“Inspiring them to believe that the impossible is possible was what I tried to achieve. People thrive on confidence. Saying to someone well done can do wonders. They’re the best two words ever invented; it doesn’t take any other superlatives. I always tell teachers to keep that in mind.”
Sir Alex Ferguson CBE gave an insight into his more genteel side, a trait that has not often gleamed much attention due to his irascible nature tending to hog the headlines over the past decades.
On his return to Glasgow Caledonian University, where he generously donated £500k to the Foundation and funds his self-titled Mobility Scholarships, he delivered a captivating hour of anecdotes and advice as part of an event hosted by the Student Leaders Programme. It was clear by the queue of people waiting to take pictures with him more than an hour after the event that the legendary football manager, who grew up in the humble streets of Govan, did indeed imbue over 500 students with the sense that there is no ceiling to what they can achieve.
A formidable character whose ability to intimidate and galvanise are equally respected, but the genesis of Ferguson’s now iconic character lies in his upbringing in the industrial heartland of Glasgow.
“The role models in my early life were my parents. They gave me values. I had a school teacher at Govan and we had the worst truancy rates in Glasgow. She was a tyrant. She went round every house and told every parent that if their child wasn’t in school she would be back round. When she retired she bequeathed to me her belt. She said that I would have known more about it than anyone else!
Recalling the first time he had to display the conviction which came so naturally to him, Ferguson spoke of his time working as a plater’s helper on the shipping docks.
He said: “There are certain transitional moments in my life that stand out. As an apprentice – I would only have been 18 or 19 at the time – the workers were planning a national strike, but they told us we must have a two-thirds majority. My boss told me I wasn’t to vote for it but I said “the whole country’s waiting for us” and did it anyway, even though I didn’t want to fall foul of the management.”
Single-mindedness is an aspect of managers’ make-up that is generally deemed to be a prerequisite and, although Ferguson admits he was initially too headstrong for his own good, he managed to tame his instincts.
“I was young when I realised I was prepared to make a quick decision, but becoming a coach was a learning process. I really wanted to rule the world as a young man and wanted to run everything. I was at Aberdeen when I knew I couldn’t anymore. I didn’t delegate in my younger days but you don’t have as much energy when you are older.
“I brought Archie Knox with me and one day he asked me why I brought him here. He said that I shouldn’t be doing the coaching, I should be supervising. I knew he was right but I wouldn’t admit it as I was adamant that I didn’t want anyone to threaten my authority.
“Observing when you are coaching in the midst of an exercise and when you move to the side are totally different. I could then see everything. It’s not what you see, it’s what you miss.”
Fast-forward a quarter of a century and Ferguson was not only faced with having to take on board other opinions and delegate tasks, staring him in the face were algorithms and statistical analysis of opposition teams.
“After we moved to Carrington in 2002/2003 there was a new trend for statistics – and I’m quite a dinosaur for relying on my eyes. I told Steve McNally to produce a paper that proved statistics could improve us by a few per cent, even though I knew the answer. He did, and it was amazing what you could learn: how far teams run, how many sprints they make. It was a great help to me in deciding how I would play against teams.”
At the helm of one of England’s powerhouse clubs for 27 years, he created an environment where everyone was equal throughout the club regardless of prestige, and made himself a visible symbol of the culture he embodied.
“You don’t want to be sitting in an office but never seen. I always said good morning and got to know their family background because if you do, they will support you. Once I had established my position it was amazing the number of people that came into my office.
“I used to play pranks on the girls in the kitchen. They’d turn round and I’d burn them with teaspoons. Carol in the kitchen, a real Salford girl, hard as nails, when I went to put on my fancy suit she would say to me ‘I’m not having you go out dressed like a tramp, Alex!’ and make me change again.
“When we won a trophy I always made sure there was champagne out on a Monday for all the staff to thank them because they are the people that really matter. The players had had their celebrations.”
Many of those high-profile players left Old Trafford in acrimonious circumstances, but trust is the one thread which runs through the relationships he had with every one of his charges. Surrounded by the vitality of youth and of men in their prime physical condition, Ferguson was a father figure to many of the class of ’92. He thrived off of their presence just as they absorbed his wisdom.
“I always enjoying being around young people. I joined Manchester United because they were near the relegation zone. But what worried me was not relegation, it was creating the foundations of a football club that could rely on young people.
