Wanted - A manager who can develop a successful youth system, with qualifications in psychology who is able to create a siege mentality and motivate well paid people to go that extra mile for the club. The applicant must display an ability to constantly repeat success and hire and fire to suit the needs of the club. This role requires a strong character who is able to move with the times and get the best from a sleeping giant. Applications in writing to Martin Edwards, Manchester United football club, Old Trafford.
The job specification above could have been what our beloved Manchester United FC were looking for back in November 1986. More so, this is exactly what we got. Few, if any of us could ever have foreseen the absolute transformation that our club has gone through in the twenty five years of Alex Ferguson's reign. It hasn't all been great, but on the whole we have quite a lot to thank the man for.
On cold October evenings with the rain pelting off the roof, or a glorious May day with the sun shining from the heavens, Manchester United has always been a huge part of our lives. Ferguson has become the backbone of Manchester United. These days, he is almost as permanent a fixture as Old Trafford itself. When I speak about him to fans of other clubs the response is usually along the same lines. They mumble insults about the man yet end with things like 'a brilliant manager though' or 'why doesn't he just retire?'That grudging admiration from fans of other clubs is testament to the job the man has done over the last quarter of a century. Ferguson rubs people up the wrong way, he tramples on protocol (like giving interviews to the BBC) and he bullies those who stand in the way of United's success. But sometimes him doing that is just brilliant to watch as we know he's going to deliver for Manchester United.
As great a manager as he is, sometimes Fergie has got lucky in certain situations. Take for example the summer of 1995. Did he really know how good Phil Neville, Beckham, Scholes and Butt were going to be? They had played a handful of first team games and looked promising, but as regular first teamers they were unproven. By his own admission Ferguson 'never got off the phone' after Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis departed leaving him the task of trying to sign new players. Maybe it just so happened that with those senior players leaving, the Manager's hand was forced and with no new signings, a number of younger players were catapulted into regular starting berths in the first team. Not all of the made it mind you and John O'Kane, Terry Cooke and John Curtis for example all left the club without any major achievements in the first team. Luck or no luck though, it was Ferguson who created the system by which these players came through the ranks at the club. If it was lucky that no big names joined united, it was sheer bravery to give the young players their chance. How many other managers in England could have hauled back Newcastle’s mammoth twelve point lead with a bunch of youngsters running everyone ragged? Alan Hansen may still rue telling the world United would win nothing with kids, but after that 3-1 opening day league defeat at Villa Park maybe many of us thought that. Maybe even Fergie thought that. But his response was not to panic, to encourage, cajole and get inside the minds of these youngsters. By the time the FA Cup semi final came around not even going behind to Chelsea was able to stop the team. United were now doing it all over the pitch, youth, experience or whoever. Cantona heading off his own goal line, youth product Beckham and the then record signing Andy Cole with the goals. Liverpool turning up for the FA Cup final in their ‘spice boy’ suits was a bonus – I’m pretty sure this played a small part in his pre-match team talk. Seeing a legend like Steve Bruce not even make the cup final squad showed the youngsters were edging out the older players.
In other areas too Ferguson benefited from luck but turned it into glory. In October 1992, United were stuttering and failing to score goals. Five wins in the first fifteen league games was hardly championship form, but a chance phone call between Howard Wilkinson and Martin Edwards ended up with Eric Cantona joining United. Suddenly on a wave of French creativity mixed with the talented hard-working side Ferguson had assembled United raced to the title. Over the next six seasons the manager did a remarkable job of maintaining success at home while doing everything he could to lift the European Cup. Again in that 1999 Champions League final luck played a part with Bayern hitting the woodwork twice at 1-0 up. But to say that final win was lucky would be foolhardy. Ferguson had gone into the game without his two central midfield players Keane and Scholes and had to play Ryan Giggs as a right winger. When his side smelled blood they were ruthless in their pursuit of glory. Having got to 1-1 most sides would have shut up shop and prepared for extra time, but not Ferguson's United. From Bayern's kick off, United won the ball back, pressurised Bayern & forced them to cave in. That was not something coached or worked out on a tactics board. It was instinct the players picked up from their gaffer – never give in and take your chances when they come. So many United teams have done that under Ferguson to the point where you have to say luck has only got the manager so far. Manchester United are one of the few teams in world football who even at 3-0 down cannot be written off as Sheffield Wednesday found in December 1992 and Tottenham found in September 2001. Under Ferguson, United simply never give in.
