Sir Alex Ferguson

01 Apr 2011


One Scottish First Division championship, three Scottish Premier League titles, four Scottish Cups, a Scottish League Cup, two European Cup Winners’ Cups, two European Super Cups, the Inter-Continental Cup, the FIFA World Club Cup, 11 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, nine Charity/Community Shields, four League Cups and two Champions Leagues. Forty-six trophies, one man... Sir Alex Ferguson

Two thousand football matches... even taken in isolation, disregarding the time spent in preparation and post-match reflection, that still amounts to a solid 3,000 hours (or 125 days) spent on the touchline.

For any one person to get through such a workload is, in itself, extraordinary. But for someone to do it at such a high level, with consistent and enduring success… that moves beyond extraordinary and into the realm where new words and phrases have to be coined.

Everyone thinks they know Sir Alex Ferguson: the working-class Glasgow upbringing; the breaking of the Old Firm dominance in Scottish football; the move to the ‘impossible job’ of reawakening what was then the biggest sleeping giant in world football; reportedly one game away from the sack; the European Cup snatched from the jaws of defeat (“Football… bloody hell!”); dominance of the Barclays Premier League like no other… this paragraph alone could go on and on.

But people don’t know Sir Alex Ferguson. At least, people outside of the game don’t know him the way that those within the game do. People outside the game may know about the post-match glass of fine red wine shared with the opposition manager, but they probably don’t know that one of the first calls received by numerous sacked managers is from the Manchester United boss, a call to see if there’s anything he can do; most people outside the game don’t know about his tireless work on behalf of managers and coaches at all levels through the League Managers Association, and most people outside the game don’t know how much he’s revered by his peers.

One small anecdote sums this up. It was suggested at one stage that The Manager should carry a regular feature entitled ‘My Hero’, where a current manager would talk about the man who had inspired them the most. But the idea had to be scrapped when it was discovered that it would most likely have been about the same man in every issue.

As his friend Walter Smith (who assisted Sir Alex during his brief spell as Scotland manager in 1986 and again at Manchester United in 2004) says: “When I go to UEFA for conferences with other Champions League managers, the respect in which he is held is tangible and thoroughly deserved.”

Although he announced his retirement before the beginning of the 2001/02 season, Sir Alex quickly saw the error of his ways and has gone on to deliver yet another decade of success; his reputation as a provider of great quotes reached new heights with last year’s “Retirement is for young people” speech. His appetite for the game remains undiminished and he has made it clear that he will continue in his current role for as long as his health allows. All the signs are that could be some considerable time.

As Sir Alex’s one-time rival (and firm friend), the former Arsenal manager George Graham puts it: “His biggest strength is his desire… and age has nothing to do with that. Alex has always had that desire and he’s still got it.”

The Manager caught up with Sir Alex at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground where he reflected on those 2,000 games and outlined how he intends to continue his relentless quest for success into next season and beyond.

Cast your mind back to 1974, to the eve of your first match as East Stirling manager. Did you feel prepared, or were you anxious and losing sleep?

Anyone who goes into a new job always has that trepidation and apprehension about it and whether they’re going to do well. I always remember my first day as an apprentice toolmaker; I was sent down for a bottle of ‘blue gas’. The man in charge of the storeroom was an old rascal and made me look for a bottle of ‘blue gas’ for about half an hour. The superintendent came along and said, “What the hell are you doing standing there?” and I said, “I’m waiting for a bottle of blue gas.” He laughed and said, “Well you’ll be standing there for a long time... get  back up to your bloody machine!” (laughs)

When I started out as East Stirling manager I was part time. I managed to gather 13 players by mixing free transfers with young players. My first match was a friendly against Kettering and the next week we played against Tranmere Rovers, with Steve Coppell playing centre-forward… quite an introduction. Looking back, it was easy to work with 13 players; it had nothing like the complexity that I face nowadays.

When you’re young you go through every aspect and ask yourself if you’ve picked the right team, you regurgitate all of your ideas and look at your notes again. Nowadays we spend a lot of time looking at videos, checking up on our opponents. We have a good set-up in terms of the video analysis people who do all that work for us and we just have to cherry pick what we need.

You were only 32 when East Stirling appointed you. Is that why you can relate to young managers today and make yourself available to them as a sounding board?

More than ever, management is a precarious industry. I say to all young managers that the first thing they need is a good chairman; they also need luck and they need to make sure they’re prepared to make sacrifices for the job, because this is an unremitting industry. It’s a results industry, as we all know, but you can help yourself by being totally committed to that alone.

Scottish football was pretty strong back then; Jim McLean took Dundee United to the semi-final of the European Cup, and Aberdeen and Dundee United were really the strongest teams in Scotland for five years in a row.  Winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup was special because Aberdeen was a small club. If I look back I do tend to think how did we manage to beat Bayern Munich, who were the favourites, and then beat Real Madrid in the final?

Would you say that management comes naturally to you?

I think I was born with most things that you need to go into management. I was always a good decision-maker as a young kid. I think my trade union background helped me; I was a shop steward at 19 and my dad and my mother were both shop stewards for a while, so I had that leaning towards being in control of situations. Even as a player I always had a will to make sure we were going to win.

You make a point of supporting managers who lose their jobs; phoning them, inviting them to United’s training ground...

My sympathy goes out to managers who lose their jobs. There’s been a lot of unusual sackings lately, which I’ve found hard to understand. Roberto Di Matteo was probably one of the most surprising of the season because West Brom were playing arguably some of the most attractive football in the Barclays Premier League and were scoring goals. If you’re a supporter of West Brom you want them to stay up –and the threat of them maybe going down is probably why Roberto has lost his job – but you are watching players who are enjoying themselves, playing good football and scoring goals. I would rather watch a team playing the right way, whether they went down or not.