“Even now, Giggs and Scholes will phone me. They feel that they owe me that loyalty because I gave them a chance. Then they developed their character and I, of course, then depended on their opinions, as they grew up in my mirror. It’s important to listen and to trust. Trusting people is about not expecting anything back to start with but once they trust you, you get it all back.
“I would explain a couple of games before to them that I was resting players. I’m sure Gary Neville still scratches his head as to why I left him out for four games. He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t play him against some of the weaker teams yet bring him in against Liverpool.”
Now 75 years-old, he oversaw a plethora of changes to the landscape of the English game, but four in particular whose impact is inter-linked had a profound impact: the commercialisation engendered by the Premier League; the ensuing influx of foreign talent; the rise of player power brought about by that globalised approach; and the resulting diversity of tactics employed.
Adapting to both societal changes and progressive footballing trends was the only way to survive.
“Maintaining consistency and evolving was the biggest challenge. I was helped because of the foundations put in place by David Gill and myself that we were able to look 2 or 3 years ahead. Getting across that winning mentality was difficult to do at times, especially with the foreign players as background checks were difficult to do.
“One year I had 22 different nationalities at United, which I loved, but it sometimes takes more time for them to understand. I depended on the older players in the dressing room. They soon told them the mentality.
“I realised players were fragile; they’re brought up with their parent’s doing everything, driving them to school, which I understand is all to do with safety, but it is taking away the natural animal inside.
“When was the last time you saw a boy climbing a tree? They don’t know how to, that’s the problem. Jose Mourinho even brought in a circus act to teach his players how to fall as they didn’t know how to!”
Setting standards was a responsibility he bestowed upon himself in order for them to filter down. The camaraderie and sense of togetherness forged between his various squads was no coincidence.
Ferguson, while acquiescing to some modern consensus, preserved certain non-negotiables such as the emphasis on cultivating a family feel within the training base, which would act as both a second home and a place of work.
“The standard of our training was the basis of our performance. Every game I ever managed I expected to win because the training was good preparation. If you believe in something stick by it, because if you don’t it confuses people and they question what you are about. Always be consistent.
“When we were moving to Carrington (training ground), the architects came to me with their plans and said that they had designed two rooms for eating; one for the staff and one for the players. I told the architects at Carrington that I wanted one dining room for everyone and I didn’t care if it messed up their plans. Everyone would eat together.
“It has a gym that is about five or six times the size of this room. It’s a fantastic facility and is one of the main reasons why we were so successful. But when you walk into a big room like that it can be like walking into a living room with no paintings and no wallpaper. When I saw it for the first time I couldn’t believe what he’d done with it. He did an amazing job so that when you walked in there were big screens and posters up everywhere.”
Fourth officials were no strangers to the effects of Ferguson’s aura. The infamous phrase ‘Fergie time’, in reference to the perceived generosity of stoppage time added on at the end of Manchester United games under his stewardship, highlighted how he could manipulate.
However it was through the medium of newspapers where Ferguson would really get his message across, so much so that it has even become an art-form in the Premier League. Often, he would take the pressure off his players after a defeat by making a controversial statement, but his due diligence of those asking the questions was a skill picked up from another Scottish footballing legend.
“My football idol was Jock Stein. I worked with him for two years as his assistant. He was a great football man and networker. I was never interested in that, but he knew everything about journalists, which pubs they went to, which bookies they went to.
“The man never slept. We used to sit in McDonald Hall until late and I’d be wanting to get the train home but he used to say ‘you will get sleep in the afternoon’ so we would be there until 2 in the morning.
“I controlled my press conferences. It comes from results; when you lose a game it will be on the front page and when you win a game it will be on the back. I had advice from a guy at Granada TV so I made sure I knew the route they were going to take on the first question. The media did change over the last 20 years, it’s 24 hour now. The Daily Mail and the Sun are knackered so they sensationalise everything.”
Closing the event, Ferguson picked his most memorable game in charge: the last-gasp 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final to secure the treble. It encapsulated the spirit under Ferguson, the never-say-die attitude that brought his teams back from the brink on so many occasions.
Asked if there was an element of luck to that game, Ferguson quipped: “It happened too many times for it to be an accident.”
Picture courtesy of www.GCU.ac.uk