University challenge: Sir Alex Ferguson opened up earlier this year for an essay at Harvard
An in-depth study of Sir Alex Ferguson and his management techniques has revealed the Manchester United manager at his most candid.
Put together with Ferguson’s help by Harvard Business School in America, the study is entitled ‘Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United’ and provides a genuine insight into how the 70-year-old has been so successful for so long.
Here, Sportsmail’s Ian Ladyman picks out his highlights and provides his own analysis of Ferguson’s methods...
ON PLAYER POWER
Sir Alex Ferguson: Some English clubs have changed managers so many times that it creates power for the players in the dressing room. That is very dangerous. Football management in the end is all about the players. You think you are a better player than they are, and they think they are a better manager than you are.
Ian Ladyman: At one English club in the North West the captain tries to tell the manager what he is doing wrong. That wouldn’t happen at Old Trafford. Ferguson welcomes input from his players, but only when he asks for it.
ON HOW ANDREA BOCELLI INSPIRED A TEAM TALK
SAF: I once heard a coach start with: ‘This must be the thousandth team talk I’ve had with you,’ and saw a player respond with: ‘Yeah and I’ve slept through half of them.’ So I tell different stories and use my imagination. I remember going to see Andrea Bocelli, the opera singer. I had never been to a classical concert in my life. But I am watching this and thinking about the co-ordination and the teamwork — one starts and one stops, just fantastic. So I spoke to my players about the orchestra — how they are a perfect team. You can get help from some of the players. Bryan Robson, for example, was brilliant.
IL: To Ferguson, the team ethic is everything. He encourages and seeks out individual brilliance, but won’t tolerate anything or anyone who begins to feel they are bigger or better than anybody else. Several players have discovered this to their cost over the years.
Tenor for a team talk: United boss Ferguson revealed Andrea Bocelli has inspired him
ON MOTIVATING PLAYERS
SAF: There is no room for criticism on the training field. For a player — and for any human being — there is nothing better than hearing ‘well done’. Those are the two best words ever invented in sports. Also, you can’t always come in (after a game) shouting and screaming. That doesn’t work. No one likes to get criticised. But in the dressing room, it’s necessary that you point out your players’ mistakes. I do it right after the game. I don’t wait until Monday, I do it, and it’s finished. I’m on to the next match. There is no point in criticising a player forever. And I never discuss an individual player in public. The players know that. It stays indoors.
IL: To hear Ferguson criticise a player in public is rare. He did it with Rio Ferdinand after the defender refused to wear a ‘Kick It Out’ T-shirt this season and regretted it immediately. The issue was sorted in private at the training ground the next day. Compare that with Roberto Mancini at Manchester City, for example, who constantly seems to criticise Mario Balotelli. Two different methods. Who is to say which one is best?
ON MANAGING MILLIONAIRES
SAF: We fine them, but we keep it indoors. You can’t ever lose control — not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires. And if anyone steps out of my control, that’s them dead.
IL: The speed at which United hustled Roy Keane out of the door in 2005 shows how quickly Ferguson moves when he feels one player has started to have a negative effect on the rest. As for fines and internal discipline, you can be sure it happens at United. It’s just that they never tell anyone.
Shifted: Roy Keane was shown out of the door at Old Trafford in 2005
ON UNITED’S YOUTH POLICY AND LETTING OLD PLAYERS GO
SAF: The first thought for 99 per cent of new managers is to make sure they win — to survive. They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs. But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club, not just a football team. You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team. The idea is that the younger players are developing and meeting the standards that the older ones have set before. The hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy. But all the evidence is on the football field. If you see the change, the deterioration, you have to start asking yourself what it is going to be like two years ahead.
IL: Players like Phil Neville and Nicky Butt — founder members of the modern United — were both struck dumb when Ferguson told them their time was up at Old Trafford. Did their manager and mentor make the right decision, though? Absolutely.
ON AGGRESSIVE PLAYERS
SAF: One of my players has been sent off several times. He will do something if he gets the chance — even in training. Can I take it out of him? No. Would I want to take it out of him? No. If you take the aggression out of him, he is not himself. So you have to accept that there is a certain flaw that is counter-balanced by all the great things he can do.
IL: So who is Ferguson talking about? Almost certainly it is Paul Scholes. So much for the theory that all the United midfielder’s tackles are merely ‘mistimed’
ON TALENT AND HARD WORK
SAF: I tell players that hard work is a talent, too. They need to work harder than anyone else. And if they can no longer bring the discipline that we ask for here at United, they are out. I am only interested in players who really want to play for United, and who, like me, are bad losers.