I have loved some of the psychological ploys Fergie has employed on his players & rivals over the years. After winning the title in 1993 he told the players he had a list of six of them in an envelope who thought they had it made after that first title win. He would open the envelope if United were not champions in 1994. Of course the title was retained and nobody ever knew who those six were, but his plan worked a treat. His talk with the players prior to the 1999 Champions League final was simple. He told them 'at the end of the night the cup will be six feet from you. Lose and you can't even touch it'. In a few words he painted the difference between winning and losing to each player. Seldom could so few words give the players an image of the gap between joy and despair. Many people recall how Ferguson wound up Keegan to bring the 1996 title to old Trafford. Personally, I think his handling of the 2003 title run in was even better. Ex Arsenal Captain Tony Adams visited Old Trafford to give a lecture on the dangers of alcohol and drugs in October 2002 Afterwards he mentioned how he thought United would win the league that season. Liverpool and Arsenal were the early pace setters with United lagging well behind having surrendered the title to Arsenal at Old Trafford the previous May.
Adams saw something in the young United players and seniors who attended. He recalled seeing 'hurt in their eyes' and pointed to something going on behind the scenes. Ferguson had a number of injuries to contend with and United had impressive wins over Newcastle and Arsenal with players like Phil Neville and Quinton fortune patrolling the middle of the park. He had drilled into the players’ minds that if they could take enough points early in the season and be close enough to the summit at Christmas that there was still a chance of success. Yet again he delivered. As Arsenal surrendered a massive points advantage one by one the big players came back. When United drew 2-2 at Highbury in April 2003 Ferguson rushed on to the pitch to celebrate and ordered the players towards the fans. In doing so he was cementing the idea in the players’ minds that the job was almost complete, while sending the message out to Arsenal that he was now in the driving seat. United won the title by five points. Newcastle of 1996 could be accused of being brittle, but that Arsenal team could not. They were unbeaten away from home in the Premiership in 2001-2002 and unbeaten home or away in the same competition in 2003-2004. Yet Ferguson found a way to deny them the 2003 title and then ended their forty nine game Premiership unbeaten run in October 2004. He always finds a way to overcome a new challenge.
I admire how Fergie has never been afraid to take a gamble. He has always thought in terms of what's best for Manchester United and players have had to pack their bags and head for the exit door when he felt their time was up. Jaap Stam was one of the most famous exits with the big Dutch man finding out he was leaving as he bought items for a new house he had moved into. Ferguson admitted later it was a mistake letting Jaap go but was willing to take a risk in an effort to improve the team. Despite his legendary status Roy Keane was shown the exit door after proving disruptive and a month later United were dumped out of Europe. This was not a problem to the embattled Scot though as his longer term vision demanded team unity as Van Nistelrooy also found out six months later. When it came to opening his cheque book, Ferguson was not afraid to pay £27M for Wayne Rooney when he was a teenager. It was a huge gamble to pay that much money for an eighteen year old but a hat trick on his debut began to pay off on Fergie’s calculated move. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister also found Fergie’s risk taking out to their cost early in their United careers. Ferguson made it clear that he expected his centre backs to be able to go man to man with the strikers they were marking to allow the full backs to join in the attacks. The result was more work for the dolly & daisy partnership and nights like those spent chasing the best strikers in Europe around the pitch. That risk taking has also been evident in the team's play over the years. For all that United have won under Fergie there are also the glorious defeats where the side lost, but went down playing with pride. Examples include the 1-0 home defeat to Borussia Dortmund in 1997, the 2-3 home defeat to Real Madrid in 2000 and the 4-3 win (5-6 agg defeat)also against Real Madrid in 2003. Even in defeat United have often been a top class football team risking everything to entertain.
