Up, close and pitch perfect
Following a lecture at the Harvard Business School late last year, where he enthralled students on the art of management, the defining mantra that Sir Alex Ferguson espoused was maintaining absolute authority and the ability to control change. At various junctures in Ferguson’s autobiography, ghost-written by The Telegraph’s Paul Hayward, the idea reappears time and again. At a certain level, this personal memoir does feel like succession of pages where he is out to settle scores with rivals and former colleagues. However, there are moments of genuine fondness as well. It is interesting to note how certain chapters are dedicated to individual players – David Beckham, Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney.
Transforming Manchester United from a provincial sporting powerhouse to a global brand in a span of 27 very successful years is a story worth telling. A key aspect of that narrative is the element of sustained success, which was brought about by maintaining complete control and effecting seismic shifts in professional football environment. One such instance of Ferguson establishing his authority is an infamous incident where he kicked a boot that accidently cut David Beckham above the eye.
After a 2-0 defeat to great rivals Arsenal, in the fifth round of the FA Cup in 2003, Ferguson took a swipe at Beckham for not fulfilling his defensive duties, particularly in one instance, which allowed Arsenal to score a goal. Beckham, allegedly unwilling to accept his mistake, swore at Ferguson, which resulted in a heated exchange, where Ferguson kicked a boot in the dressing room that accidently hit Beckham above the eye. The news broke out in the British media and Ferguson felt his authority undermined. ‘The authority is what counts. You cannot have a player taking over the dressing room. Many tried. The focus of authority at Manchester United is the manager’s office. That was the death knell for him (Beckham),’ he said. David Beckham was subsequently sold in 2003 to Spanish giants Real Madrid.
A similar moment of establishing his territorial hold over the club arose in 2005, against his then captain, Roy Keane. An absolute legend at the club, Roy Keane, was seen as an extension to Ferguson on the pitch. However, in an interview in 2005 with club-owned television channel MUTV, Keane publicly tore into some of his team mates for their apparent lack of performance on the pitch. Before it was aired, Keane was confronted by Ferguson and the players, where matters got ugly. Public criticism of one’s own players and openly lambasting the manager were anathema to Ferguson. Keane was sold to Celtic the following season.
Both Beckham and Keane were major figures inside the dressing room and formed a sizeable chunk of Manchester United’s dazzling public image. To push them through the door gave one an indication of the control Ferguson always sought. However, it was not just that. In one of their nose-to-nose confrontation, Keane allegedly told him, ‘You’ve changed!’ To which he replied, ‘Of course, I have.’
But the larger point that was driven home through this altercation was Ferguson’s ability to embrace and control change. He made a point to take on the latest developments in sports science, training methodologies for the players and technology. However, in terms of dealing with the millionaire, modern day superstars, Ferguson adapted his methods to be in command of his players. Earlier in his career as a manager, fear was a motivational tool he would use often. But at a time when footballers are cocooned by their agents, families and entourages, such intimidation may not necessarily work. Being a great judge of character, he would gauge how a player reacted to a rollicking as compared to a talk session. Nevertheless, the vital tenet didn’t change. ‘A central component of the manager-player relationship is that you have to make them take responsibility for their own actions, their mistakes, their performance levels, and finally the result. We were all in the results industry.’
On the football side of things, there were eulogies to the ‘Class of 92’, the home-grown youth players that won the 1992 FA Youth Cup. They moved up the ranks to form part of the core of that Man U side which went on to achieve unprecedented success in later years, culminating in the famous treble of 1999. The class included players like, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Neville brothers.
A chapter, apparently dedicated to Liverpool, is mostly filled with pot shots at former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez. Ferguson accuses him of turning their rivalry ‘personal’, during the 2008/09 league campaign, where United beat Liverpool for the title. However, when it comes to praise and eulogies, Ferguson goes all out in the chapter dedicated to Cristiano Ronaldo. The love for Ronaldo is almost paternal, as Ferguson was instrumental in turning him from a show pony to the world’s best.
‘We looked back at his time with us, with pride and gratitude,’ Ferguson gushes. There is a chapter dedicated to the Catalan giants, titled, ‘Barcelona (2009-11)-Small is Beautiful’. In this, he chronicles the successive UEFA Champions League final defeats he faced against them. He calls the 2011 FC Barcelona, side that United lost to in 2011, as ‘the best team I ever faced.’ This is quite the about-turn from a man, who in his youth would go to pubs to raise money for the labour strikes in the shipbuilding yards of Govan, Scotland. Control, at the end of the day, was all that mattered.