Saturday, May 11, 2013

Understanding Alex Ferguson's Success

As a thirty-something football fan I simply don’t remember a time when Alex Ferguson wasn’t the manager of Manchester United. His decision to retire, aged 71, seems as unthinkable as suggesting bad refereeing decisions, over-inflated salaries and prima donna haircuts should no longer play a part in our footballing landscape. He leaves behind a legacy of unparalleled success; the list of honours United have won under his stewardship serving as testimony to his achievements: 13 league titles, two Champions League wins, five FA Cups and four League Cups, not to mention a Cup Winners Cup, a FIFA Club World Cup, a UEFA Super Cup, an Inter-Continental Cup and 10 Charity Shields (one shared).  
The Ferguson era is defined not just by its success, but by its longevity. The final whistle will be blown on his career at West Brom next weekend, his 1,500th game in charge of the club. Other English clubs have enjoyed spells of dominance – Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal in the 1920s; Liverpool under a succession of managers through the 1970s and 80s– but none compare to the success attained by Manchester’s favourite Scotsman. Indeed it is hard to think of another team who match the sustained dominance of Ferguson’s United in any sport. Over the past twenty-seven years, entrenched in the Old Trafford dugout, the Scot masterminded the transformation of a club whose trophy cabinet in no way reflected its glittering history and reputation. When he took over in November 1986 United had not won the league for nearly twenty years. They had won the FA Cup three times in that period, success that most football fans would consider a pipe dream. But for a club of such stature, many of whose fans still remembered only too well the halcyon days of Best, Charlton and Law, the wait for league glory went on far too long.
Not that Ferguson’s managerial credentials are reducible to his United record alone. His achievements north of the border, firstly with St Mirren, and then as manager of Aberdeen, an unfashionable team in a Scottish footballing world perennially dominated by the two Glasgow clubs, Celtic and Rangers, was proof of Ferguson’s abilities. The three league titles and four Scottish Cups he took to Pittodrie cemented Ferguson’s burgeoning reputation. The 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup success, where Aberdeen beat Real Madrid 2-1 in the final, iced the proverbial cake. His teams were tough, hard-working, collective units though this is not to suggest that they were dull and uninspired – that certainly wasn’t the case. Ferguson has always sought to play attractive, sleek, eye-catching football but the team has always taken precedent over individuals no matter how talented. 
Such an ethos – of togetherness, teamwork and collectivity – was shared by the three great Scottish managers who preceded Ferguson: Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein. Each had grown up in working class communities, each had known poverty, and all had worked as miners in their youth. In the cases of Shankly and Stein they retained something of a left-wing consciousness throughout their careers in football. Jock Stein castigated Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s dryly remarking, "Prime Ministers and other ministers to interfere with football – they know nothing about it". For Shankly, politics found expression through the beautiful game: "The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It's the way I see football, the way I see life". 
Alex Ferguson stands in that same tradition. As a teenager he worked in the Clyde shipyards, leading the apprentice strike in 1961 (and thereby earning himself immortality as a footnote in Tony Cliff’s autobiography). He is a life-long and outspoken supporter of the Labour Party, and regularly contributes to its finances. And as befits a man who has been fined a total of £75,000 by the FA for making controversial public statements he was never shy in attacking the Tories. Summarising his political views he said, "I grew up in a very working class area of Glasgow, believing Labour was the party of the working man, and I still believe that. All my life I've seen Labour as the party working to get better health care for ordinary people, and the Tories only caring about the people at the top." That working class thread connecting the footballing philosophies of Busby, Stein and Shankly extends to Ferguson. As Michael Crick argues: 
"Their Scottish socialist upbringings were important to all four men. For each manager their experience of real work before going into football full-time – the first three in the Lanarkshire coalfields, Ferguson as a Glasgow toolmaker – hardened them, taught them the value of collective effort, and fuelled the fires which propelled them towards their eventual triumphs.”
It would certainly seem that these early experiences manifested themselves in Ferguson’s belief that no one player was bigger than the club. Three years into his job he took the decision to offload Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside - both fan favourites but prone to injury and, in the eyes of their manager, too fond of the 1980s footballers’ drinking culture. This lack of sentimentality would become a hallmark of Ferguson’s career. In 1995 the trio of Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince were all moved on, having played integral roles in Fergie’s early successes, replaced by a clutch of young starlets at a time when some commentators thought you would never be able to win anything with kids. Jaap Stam tried to tussle with his boss but soon found himself ‘departed’ for Lazio. Juan Sebastian Veron was purchased for more than £28 million in 2000 but was ushered out sooner than you could say “expensive flop”. When David Beckham’s celebrity lifestyle seemed all consuming Ferguson gave him the boot, first to the head, then out through the door.
Yet Alex Ferguson’s success at Manchester United was not instantaneous. The club had remained trophy-less for the first three years in which Fergie occupied the top job, and legend has it that had Mark Robins not scored a last minute equaliser in the third round of the FA Cup in 1990 the manager would have been sacked. Instead they went on to lift the trophy - Ferguson's first as United manager. Still their league form again disappointed. They finished 13th, some 31 points behind champions Liverpool.
Manchester United would finally claim that elusive league champions crown in the 1992/93 season: it was Ferguson’s seventh season in charge of the club. On strictly footballing terms United were, without doubt, a class act deserving of success. Coupled to Fergie’s managerial abilities was a remarkably strong squad and the early fruits borne of the club’s youth team policies. The team oozed quality. In goal Peter Schmeichel drove tabloid hacks stammering to their thesauruses, failing miserably to find synonyms for ‘colossus’; Pallister and Bruce embodied the notion of defending ugly. In midfield Ince prowled and McClair harried, while, in turn, Kanchelskis, Giggs and Lee Sharpe twirled their way down the flanks. The team played so well Ferguson was even able to give his son, Darren, sixteen games that season.
