‘The most important thing in my job is control’
Alex Ferguson says loyalty is his ‘anchor’, but he seems to have left it behind along the way
Guard of honour: Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford in 2011, after 25 years as the manager of Manchester United. Photo by Michael Regan/Getty
Sir Alex Ferguson says he doesn’t read many books about sport, although he has a few touchstones. “Reading When Pride Still Mattered, the David Maraniss biography of Vince Lombardi, the great Green Bay Packers coach, I was thinking: ‘That’s me he’s writing about, I’m just like Lombardi.’ ”
Instead he prefers to read about other Great Men: “Presidents, prime ministers, Mandela, Rockefeller, Nixon and Kissinger, Brown, Blair, Mountbatten, Churchill, Clinton.”
A section of his library is reserved for despots. Joseph Stalin seems a particular favourite; although he’s not named in the index, Ferguson’s new autobiography mentions him three times. He could hardly admit that he identifies with Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union for about the same length of time as Ferguson managed Manchester United. When Jon Snow of Channel 4 News suggested in an interview last week that Ferguson’s habit of banning journalists had been “Stalinist”, Ferguson giggled: “Jesus God! That’s a bit . . . extreme.”
But you could imagine Stalin identifying with Ferguson when he writes something like: “If you have a worry about one of your staff, that tells you straight away there is a problem. It never made sense to me to go to bed every night worrying when you could do something to cut the problem away.”
Ferguson’s previous autobiography, Managing My Life, from 1999, was a commercial and critical success, winning Book of the Year at the British Book Awards in 2000. Ferguson had provided his ghostwriter Hugh McIlvanney with 250,000 words of notes, and the resulting text is dense, detailed and reflective. At the time he plainly intended it to be his final word.
My Autobiography has a more perfunctory feel. While the cover of Managing My Life depicted a beaming Ferguson in a tracksuit top, the new book shows him smirking rather smugly in the corporate uniform of shirt and tie, like a footballing Lee Iacocca or Jack Welch. Seeing him thus presented, it was no surprise to learn that he has signed up with the Harry Walker Agency, which can arrange the appearance of the Clintons, Kofi Annan or Dick Cheney at your corporate event, for a sizeable fee.
He addresses some of the major themes, episodes and characters of the second half of his career at Manchester United. The result reads like the transcript of a rambling Q&A session, or a giant ghostwritten newspaper column. There is little sense of a story, and no unifying theme beyond Ferguson’s obsession with power – or, as he likes to put it, control.
He purged Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham, Roy Keane and others when they threatened that control. Last week Keane asked why Ferguson feels the need to criticise players who helped to win him so many trophies. As Stalin could have told him, gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.
The chapter about Keane is the nastiest, and probably the most interesting. Ferguson portrays a man prone to frightening outbursts of uncontrolled rage, who is defined as a manager by an insatiable urge to spend his chairman’s money.
The characterisation won’t improve Keane’s prospects of finding another job in management. The reason Ferguson goes in so hard on his former captain might have to do with Keane’s unerring ability to find Ferguson’s raw nerves. During their rows he accused Ferguson of losing touch with the values that had made him great. “You’ve changed . . . You’re not the same man.” Most tellingly: “You brought your private life into the club with your argument with Magnier.”
“I never understood his obsession with the Rock of Gibraltar affair,” sniffs Ferguson, but playing dumb doesn’t suit him. It is clear why Keane saw significance in the Rock of Gibraltar story. Challenging United’s two largest shareholders for a share of the stallion’s stud fees suggested Ferguson had succumbed to a blindness born of distraction, an unseemly greed for money, and an arrogance in putting personal interests ahead of club stability.