On Friday the 25th of September, Manchester United fans spent an evening with Sir Alex Ferguson during his interview at Bridgewater Hall. In an hour-long discussion with Dan Walker from the BBC, Ferguson was in a reflective mood as he discussed leadership and the lessons he had learned during his 43-year long coaching career. The 73-year-old’s new book LEADING has recently been published and discusses how his leadership skills can be applied both on and off the pitch.
The Scotsman spent 26-and-a-half glittering years at Old Trafford winning 38 major trophies, including 13 Premier League Titles and two in the Champions League. Sir Alex also enjoyed great success managing Aberdeen—in particular, winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983, defeating Spanish giants Real Madrid.
Sports Editor Will Kelly was present at the interview and discusses some of the key talking points of the night. With no messing about, let’s take a look at some of the most talked about and most controversial points!
World Class Players
One of the biggest talking points to have come out of the book has been Ferguson’s claim that he only ever had four world class players at Manchester United—Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona.
Ferguson said he could not believe the level of scrutiny the media had given about this, and proceeded to explain in a calm and effective manner his thoughts. Ferguson explained that as a kid, you would always quite naturally look up to the attackers. Not only were they the most entertaining, but they were also most likely to be the “game changers”.
He continued with some analysis of the world’s most prestigious individual football award, the Ballon d’Or. Whether for the right or wrong reason, Ferguson pointed out that in the last 50 years, only two defenders had won this—Franz Beckenbauer and Fabio Cannavaro. The quartet chosen were simply “game changers” and Ferguson stressed that he felt unbelievably privileged to have managed so many top players during his managerial career. Quite defiantly, he declared that the four players he had chosen “Didn’t win the trophies, the team won the trophies.”
Appointment of David Moyes
Describing the appointment, Ferguson kept referring to the “process” behind the decision. Was there really ever one? Ferguson kept talking of a “process,” yet never really unveiled what this process really was.
One cannot argue in his sentiments that at the time of his retirement, David Moyes had “deserved his chance.” He even said that the media even agreed that Moyes was a suitable candidate for the job. For those who have analysed the fall of Moyes from Manchester United, many point the finger at Ferguson in that he had left an ageing squad for Moyes.
Ferguson certainly does not see it quite that way, and makes his view clear in the book: “You would have thought I had left 11 corpses on the steps of a funeral home.”
Complacency is a disease
Dan Walker was desperate to ask what Ferguson had said to the European Ryder Cup team in 2010, as many of the players had spoken of the impact Ferguson had on them to come from behind and defeat the USA.
At first, Ferguson recounted a funny story with Billy Foster, a golf caddie working with the European team. He was a massive Leeds United fan, and scolded to Ferguson “You robbed Eric Cantona off us!”
“But we paid for him!” responded Ferguson, referring to the £1 million Manchester United paid to Leeds United in order to acquire the services of Cantona which was described to be the bargain of the century.
Speaking about the Ryder Cup team of 2010, he touched on the issue of complacency and how this was a “disease” for individuals and organisations who had enjoyed success. Speaking about Manchester United in his book, he said he that liked to think that “United’s ability to avoid lapsing towards complacency was one of the characteristics that distinguished the club.”
He admitted that they were not always successful but were always eager to “stamp out the slightest trace of complacency,” something that organisations should look to accomplish. In particular to the build-up to the games, Ferguson said he never thought that victory would ever be in the bag. Nothing was ever guaranteed.
During the talk, he recounted his visit to the US Women’s Open Championship final in 2012. Victoria Azarenka was on the verge of beating Serena Williams, after being 5-3 up in the final set. Ferguson vividly remembers Azarenka giving a fist pump to her family and friends in the box. From that point on, he said, it went downhill. She lost the game she was serving to win the championship, and Williams went on to win the trophy.
Turning back to what he had said to the European Ryder Cup team, the USA were leading the Europeans by 10 points to 6 and only had to win 4.5 points from the remaining 12 in order to win the trophy. He told the team to focus on one point at a time because it is human nature to get complacent. The moment that happens, things start to go wrong and the Europeans could swing the momentum in their favour.
He described how players would forget what they are supposed to do, and were incapable of calming themselves down. Eventually, teams would capitulate and sure enough, this is what happened to the USA team, and the European team came off as famous winners.
He also retold a story to the European team—one that he had originally told Fabien Barthez during his United days. He described how geese would fly 5,000 miles from Canada to France. They fly in a V-formation, but the second ones don’t fly—they’re the subs for the first ones. And then the second ones take over, so its “teamwork.
“If one goose falls ill, two always have to go with him. What I was saying was I’m only asking you to go 38 games in the league to win it, I’m not asking you to fly 5,000 miles!”
Sure enough, as the European team celebrated with the trophy, a gaggle of geese flew over the team. The team commissioned a painting of this moment, and it sits proudly in Ferguson’s office. One can only think that the issue of complacency certainly came into play in England’s defeat to Wales in the Rugby World Cup. Wales kept chipping away at the points deficit and broke away with a try to equalise the game. England appeared shocked and in disarray as they had been leading the entire match, and sure enough, they gave away the penalty that Wales kicked to win the match.
One of Ferguson’s key tactics was “communication.” He described that, in any organisation, it was very important to have constant communication with all the staff, whether it’s the owners or chairman, tea ladies or even the people in charge of the kit.
In doing so, you create a spine of support, which is particularly important when results are not going your way. Ferguson also told an anecdote about Kath in the laundry room, telling him off for not giving her six weeks of money for the lottery tickets she had got him!
Certainly the interaction with people surrounding the club is something that Ferguson misses the most. He revealed, “I miss the people, the buzz about the place. The consolation is as an ambassador and director, I can still watch the team.”
Manchester United’s current form
Ferguson was visibly delighted with David De Gea’s decision to stay with the club—something he is very proud of as it was Ferguson who brought De Gea to the club in the first place. Asked about the chances of adding to the string of trophies won during Ferguson’s 26 years, he said that “De Gea can win United the league this season.”
He also praised new signing Anthony Martial, who has never panicked when through on goal. On Martial’s coolness in his finish, Ferguson explained that you cannot teach that and that some players are “Born with that ability.”
One thing Ferguson made abundantly clear was that he had no regrets, largely down to the fact he had had so many great moments. “ I think we should had have had more than three Champion’s Leagues,” he added, “but I can’t look at the career I had at United as a failure.”
Sir Alex Ferguson left the stage to a standing ovation, with myself and many alike visibly delighted to have spent a bit of time in the same room with a true legend to the game.