Simon Kuper, co-author of SoccernomicsWhen Sir Richard Greenbury ran Marks and Spencer, he used to take Sir Alex Ferguson out for lunch and pump him for management tips. That was smart.
Manchester United’s manager celebrates his 70th birthday on December 31 as the most trophy-laden individual in football’s history. Sir Alex wins prizes not merely because United can afford excellent players.
Stefan Szymanski, economics professor at the University of Michigan, has compiled a “Soccernomics index” of overachieving managers in England: the men who have reached the highest league positions relative to their clubs’ wage budgets since 1974. Sir Alex ranks second, after Liverpool’s Bob Paisley.
In other words the Scot adds exceptional value to his teams. Better, he seems capable of doing so unto eternity.
This is not because he has a brilliant understanding of football. “Ferguson is not a genius,” writes his biographer Patrick Barclay. Brian Clough was a better judge of players; José Mourinho is a better tactician. As Peter Schmeichel, United’s former goalkeeper, said: “There are thousands of better coaches. But management? The handling of men? There’s nobody better.”
Here are some of Sir Alex’s management secrets:
● Identify yourself with your company’s brand. Sir Alex made himself unsackable at United partly by converting himself from mere employee into the embodiment of the club’s values. Doing that took study. After arriving at Old Trafford in 1986 he interviewed staff about United’s history, and listened to fans. He gradually absorbed three tenets of the club’s brand: United teams must attack, the world is against United and United is more a cause than a football club. When he said “I am like the keeper of the temple”, he meant that the cause had become almost unthinkable without him.
● Hone your strongest character trait into a weapon. In Sir Alex’s case it is his temper. Bobby McCulley, who played for the first club Sir Alex managed, East Stirlingshire, said: “I’ve never been afraid of anyone before but Ferguson was a frightening bastard from the start.” Sir Alex’s temper is genuine, but he has learnt how to use it.
His famed “hairdryer” treatment – when he berates someone from so close that his breath blows his victim’s hair – is finely honed. John McEnroe’s autobiography taught Sir Alex when to switch off his rage. The tennis player would use his temper early in a tournament, to intimidate opponents and umpires, but he would stop before the final, when he needed calm.
● Cultivate every interest group inside your company. Early in his career, at St Mirren, Sir Alex got sacked (for the only time in his career) after fighting with his chairman. He had not grasped that the man’s consent was central to his project. “Even if you hate your chairman, you have to find a way of getting on with it,” he concluded. Ever since he has worked to keep his club’s board, players, fans and sponsors onside. One leader of United’s fan base said Sir Alex would sometimes chat to him for hours on the phone, keen to know what supporters thought. Sir Alex worries much less about outsiders, such as journalists or referees.
● Gather information everywhere. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former aide and a friend of Sir Alex, recalls attending a lunch in Sir Alex’s honour at the League Managers Association. “You could feel his gravitational pull on other managers in the room,” Mr Campbell said. “There were dozens of managers there, past and present. He knows them all. He calls them all the time. He hoovers up information all the time.” Years after players have left United, they still get calls from Sir Alex. He cultivates his contacts unto death: Mr Barclay writes that perhaps nobody in football attends more funerals.
● Seek total control, but recognise when you cannot have it. Sir Alex once listed for Mr Campbell the three main qualities required for leadership: “Control. Managing change. And observation.” As any dictator knows, fear plus information equals control. Sir Alex knows everything about his players, even their toilet habits. (If someone goes to the toilet more than usual, he investigates.) Dissidents generally get exiled. However, after United’s best player, Wayne Rooney, flirted with joining Manchester City last year, Sir Alex forgave him. He knew Rooney was irreplaceable.
● Do not let other people cause you stress. Days before the 1997 UK election, Mr Campbell felt stressed. People already sensed that Mr Blair would win, and so they stopped bothering the prime minister-in-waiting with practical problems, and began bothering Mr Campbell instead. On the phone Mr Campbell confided to Sir Alex: “I’m feeling the pressure.” Sir Alex replied: “You know what I do in those circumstances? You’ve got to literally imagine you are putting blinkers on. People want to get into your space. Only you decide who gets into your space.” He advised Mr Campbell to tell petitioners: “I think you can resolve this yourself.”
● Remember that crises blow over. Sir Alex has been through so many: Eric Cantona’s karate kicking of a spectator, the boot he kicked at David Beckham in 2003 etc. Sir Alex never adjusts his strategy because he knows crises pass.
●Always be unsatisfied. “The sweetest moment for me,” he often tells interviewers, “is the last minute of a victory. After that it drains away quickly. The memory’s gone in half an hour. It’s like a drug, really. I need to re-enact it again and again to get that last-minute feeling, when you’re shouting at the referee, ‘Blow that bloody whistle’.” Sir Alex knows that satisfaction is fatal. Every trophy he wins is just a notch towards a target he never wants to meet.