foot, Fergie found it hard to forget that observation, and might easily overlook another quality or worse, ignore a major fault. Be interested in what others say, but watch with your own eyes before having your judgement swayed by the filter of others.

In 1969 he saw West Germany training – no goalkeepers, concentrated entirely on possession of the ball. Left a big impression on him, so he started doing boxes – 4 players against 2 in confined space. As players got better, boxes got tighter, and it eventually led to being able to play one-touch football. This 1969 observation influenced his training until the very end.

In 2003, Fergie went to watch Peter Cech play in France. He also spotted Didier Drogba in that game and identified him as a great player, but didn’t manage to buy him. Similarly spotted Ji-sung Park when checking out Michael Essien in Lyon vs PSV Eindhoven. “These were very special moments. I always enjoyed stumbling across a new talent when I was least expecting it. These moments – and players – are the reward for a lifetime of careful watching. None of them suddenly dropped into our lap; they were the result of keeping our radar operating 24 hours a day.

Reading

He enjoyed reading about coaches from sports he didn’t know about – UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who did not tolerate waywardness or straying. Vince Lombardi, who said “We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.”

Didn’t really like most football books. Was taken by Bobby Robson’s autobiography, who showed great courage by picking himself up and going to the Netherlands to manage PSV Eindhoven after being fired as England manager for being one step short of the 1990 World Cup final. Gary Neville’s autobiography, Red, is a thoughtful book that helps the reader understand the pressure on the players and their need to succeed.

Don’t want to overplay this, but some observations in books about military history seem relevant to football. Every general has to learn the best time to attack and when it’s better to be conservative. (One year they took the whole United squad to the SAS training grounds, which the players loved.) He once used a flanking battle formation to score against Liverpool.

Lincoln and JFK – the value of taking your time before making decisions. Team Of Rivals was absorbing. JFK’s careful approach during Ciban Missle Crisis a fine example of deliberate decisionmaking. As Fergie got older he aw more virtue in patiently working towards the right decision. (Was impetuous when younger. It takes courage to say “let me think about it”. As you get older you temper your enthusiasm with experience.)

Discipline

Dad was in ship-building. Didn’t talk much. Stubborn, talked little, but very intelligent.  Was woken early. Fergie similarly liked being being to work early.

In the 70’s at St. Mirren, Ian Reid, who had been team captain made a set of rabbit ears behind Fergie’s head when they were photographed by the local paper. “It’s not the kind of joke I like.” – Fergie.

Another player: “I can’t attend  training because the girlfriend and I have tickets for a pop concert.” Fergie: If you want to go for the concert, fine, but don’t come back.

Players at St Mirren travelled on the same bus to away games – one player decided to drive himself to a game. Fergie tore into him in the dressing room and told him he wouldn’t be a part of the team that day, but then realized he didn’t have a spare player to replace him with, “so that piece of discipline went out the window”.

At Aberdeen, “which is a more sedate place than Glasgow” – “I was aggressive and demanding and I suspect not everyone enjoyed it, but it made the players into men and increased their profiles.”

3 players were a nuisance, didn’t take training seriously. He’d make them work out again each afternoon, dumped them in the reserve team, and eventually got rid of them all.

Regret: In 1983, Aberdeen returned from Sweden with the European Cup Winners’ Cup and had a parade that ended at their stadium, which was packed. Fans wanted to see the players carry the trophy around the field. Mark McGhee, center-forward, was eager to show them, but Fergie thought he had been celebrating too much and forbade him from carrying the trophy. Then his mother arrived in the dressing room and Fergie felt rotten. So the next morning Fergie phoned the player and apologized, and asked him to accompany him to the harbour to show the trophy to fans who had travelled by boat. “I was not eager to repeat incidents like that.”

United – lax attitude towards clothes, players would wear the tracksuits of their sponsors. Fergie insisted they travel in club blazer and tie. Fabien Barthez would change clothes on the bus on the way to the game. Eric Cantona appeared in the town hall once wearing a suede jacket with long fringes and a picture of an American Indian chief on the back. He swore to Fergie (who believed him) that he thought it was going to be a casual occasion, like in France.

Fergie never thought it useful to fine players if they were late for training once or twice, especially because of clogged roads during winter if there’s an accident or maintenance. Fergie only fined one player for tardy appearances – Mark Bosnich, who was repeatedly late.

Wasn’t afraid of crossing into what some players considered private territory – hairstyles and jewellery. Fergie never understood why players would want to have long hair when they spend so much effort to be fit and quick. “Karel Poborsky from Slavia Prague looked like he was going to play for Led Zeppelin rather than United.” Persuaded him to trim, but always still too long. Other players would wear “necklaces carrying crosses that seemed heavier than those the pilgrims carry up the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem”. He banned all of them.

Cantona was venerated by his team-mates, and when he got a tattoo, several team-mates followed suit. “I was always struck by the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo never chose to deface his body. It said a lot about his self-discipline.”

Silent treatment – simple yet deadly, recipient knows he’s in the woodshed.

Lots of fines – a week’s wages after bookings, red cards, stupid behavior like dissent towards referee or a wild tackle or unsuitable behavior off the pitch.

Could punish youngsters hoping to make the squad by refusing to let them travel with the team. For the squad – one is to leave them out of the side, much more severe is to make him sit in the stands dressed in his civvies. Footballer’s equivalent of a public hanging.

Severest penalty – suspension and a transfer. Suspension is toughest because the penalty is borne by both the player and the club.