IL: Ferguson’s work ethic is legendary. He is at United’s training ground at 7am every day. It’s his club and he sets the mood and the standards. As for him being a bad loser, well, there are referees across the land who will testify to this.
Experience: Veteran midfielder Paul Scholes has not been tamed by Sir Alex
ON JOSE MOURINHO
SAF: He is very intelligent, he has charisma, his players play for him, and he is a good-looking guy. I think I have most of those things, too, apart from his good looks. He’s got a confidence about himself, saying ‘We’ll win this’ and ‘I’m the Special One’. I could never come out and say we’re going to win this game. It’s maybe a wee bit of my Scottishness?
IL: It’s nothing to do with being Scottish, Ferguson is merely too cute to brag before he has achieved anything. Ferguson has always liked Mourinho, ever since the two men first clashed in 2004. He particularly admires and empathises with the Portuguese’s ability to inspire and motivate players.
ON NAMING HIS TEAM
SAF: We never reveal the team to the players until the day of the game. We think of the media and the players’ agents. And my job is to give us the best chance possible of winning the match, so why should we alert our opponents to what our team is? For a three o’clock game, we tell them at one o’clock.
IL: Ferguson is an obsessive man and his obsession about his team line-ups leaking out has long been high on the list. He got rid of one very high-profile player, for example, because he suspected he had leaked the team to the opposition before a big Champions League game.
Sparring partners: Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have had their fair share of battles over the years
ON DROPPING PLAYERS
SAF: I do it privately. It’s not easy, but I do them all myself. It is important. I have been dropped from a Cup final in Scotland as a player at 10 past two, so I know what it feels like. I’m not ever sure what they are thinking, but I tend to say: ‘Look, I might be making a mistake here,’ — I always say that — ‘but I think this is the best team for today.’ I try to give them a bit of confidence, telling them that it is only tactical, and that there are bigger games coming up.
IL: Some managers tell players they are playing or not playing by text message. Sometimes the old-fashioned ways really are the best.
ON GETTING READY FOR THE HALF-TIME TEAM TALK
SAF: There are maybe eight minutes between you coming up through the tunnel and the referees calling you up on the pitch again, so it is vital to use the time well. Everything is easier when you are winning: you talk about concentrating, not getting complacent, and small things you can address. But when you are losing, you know that you are going to have to make an impact.
The last few minutes of the first half I’m always thinking of what I’m going to say. I’m a little bit in a trance. I am concentrating. I see other coaches take notes, but I don’t want to miss any of the game. And I can’t imagine going into the dressing room, looking at my notes, and saying: ‘Oh in the 30th minute, that pass you took...'. I don’t think it’s going to impress the players.
IL: Managers and their bits of paper can look ridiculous. What do they write on them? ‘In the second half we must try to score’? Each to their own, of course, and it’s certainly the case that Ferguson’s coaches write things down. Sometimes, though, your eyes are your best tool.
Getting ready for the break: Ferguson prefers not to take notes while watching
ON HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH DAVID GILL AND THE GLAZERS
SAF: My best relationship in this club is with David. Sometimes we disagree, but we respect each other and we know that arguments are just arguments. He’s very fair. The Glazers decide (on transfers). They have generally been very supportive. The Glazers are very low-key. If I owned United and they won the league, I would be over the moon. I remember when I played with Rangers, when the directors were under the shower with their clothes on, dancing about. But the Glazers shook a few hands and had some photographs taken, that was it.
IL: United fans feel uncomfortable when they hear Ferguson talk so fondly of the Glazers and that’s understandable. They don’t choose players, by the way, they merely sanction, or otherwise, the spending. Ferguson’s relationship with Gill, meanwhile, is the concrete on which the club is built. I have had run-ins with both men but were it not for Ferguson and Gill’s combined effectiveness, United would have sunk during the years of Glazer ownership.
ON THE SHAPE OF THE SEASON
SAF: We don’t start the pre-season training at one hundred miles an hour. We do a gradual build-up. And we’re not normally the strongest in the early part of the season, but October is usually a month where we get ourselves going again.
I always tell the players, every season, that if we are within three points from the top come New Year’s Day, we’ve got a great chance at the title.
IL: This is interesting because United have tweaked pre-season routines in recent years to try and keep pace with Chelsea and Manchester City, who tend to come out of the blocks at lightning speed in August. Ferguson realised United were getting caught cold and has tried to address it. Mind you, they lost their opening game this season...
Mr Motivator: Sir Alex has his own ways of getting the best out of his players at Old Trafford
ON MOVING WITH THE TIMES
SAF: Some managers are ‘pleasing managers’. They let the players play 8-a-sides — games they enjoy. But here, we look at the training sessions as opportunities to learn and improve. Sometimes the players may think: ‘Here we go again,’ but it helps to win. The message is simple: we cannot sit still at this club.