I have never thought Fergie to be a master tactician. At times, especially in fledgling European quests, United were very easily picked off. The team would take to the pitch with Giggs & Beckham getting wide on both flanks and despite playing some amazing football defeat would be our lot. Fergie has always been at his best with a strong number two by his side. Brian Kidd, Steve McLaren & Carlos Queiroz have all played a part in the clubs major successes. When McLaren left early in the 2001-2002 season Ferguson began taking the training sessions himself. The result was six defeats in the first fifteen league matches. Even moving Roy Keane to centre back proved no use as Chelsea won 3-0 at Old Trafford in December. Fergie is at his best when he can sit back and observe. Organising a training session is not his strong point. He defines what a manager is and delegates superbly to his coaches. Sometimes the Boss’s other decisions can be baffling. In the summer of 1998 he was hoping to buy John Hartson to bolster the United attack. Instead Kidd persuaded him to turn his attention to Dwight Yorke. The rest is history. In an FA Cup game at home to Charlton in 1994 when Schmeichel was sent off, Ferguson was about to take off Mark Hughes in order to get a replacement keeper on before Kidd, rushing down the steps to follow Fergie, persuaded him to leave Hughes on and withdraw Paul Parker. Mark Hughes got the first in a 3-0 win. Later that year Fergie opted to deploy Paul Parker as a man marker on Romario at home to Barcelona in the Champions League, with Steve Bruce left on the bench. The game finished 2-2 and Bruce did come on, but in the return game Bruce & Pallister were deployed as centre backs and United were crushed 4-0 with Romario and Stoichkov running riot. Maybe the use of Parker should have been swapped about in both games.
Even in recent years Ferguson has tried different things that have not worked out well. After Keane’s departure in November 2005 Fergie tried Rio Ferdinand in midfield in a game in February 2006. United were well beaten on the night by Mark Hughes’ Blackburn. In the past three seasons he has played Rooney wide or centrally in midfield. Tactically these moves might not be the greatest, but it shows the man has bottle to put his neck on the block in the search for higher standards. Many managers like Del Bosque, Toppmoller, Eriksson & Hitzfeld might all have got the better of him at times, but none of them have records like Ferguson has. In a one off tactical battle Fergie might not come out on top but who is more likely to stand the test of time? Only our Gaffer.
Tactics are just one small part of management though. They have made managers like Mourinho successful in a short space of time, but he does not have the greatness of Ferguson. Alex Ferguson’s strengths lie in other areas. Firstly, he gets his sides to play football. United may have been more defensive minded in recent years but on the whole have been a thoroughly entertaining side to watch. My firm belief is that in the Champions League era, the 1998-99 treble side are rivaled only in entertainment by the Milan side of 1993-94 or the current Barcelona side. Fergie sent his team out to attack everyone resulting in 31 goals scored in 13 games. Secondly, Ferguson’s man management is legendary. I doubt another Manager in world football could have kept Cantona at Old Trafford during his 1995 ban. Who else would have followed the disillusioned player to France and just gone for a coffee with the bloke and put him at ease talking about football for the evening? When Schmeichel had a poor run of form in the treble season he was told to go on holiday with his family. When Teddy Sheringham expected to start the 1999 final in the Nou Camp, Ferguson took him aside and explained his reasons for not starting him. Players are treated like men and they respect that. Thirdly, in terms of psychology and motivation he has no peers. His management style is a mixture of making people quake in their boots, but also showing a caring side. Players are not in any doubt about what is expected of them as footballers and as men.
Fourthly, with Ferguson the dressing room is sacrosanct. The Beckham boot incident is one of the few pieces of information that has ever escaped the Old Trafford dressing room. That was more down to David deciding to wear a plaster than anything else, but he had ordered his own culling as a United player by then. I’m sure players are torn to shreds in the dressing room after a bad result, but when Fergie faces the media he defends them to the hilt. Lastly, his one great strength is single mindedness. When it comes to making decisions about who to release or who to purchase, Ferguson is equally ruthless in both departments. This is one area that has kept him at the summit at the expense of other clubs. For a number of years Liverpool FC played out summers wondering if Steven Gerard was staying or going. This would not happen at Old Trafford. Nobody is bigger than the club. When Ferguson feels your time is up the exit door awaits you in brutal and stoic fashion. In just the same way, rumours of him tapping-up the likes of Stam and Van Nistelrooy have always persisted, but in both cases he got his man. His single mindedness determines that nothing unsettles United and he and only he has an iron grip on team affairs.
