‘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.
In a few lines Ferguson dismisses the Rock business as a misunderstanding. He claims that the principals have an agreement never to discuss the specifics of what happened. There is, of course, nothing to prevent him reflecting on his own motivations and decisions during the dispute except his own reluctance.
Mechanics of domination
Ferguson has always liked to talk about his politics, claiming to be on the left of the British Labour Party. The picture emerges here of a man fascinated not by political ideas per se but by the peculiar mechanics of domination.
Before the 1997 UK general election he had dinner with Tony Blair, but his advice to the PM in waiting had nothing to do with policy reform or agenda. Instead he passed on tips about how Blair could control his cabinet.
Later, when Blair had Gordon Brown trouble, he asked Ferguson how to deal with “superstars”. “My answer was: ‘The most important thing in my job is control. The minute they threaten your control, you have to get rid of them.’ ”
Ferguson’s support for Labour never wavered as his friends Blair and Alastair Campbell took the party in a strange new direction. Neither did his socialist principles make him reluctant to work for the Glazer family, whose 2005 takeover of United introduced a generation to the concept of leveraged buyouts. Once Ferguson was sure the Glazers would not interfere with his control, he gave them his full support.
When Snow needled him about these inconsistencies Ferguson insisted that Labour was simply part of his upbringing. You get the sense that his socialism is less a set of political convictions and more a nostalgic badge of identity, like the kilt he wore to his 25th anniversary dinner, the “Icumfigovan” sign that hung in his office or the fact that he called his Cheshire mansion Fairfields, after the shipyard where his father worked.
His sense of nostalgia comes across when he speaks of the “good solid people” he left behind in Govan. He always felt different. And now, with his millions, his knighthood, his horses and his wine, he is.
The last page has Ferguson recounting something he told his 1993 team: “Some people, when they have a holiday, just want to go to Saltcoats, 25 miles from Glasgow. Some people don’t even want to do that. They’re happy to stay at home or watch the birds and the ducks float by in the park. And some want to go to the moon. It’s about people’s ambitions.”
Curiously, this anecdote also appears on the last page of Managing My Life – but in that telling Ferguson goes beyond the pat conclusion of the self-help parable. “I know that in millions of lives, talk of ambition is an insulting irrelevance,” he adds. “I tell myself I identify with that last group [those who want to go to the moon]. Then I remember the people I was raised among . . . Ambition had nothing to do with their lives . . . Yet there was an incredible warmth of fellow feeling, a loyalty that was deep as the marrow . . . Loyalty has been the anchor of my life and it is something that I learned in Govan.”
And something he left behind along the way.