Ferguson: a man for all seasons in soccer

Manchester United manager combined acute emotional intelligence with an urge to dominate


Yesterday the BBC posted an archive video showing Sir Alex Ferguson standing on the Old Trafford touchline after his appointment as Manchester United manager in November 1986.

Behind him the stands look small and ramshackle, under a grey sky which would not be visible were the shot filmed from the same angle in the 76,000-seat monster Old Trafford is today.

Ferguson tells Barry Davies about his excitement at joining United, his sense of responsibility to their millions of supporters, and the importance of feeling in football.

What is striking is the deep seriousness of the man, the intensity of his stare. Many other managers arriving in a new job would try to turn on the charm, crack a joke. Ferguson never smiles. He wears a side parting, navy blazer and tie, but looks as though he would be equally comfortable in the black coat and wide-brimmed hat of a 17th-century religious fanatic.

There was much more to Ferguson than fanaticism, as the players he didn’t promptly boot out of the club were to discover. Ferguson could never have endured for so long, and won so much, if anger and intimidation were all he had to offer.

If they are the qualities most readily associated with him, that may be because the angry side was the one he often showed to the media, whom he came to regard as the least important group of people he had to deal with on a regular basis.

The people who counted were those on the inside of his club – the players, staff and supporters – and insiders in the game, such as the countless other managers who will not hear a bad word said about him. These people got to see the other sides of a man for all seasons.

What is extraordinary about Ferguson is the extent to which his personality combines a palpable urge to dominate with acute emotional intelligence.

Where many contemporary managers spend hours analysing video footage and examining data, Ferguson has always understood that the game is about people.

He saw that the sport was constantly evolving and his teams and methods evolved constantly to match, but he also knew that human nature was a constant in a changing sport.

Although famed as a ranter and a raver, he has never been a great phrasemaker. There have been memorable lines, like the one about “knocking Liverpool off their f***ing perch,” or telling a roomful of journalists “youse are all f***ing idiots,” but these tend to be vituperative outbursts rather than Cloughian aphorisms.

His most famous quote was on winning the Champions League in 1999: “Football, bloody hell!” What is essentially a statement of inarticulacy endures because it captures his childlike love of the sport. Bill Shankly shared that romantic enthusiasm – as the journalist Hugh McIlvanney wrote of him: “How else could a manager persuade grown men that they could glory in a boys’ game?”

Great talkers
Instead Ferguson is one of the great talkers. He built his empire on a million little conversations. He knew how to get into players’ heads, he knew how to get what he wanted from club directors.

He portrayed his meetings with opposing managers after each game as a simple ritual of sportsmanship, but you wonder at the depth of knowledge and influence he amassed in 26 years of casual post-match chats.

Some 26 years and seven months. A reign that long would have made Ferguson the third-longest-serving Roman emperor, behind Augustus and Constantine, and the third-longest-serving pope, behind St Peter and Pius IX.

Each of these left a legacy that lasted far beyond their own time. Augustus established the Roman empire. Constantine founded the city now known as Istanbul. St Peter began the papacy, and Pius dreamed up papal infallibility.

Ferguson’s deeds may not echo through the ages like those of St Peter, but he too is concerned for his legacy, and that may be why United look likely to appoint David Moyes as his successor, rather than the serial winner José Mourinho.

It has been claimed that Mourinho was never a serious contender because he is too arrogant, aggressive and disruptive. Yet Ferguson’s contradictory personality shares many of those traits. He says he always puts the club first, yet he once sued United’s largest shareholders over a racehorse.

The problem with Mourinho is that while he towers over Moyes as a trophy-winner he is no club-builder, and that appears to be what Ferguson values most.

“In my early years,” Ferguson said yesterday, “the backing of the board, and Sir Bobby Charlton in particular, gave me the confidence and time to build a football club, rather than just a football team.”

There was Ferguson’s answer to those who suggest that by allowing him to remain at the club as a director and ambassador, United risk repeating the mistakes that followed the retirement of Matt Busby, who stayed on the board to overshadow a series of unfortunate successors.

Ferguson believes that he can be more like Charlton than Busby, lending his knowledge and influence as his successor struggles to establish himself and continue the work of building the club, not just the team.

Unlike Ferguson, Moyes will not arrive at United with trophies already won to reassure the doubters. But he has got the stare. We’ll soon see if he has got the rest.

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