The LMA recently hosted a lunch to celebrate your 2,000-match landmark, which was attended by a host of managers and coaches. What were you thinking as you looked around at their faces?

I was really pleased to see all of the older managers there; it meant a great deal to me that they’d taken the time to come to London. Don Howe, Lawrie McMenemy, Lennie Lawrence, Keith Burkinshaw… all these guys were managers when I started in England. I was really proud and I referred to them in my speech as ‘the dinosaurs’. I think they enjoyed that because that is what they are; they’ve lasted and been there for years and years and are still figures in the game because they have not lost that magnetism.

Quite a few of the Scottish managers came down, including Walter Smith, Craig Brown and Archie Knox. I was pleased to see George Graham there, too, because when I first came down to England we had these great battles. Although we’ve become great friends now, at the beginning it wasn’t that way and when Arsenal and United played it was always war. George Graham is still a really good, top manager.

You are revered for your accomplishments throughout world football, which must be a very surreal feeling. How do you keep your feet on the ground?

It’s all about how you view yourself. Some people have a high opinion of themselves, sometimes brought about by arrogance, but sometimes it’s just supreme confidence. I prefer to think about what’s ahead and what next I can achieve and I think that has kept my feet on the ground quite well. I’ve never got carried away with it. My wife, Cathy, is fed up with the whole thing; when Alastair Campbell phoned her about my Knighthood she said to him, “Do you not think he’s had enough rewards?” You’ll not find a thing about my career in the house at all. Everything is either in the bank or in the museum at Old Trafford. She’s unbelievable, I can’t even take a football book home or she’ll say, “What are you doing with that?” (laughs).

You don’t seem to have had too much trouble embracing change.

It’s a horrible thing to say, but you can’t be sentimental in this job. I love the players that I’ve had and I’ve been very, very fortunate to have had great players who have come through my career with me. At Aberdeen there were the likes of Miller, McLeish and Kennedy, who were a bunch of players that were very loyal to me. At United I’ve had Giggs, the Nevilles, Scholes and Butt, who represent the spirit of theclub. All of the players that I have had here have played a part in my success. So when I see something happening, as in the cases of Nicky Butt and Phil Neville, I’ve had to release them to other opportunities. It was getting to the stage that I was terrified of talking to them and telling them they weren’t playing. It wasn’t fair to them because they were good players and played a big part in the resurrection of Manchester United. When the time came for me to let them go I knew

I was cutting really important, loyal strings and I didn’t enjoy it.

My job is to manage United, to produce results and I am no different from any other manager. I’ll not be regarded in the same way if I’m not successful. Everything to me is black and white; if it’s on the football field and I see something that I feel is a retrograde step for the club I have to act and make decisions, which is something that I have always been good at. I can make quick decisions and I am lucky that way. In management you have to be able to make decisions; sometimes you’re not right, but that doesn’t concern me too much because the important thing is being able to do it.

What facets of change have you liked in your management career; what’s been exciting?

When we moved to Carrington training ground I think it brought about the biggest change in me personally  because our previous training ground, The Cliff, was so claustrophobic. Your staff were on top of you, all of the players were on top of you and there was no room. When we moved to Carrington the expanse of this place expanded our thoughts in terms of where do we go next in terms of progression, what can we add to this place. For example physiotherapy. It was always my dream to have four or five physiotherapists, masseurs, sports science etc and all of these things have made us even better.

I’ve enjoyed taking the decisions that I knew were right and it probably all goes against my thoughts of 25 years ago when I believed I could do everything. That’s the unfortunate thing about being young; you think you can do everything. So the lessons have got to be learned on the way forward and today, at 69, I’m still looking to make changes. I want to put the club in a more controlled situation and want to spend more time as an observer; rather than working the way I did way back when I was involved in the youth team and reserves. I delegate better now.

How do you cope with the stress that comes with this job?

I don’t think there’s an easy way to do it. Maybe it’s your nature, but it’s also about your upbringing and your core values that you’ve been given foundations of, right through from your teachers at school or your parents. I was fortunate in the sense that the early part of me was through my parents. My personality kicked in at around 19 years of age when my personality changed and I became more determined and more assertive about who I was. I started debating issues with my father; my mother thought I was a communist because I was reading books on Karl Marx, which of course I wasn’t, I was a trade unionist and I was socialist-minded like my father. My father was always supportive of me about reading books, my mother just worried because it’s your mother’s job to worry and when she saw me reading books like that she’d say, “What’s happening here, why are you reading these books?” If I’d been reading The Beano or Superman comics she’d have thought that was great. That’s when my personality changed and I became an aggressive mind in terms of trying to learn and I read a lot of history.

Is there one team talk you’ve given that stands out above the others?

It’s difficult to say because I think that I pay attention to all of my team talks and I always try to think of something of value for the players to think about. You’ve got to create in the players’ mind this thirst for knowledge, a thirst for learning and, most importantly, a thirst to take responsibility.

The problem for me now is the number of team talks that I’ve given over the years and these players have listened to them time and time again. I look for new ideas and new routes of motivation and new discussion points that the players will find interesting, and a lot of the times I think of human nature.

Finally, how would you describe your journey in management?

I would never have expected to achieve what I have achieved. There have been periods where there have been sudden leaps. Going to Aberdeen took me to a different level and it was an opportunity I grasped. When we won our first trophy at Manchester United there was that sudden leap of confidence and a sense that I was safe in the job.