When Sir Alex Ferguson arrived at Manchester United in 1986, the club was a bit of a drunken mess. It had not won a league title in 19 years. Its players enjoyed long, liquid pub “lunches” at which hardly a bread roll ever got eaten. Sir Alex, a former publican who like many ambitious Scots had come to regard alcohol as the enemy, was appalled.
After his managerial triumphs in Scotland, he could have decided that Man United’s club culture was rotten and in need of uprooting. He could have stormed in like a bullying egomaniac chief executive. But he didn’t. Instead he spent his early months at Old Trafford interviewing people, from window cleaners and supporters to legendary former players, trying to understand the club’s values.
He then set out to personify those values, such as: “United plays attacking football,” and “The world is against United.” Sir Alex always managed with the grain of a football club’s culture. The Scot, explained Jorge Valdano, the Argentine player-turned-football thinker, “bleeds the club’s history, can interpret the sentiment of the support.”
Sir Alex retires from Man United this month age 71, as the most trophy-laden manager in English football history. His career contains lessons for managers in all sectors. But despite his reputation as an irascible dictator, many of those lessons have to do with humility, calm and learning from others.
Despite his success, Sir Alex never kidded himself that he knew everything. He always kept learning. From the French player Eric Cantona, who joined the club in 1992, Sir Alex learned that British footballers did not take their jobs seriously enough. From Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 900-page biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals, he learned how to manage clashing personalities within an organization.
Sir Alex spent hours each day on the phone, sucking information from ex-players and fellow managers. His enormous network extended far beyond football. Each contact was nurtured till death. (Possibly nobody attended more funerals, wrote his biographer Patrick Barclay.) When the United Kingdom’s minister of sport offended him in a meeting, Sir Alex simply picked up the phone and rang then-prime minister Tony Blair on his direct line to complain.
For Sir Alex, knowledge was power. Nothing moved inside Old Trafford without his knowing it. He knew his players’ pre-match toilet habits (and checked if they were going more than usual). He had long phone calls with fan leaders.
In 2004, one of them told him about a group of Iraqi Kurd refugees living around Manchester: United fans, who kept match tickets and photographs of the stadium as souvenirs, they had been wrongly arrested by police on suspicion of plotting to blow up Old Trafford. Sir Alex quietly arranged for the Kurds to attend a closed team practice. After all, they were United stakeholders, and United stakeholders had to be kept happy (or in this case ecstatic).
He was a calm manager, too. Even when a crisis transfixed the nation – Mr. Cantona’s Kung Fu kick at a Crystal Palace fan’s head, the boot Sir Alex kicked into the face of his star player David Beckham – he never changed policy. Sir Alex knew that fusses blow over. His eye was on the long term.
He often sold star players in their prime, looking ahead. In 2003, for instance, he sold Mr. Beckham for 24.5-million pounds ($38.2-million Canadian) and bought the unknown Portuguese teenager Cristiano Ronaldo for half that sum. The exchange looked risky; it proved brilliant. Mr. Ronaldo, now at Real Madrid, has matured into one of the world’s best players.
In 2004, Sir Alex blew two years’ of transfer budget on the teenaged Wayne Rooney, despite knowing the striker was not yet ready. While nurturing the Rooney-Ronaldo team, Sir Alex went three seasons without winning the league. He knew he was unsackable. His prior success had bought him freedom to think long term.
Being a long-termist, he will have planned his succession. It is no coincidence that Everton’s David Moyes, bookmakers’ favourite to get the job, is a fellow Glaswegian. Sir Alex was born in Glasgow’s Govan district on the last day of 1941, when most Govan men were building warships.
A working-class childhood in the west of Scotland is almost the norm for great British managers. The three considered the holy trinity before Sir Alex – Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Sir Alex’s hero Jock Stein – shared it too. “Any success I have had in handling men…owes much to my upbringing among the working men of Clydeside,” Sir Alex has written. Industrial Glasgow provided Sir Alex with his core values: group solidarity and macho leadership. To Sir Alex as to Mr. Moyes, these values translate into leftwing politics: both men are active Labour party supporters.
But nobody can replace Sir Alex. Stefan Szymanski, economics professor at the University of Michigan, has compiled a “Soccernomics index” of overachieving managers in England: the men who reached the highest league positions relative to their clubs’ wage budgets from 1974 to 2010. Sir Alex ranks second in the index, after Liverpool’s Robert Paisley.
In short, the Scot adds exceptional value to his teams. This became most apparent from 2003, when first Chelsea and then Manchester City began outspending Man United on wages. Sir Alex’s team have still won five of the past seven Premier League titles. No successor is likely to match that. United must now expect decline.