IL: Ferguson admires managers like Sam Allardyce, younger men who innovate to improve. He is happy to take ideas from them. The club are currently building a ‘sleep room’ and have installed tanning booths at the training ground so players can top up their Vitamin D levels.
ON PRACTISING FOR FERGIE TIME
SAF: We practise for when the going gets tough, so we know what it takes to be successful in those situations.
IL: I have no idea how you can replicate the pressure of added time but it clearly works. Look at what happened in the Manchester derby recently.
ON TELLING THE REFEREE ABOUT FERGIE TIME
SAF: All I do is point at my watch to help the referee make the right decisions.
IL: Ferguson has always intimidated referees, sometimes on purpose and other times not. Has it worked? Occasionally.
Watch it: Fergie time is usually a good time to grab a goal
ON HOW HAVING BEEN A PLAYER HELPS HIM AS A MANAGER
SAF: Do you think Rooney cares? He’ll laugh at me and say: ‘Boss, it was so long ago, and in Scotland. Are they still part-timers up there?’
IL: Ferguson’s success debunks the old myth that you need to be a successful player to earn respect as a coach. It’s brains and not medals that get the job done.
ON MELLOWING OVER THE YEARS
SAF: Players live more sheltered lives. They are more fragile than 25 years ago. I used to be very aggressive. I am still very passionate and want to win but I have mellowed. Age does that to you.
IL: Try telling this to Nani, David de Gea and Alex Buttner, all of whom have been monstered by Ferguson in the United dressing room this season.
ON LOSING THE TITLE TO CITY
SAF: Another day in the history of Manchester United, that’s all it was. It created the drama that only United can produce. I’ve still got a wee bit of anger in me, thinking of how we threw the league away last season. My motivation to the players will be that we can’t let City beat us twice in a row.
IL: This is slightly disingenuous. The drama last May was largely created by United’s neighbours across town. You can be sure of the anger he still feels, though. Very sure.
Agony: Ferguson was on the pitch at Sunderland on the final day of the season when Man City pipped United
ON WINNING THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE AGAIN
SAF: We are in a country where tribalism is rife so that puts tremendous pressure on you to win your league. But the European Cup is the biggest trophy. I made a mistake last season in Europe. I played too many young players and we went out. It was a shock.
IL: Ferguson is obsessed with winning the Champions League again. Defeats by Barcelona in 2009 and 2011 hurt him more than he ever really lets on. He still refuses to talk about 2009.
ON A GLASS OF WINE WITH THE OPPOSITION MANAGER
SAF: You have to get the game out of your system quickly or it becomes an obsession. Win, lose or draw. We show our face and keep our dignity. We are Manchester United.
IL: Some of Ferguson’s post-match TV comments can lack the dignity he talks about, but he isn’t alone there. He does always offer visiting managers a drink, though. One of the reasons Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger is shown so little warmth by Premier League bosses is that he has never embraced this tradition.
Unpopular: Arsene Wenger never sticks around for a drink with other bosses
A few other choice cuts...
SAF: Tactics can change depending on whom we are playing I tend to concentrate on one or two players of my opponents—the ones that are the most influential. Who’s the guy who is taking all the free kicks? Who’s the guy who’s on the ball all the time? Who’s the one urging everyone on?
The rest of the time I concentrate on our own team. On Friday we take our players through a video analysis of our opponents: their strengths, their weaknesses, their set-pieces, what their team is likely to be, and so on.
On Saturday, we might give them another, shorter version—just a recap of the previous day.
ON PEP GUARDIOLA
SAF: Guardiola is an impressive guy. He’s brought about change in Barcelona, urging the team to always work hard to get the ball back within seconds after losing it. They are gifted but work hard. It was a fantastic achievement. He elevated the status of his players.
Pep talk: United boss Ferguson was impressed by the way Guardiola transformed Barcelona
ON THE HAIR-DRYER
SAF: You can’t always come in shouting and screaming. That doesn’t work. No one likes to get criticized. But in the football dressing room, it’s necessary that you point out your players’ mistakes.
I do it right after the game. I don’t wait until Monday, I do it, and it’s finished. I’m on to the next match. There is no point in criticizing a player forever.
ON HOW BEING A PLAYER HELPS HIM AS MANAGER
SAF: Do you think Rooney cares? He’ll laugh at me and say “Boss, it was so long ago, and in Scotland. Are they still part-timers up there?'"
This is better than all the MBA courses you will take anywhere.