As the years have worn on, Ferguson's ability to move with the times have been truly amazing. How much does the club's top earning player take home per week now compared to 1986? Fergie has been able to motivate millionaires and rebuild sides while maintaining control of so many aspects of the job. One of my few gripes with the man though is his attitude to the Glazers. Did he want to remain so much in control that he took his eye off the ball as to what is best for Manchester United? The takeover has by popular opinion not been good for the club. Fans have been asked to cough up more cash each year while at the same time the annual big signing has all but disappeared as the club seeks value. Nobody will argue that the sum paid for Javier Hernandez was anything but good business, but United seems no longer to be able to attract the world's greatest players as was seen with the transfers of Silva & Nasri. While Manchester City's owners pump money into their club on all fronts, the Glazers take money out of Old Trafford at will. Who pays? The armchair and match day fan alike, anyone who wants to be a part of the club needs to pay.
The recent mauling United took at the hands of Manchester City had many using the investment contrast as the reason for the defeat, but that is too easy an excuse. It seemed that game was more of an off day, but it does make you question how Ferguson could have backed the Glazers as United's owners. Surely as the ambitious manager he is and as an intelligent man, he would prefer to be working with those operating at Eastlands with an unlimited transfer budget? Instead, he is taking measured risks young players like De Gea, Hernandez, Smalling and Jones. Ferguson has done very well to add all those young up & coming players to the squad, but with the Glazers as owners United can no longer compete with other clubs for established stars. Maybe Ferguson has reaped what he has sown by backing the Glazers?
All in all we can look back on his tenure so far and it is hard to think we could have got a better man for the job. There are Managers out there who have won as many Champions Leagues as he has, there have been challengers to his crown in England, but for longevity, repeated success and single minded determination I cannot see anyone to match Alex Ferguson. Looking at the job he has done in the last twenty five years nobody could have done better. The job he does now is so different to the one he faced in 1986 but his thinking is still the same. It might sound strange to say this but the man has had a huge impact on the lives of so many people. He has masterminded moments of huge joy, not only with the success the team has achieved but with the acquisition of players who represent the club in the right way. Cantona, Keane, Solskaer, Schmeichel, Rooney, Van Nistelrooy and co are all players Ferguson spent hours tracking to bring to the club for our pleasure. He insisted on a youth structure that produced class, like Giggs, Scholes, the Nevilles, Butt, Wes Brown and John O'Shea who despite their youth showed no fear on the football field and helped the club conquer Europe. In a perverse way his desire to play entertaining football has led to some bad defeats like the 5-0 at Newcastle in 1996 or the 1-4 at home to Liverpool in 2009, but at least that brings contact from 'friends' who support other clubs and gets people talking about the game. I know that at work, having a beer with mates or receiving presents from family, Manchester United or Alex Ferguson are never far from people's thoughts. People are always willing to talk about football United and Fergie and no other manager in the game seems to provoke as much debate or quiet admission of his greatness.
Every time it seems like he's achieved all he can, he comes up with another challenge and then meets it. As a motivator, psychologist, General and leader, Fergie is the Kingpin. We are at twenty five years and counting, the trophy haul is huge yet Alex Ferguson remains the same – tough yet adaptable with a craving for success. It was fitting to see him celebrate in the Moscow Rain in May 2008. It would have been an absolute travesty if a Manager who has given so much to the game had not won a second European Cup. As difficult as it was to take the defeats to Barcelona in 2009 and 2011, Ferguson just accepted the Catalans were better and immediately set out to make Manchester United better than them. maybe if he achieves that then surely nobody can argue that he would then be the greatest Manager of all time. I doubt he will be at the helm twenty five years from now but it is just fitting to say a big thank you to the Boss. We were so lucky to get him as our Manager.