“Peter Schmeichel, Paul Ince, Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Mark Hughes and Eric Cantona could all start a fight in an empty house. I made no secret about my displeasure when they got sent off for committing some act of folly.”

Juan Sebastian Veron seemed immune to discipline – fantastic player with tremendous ability but a wild card. He would end up in a totally different place from where he was played. He simply did not have the necesary self-discipline so we traded him after 2 years. You cannot build a team with blithe free spirits. (In contrast, Ji-sung Park would follow instructions to the letter, like a dog with a bone.)

I placed discipline above all else and it might have cost us several titles, and would do the same again because once you bid farewell to discipline you say goodbye to success and set the stage for anarchy.

Chrismas 2011 – 3 United players went out on the town on Boxing Day, and showed up for training ‘worse for wear’. He ordered all of them to do extra training and dropped them from the team in the following game against Blackburn. Already had many injuries, and dropping the players weakened them further. They lost the game 3-2, and eventually lost  the League to Man City on goal difference.

In the long run principles are just more important than expediency.

If you can assemble a team of 11 talented players who concentrate intently during training, take care of their diet and bodies, get enough sleep and show up on time, you’re almost halfway to winning a trophy. Astonishing how many clubs are incapable of doing this.

In 1996 FA Cup Final, Liverpool’s entire team appeared in white suits supplied by a fashion designer. Fergie remarked to his kit manager that it signalled a breakdown in disicpline, and that the team was distracted by a frivolous sideshow. United won 1-0.

In 1985, Aberdeen beat Rangers 3-0 after two of their opponents got sent off during the first half. “Classic case where our opponents destroyed themselves.”

I always felt that our triumphs were an expression of the consistent application of discipline. Much of the success comes from not getting carried away or trying to do the impossible and taking too many risks.

Habit of sitting down in Jan and looking at the fixtures for the remainder of the season for United and their principal opponents, and would tot up the points he thought each club woud obtain. Was never too far off, and the exercise revealed importance of grinding out unglamorous 1-0 results. Concentrated on maintaining a compact  midfield and yielded nothing.

In 2007, a Swedish striker Henrik Larson was on loan from Helsingborgs. Under pressure, he abandoned his attacking position and fell back into midfield to help dig out the result. At the end of the game, all players and staff stood up and applauded him for his effort, and at the end of the season they requested an extra Premier League winners’ medal for Henrik.

Work Rate

Parents were always working. Not much of a social safety net. His childhood made him incapable of coasting and was always irritated by people who frittered away natural talents because they weren’t prepared to put in the hours.

Fergie missed 3 games out of 1,500 – the death of his brother’s wife, his eldest son’s wedding, and to scout goalkeeper David de Gea.

Watched as many games as possible with Archie. Would travel to the games together, driving 3 hours each way. “Whenever we got tempted to skip a game and take the night off, we’d always say to each other, ‘if we miss one game in Glasgow, we’ll miss two.”

Admiration: Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wnger have formidable work ethic.

Unsung heroes admired most: Alex Smith (managing clubs in the north for 40 years) and Jim McLean (22 seasons at Dundee), Lennie Lawrence (1,000+ games for clubs like Charlton Athletic), John Rudge (managed Port Vale for 16 seasons, directed Stoke City for 14). Never gave up. Would watch reserve teams playing in front of a handful of fans.

Players: Tony Adams at Arsenal, Gianfranco Zola (relentless, never gave up) at Chelsea, Jaime Carragher at Liverpool. “Tony Adams was an ordinary player who turned himself into an outstanding leader through sheer hard work and application. What he lacked for in talent and pace, he more than compensated for in attitude.”

Fergie (to Carragher): Just a wee word, stop kicking our boys
Carragher: I’m going to kick every one of them

The very best players compete against themselves to become as good as they could be. Ronaldo, Beckham, the Neville Brothers, Cantona, Scholes, Giggs and Rooney would all have to be dragged off the training ground. Built-in desire to excel and improve.

Beckham would train in the mornings and afternoons, then show up in the evening to train with the schoolboys. Him and Ronaldo were always off the scales on the bleep test.

Networking

The most glittering example must have been the way we uncovered Cristiano Ronaldo. Carlos Queiroz, who had been born in Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony, was my assistant manager for a total of five years. He had encouraged me to strike up a relationship with Sporting Lisbon, because it seemed like a smart idea, so we started to exchange coaches so they could experience different settings. In 2001 we sent Jim Ryan, who spent 21 years on the coaching staff at United, to Lisbon, and he spoted a 16-year-old striker playing for Sporting’s youth team by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Part of the deal with Sporting Lisbon was that we would help open their new stadium with an exhibition match in August 2003, and so we flue directly to Portugal at the end of a summer tour of the United States. The day before the stadium opened, Jorge Mendes, Ronaldo’s agent, had told me that both Real Madrid and Arsenal were also in pursuit of his client. It was a brilliantly timed little aside, because the next day Ronaldo played against us and was unbelievable. At half-time I sent Albert Morgan, our kit man, to fetch Peter Kenyon, who was then the club CEO, and told him we were going nowhere until we had that boy signed. We huddled with Christiano, Jorge Mendes, and the president of Sporting Lisbon, and agreed on a price: £12.24 million. We arranged for a charter plane the following day to fly Ronaldo and his mother and sister, Jorge and Ronaldo’s lawyer, to Manchester. So thanks to the network created by Carlos Qeuiroz, we got six years of Ronaldo before he fulfilled his lifelong dream to play for Real Madrid, who paid united £80 million for the best player in the world.

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