What can leaders and managers learn from the greatest British football manager of all time?
Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has announced his retirement, almost 30 years to the day since he won his first European trophy with Aberdeen. Little did East Stirling know, in June 1974, that they had begun the management career of a man who would go on to win 49 trophies over the next 39 years. Ferguson’s career saw him quickly climb the ladder to the top of Scottish football with Aberdeen. His success there, including breaking the Old Firm’s dominance in the league and cup, saw Manchester United’s board turn to him to rejuvenate the club who had powerlessly watched Liverpool dominate the English game in the Eighties. Ferguson created a dynasty beyond their dreams at Old Trafford, winning 13 Premier League trophies in 27 seasons and his most cherished prize – the Champions’ League – twice.
But what are the skills that have made ‘Fergie’ arguably the best British manager of all time?
Anyone who knows anything about Sir Alex Ferguson knows about the ‘hairdryer treatment’: his legendary practice of dressing down the dressing room. While it’s not an approach likely to work in most management situations, it has been the basis of a hugely successful career for Ferguson. He sets his teams exceptionally high standards and expects them to be met. The week after Aberdeen won the Cup Winners’ Cup, they also won the Scottish Cup. But despite a genuinely historic season, Ferguson was unhappy, giving a famous post-match interview in which he slated the Aberdeen performance. He later backtracked over the comments, but they betrayed his own drive – even winning was not enough.
That drive was never more evident than in Manchester United’s unlikely 1999 Champions’ League win. Outplayed for most of the final and lucky to be only one goal down, United entered extra time more in hope than expectation. Incredibly, they not only equalised, but scored twice in a matter of minutes to rip the trophy from Bayern’s grasp. The shell-shocked Germans had learned a hard lesson: no Ferguson side is finished until the game is over. His teams have made a habit of scoring late goals, not least because Ferguson has instilled them with his own drive, passion and refusal to concede defeat.
“You can’t win anything with kids!” may well haunt Alan Hansen to his grave. The commentator’s flippant dismissal of Ferguson’s young side in 1995, after they lost the first game of the season to Aston Villa, seemed unremarkable at the time. But those kids included Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the substitute (who scored their only goal) David Beckham. These players would go on to form the core of the side that won the ‘double double’ that season and graced Old Trafford for the next decade.
The single-minded Ferguson is not one to listen to detractors or accepted wisdom. He is, and always has been, his own man. Once convinced of an approach, he will follow it through, regardless of bumps along the way. Nearly twenty years later, United fans still goad Hansen with his quote and rarely, if ever, is Ferguson’s judgement questioned.
One of the greatest challenges top managers face is keeping 30 highly-paid superstars happy, under control and performing at their peak. Ferguson has had plenty of challenges in this area – notably having to negotiate difficult relationships with David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. But possibly his greatest challenge – and success – was with Eric Cantona.
The Frenchman had struggled at previous club Leeds United, with manager Howard Wilkinson unable to get the best from him. Ferguson did this by changing his usual disciplinarian approach. Cantona was allowed free reign because of his talismanic effect on the field. When he flaunted the manager’s strict black tie instructions for a formal event, Ferguson shocked the squad by laughing off Cantona’s eccentricity. But this ‘softly, softly’ approach worked. Eventually, returning the respect Ferguson had shown him, Cantona began observing dress codes, while also delivering match-winning performances.
Perhaps, however, one of the greatest lessons to take from Sir Alex’s career is not to attempt to mimic the man himself – his specific methods do not necessarily translate away from the sport – but to recognise the structure of his success. At both Aberdeen and Manchester United, Ferguson started slowly. He didn’t have an immediate impact, and in fact there were calls for him to be sacked from Old Trafford after a first few unproductive seasons. But the club chose to weather the storm and show faith in their man and their decision. Thirty eight trophies later, we can safely assume they’re glad they did.