The final, key piece to the jigsaw, however, was the signing of Eric Cantona. The talismanic, enigmatic Frenchman arrived from Leeds United almost by accident, the deal having been struck during a phone conversation in which the Yorkshire club had originally called to enquire about the availability of Manchester United’s Denis Irwin. Cantona brought nonchalance and swagger to the forward line, he dripped with arrogance and sublime skill, becoming the figurehead of the United attack. His influence on and off the field could not be underestimated. It was from this base that Ferguson would go on to achieve his extraordinary success. Constantly evolving his team, changing his players, watching on at stadium redevelopments, Ferguson remained the centre of his ever-changing Old Trafford universe. Only Ryan Giggs and Fergie’s piece of chewing gum remain from that first triumph some twenty years ago.
But there was more to Ferguson’s success than a shrewd tactical brain and an eye for a good player. The start of Manchester United’s period of domination coincided with the formation of the Premier League. In the late 1980s the top English clubs had met to discuss the idea of breaking away from the Football League. Their motivation? Money, pure and simple. Under the system as was, the revenue generated from the sale of television rights would be shared out to all the clubs in the Football League. It ensured the long term viability of the lower league clubs, fertilizing the grassroots of the game, and helping to foster the next generation of players. With the formation of the breakaway Premier League, and the switch from terrestrial television coverage to exclusive rights for Rupert Murdoch’s newly launched Sky television, money was to be divided amongst only those clubs who were in the top tier of the game. Sky paid £305million for a five year contract. It was a cash bonanza for the clubs lucky enough to be part of the deal, one which arguably saved Murdoch’s satellite empire from crumbling before it had really begun.
And there was a second factor. In keeping with the spirit of the 1980s, when greed was first good and market forces extended their reach to every facet of modern life, the boards of some top clubs – including Manchester United – floated on the stock exchange. Money flowed into the club, even if much of it stuck to the hands of chairmen and directors. Where board members had once been regarded as custodians of a game cherished by local communities they now oversaw its sale to the highest bidder. It wasn’t that what had gone before was a golden age of collective ownership, rather that there was a rapid qualitative shift towards explicitly remodelling football as a business. Ticket prices soared, replica kits were housed in club stores, fans were now consumers. And Manchester United were in prime position to take advantage of the economic explosion. As David Conn writes in The Football Business:
“It was only after the top clubs broke away, no longer able to share their television money with the rest of football, to form the FA Carling Premiership, that United finally won the League. It was as if, a floated corporation, they were bedded in, ready for football as a business, and the ring-fenced Premier League which would make it possible. Since it was formed in 1992, the Premiership has largely belonged to Manchester United plc.”
Alex Ferguson’s socialism may have played its part in producing results on the pitch but his success was underpinned and underwritten by the vast sums of money that flowed into the game at the dawn of the Premiership era. It is this tension, this seeming contradiction, that exemplifies Ferguson tenure at the helm of Britain’s (and for a time, the world’s) richest club. Perhaps it also helps to explain why Ferguson is universally respected but not widely liked, let alone loved. Of course, plenty of the ire he draws is from the fans of opposing clubs, sick and jealous of his success. Yet this alone cannot be the full story. At first glance one might imagine that Fergie, full of dry wit and with an anti-authoritarian streak, would hold some appeal for football fans regardless of the colour of their shirt. Previously he’s upbraided officials, launched verbal assaults on the FA, boycotted the BBC and even, somewhat ironically, lamented the powerful hold media has over modern football. But all too often when kicking back against the suits, it looked as though Ferguson, sat in his privileged position, thought he was bigger than the game.
No one issue gets to the heart of the matter quite as well as the question of “Fergie Time” – the tendency for overly long periods of stoppage time to be played at Old Trafford, particularly when United are in desperate search of a winning or equalising goal. A few years ago I heard the historian Peter Borsay suggest that Fergie Time was a throwback to a by-gone age, one in which the time we allocated to play was ‘elastic’. In doing so he referenced the games of pre-capitalist societies which would last as long as the players wished; ‘folk’ or ‘festival’ football matches that could last for days; when players would claim St Monday to extend the weekend. Borsay was wrong. Fergie Time is the antithesis of a time when play was once extended for the sake of enjoyment. The elasticity of time is now at the behest of a manager with a reputation for arrogance and bullying, backed by the wealth and power of a global sporting brand. In sport, as in life generally, the richest appear to be playing the game according to their own rules. As Robin Carmody so eloquently put it:
“Far from representing any kind of challenge to the orthodoxies of the modern game, he [Ferguson] is thus their ultimate embodiment, the epitome of the false, either-or dichotomies and the one-way Journey as if there had never been another option. Trapped within the dicta of capitalist realism even as he pretends to be uneasy with them, he epitomises the dilemma of so many British people with post-war, pre-Beatles childhoods, now steadily retiring from the public stage but leaving a legacy which continues to define their successors as assuredly as it will, eventually, define his.”
Fergie is without question the greatest manager the game has ever seen. And it is only fitting that this blog wishes him all the very best for his retirement, But in years to come one will look back at the man and his career and find a riddle more complex and compelling than any posed by Cantona during a press conference. Sir Alex Ferguson, the socialist with a knighthood, the Glasgow millionaire whose abilities restored unimagined fortune to a football company, the firebrand striker who rode the wave of football’s economic boom to become the most decorated manager in the history of the sport. The greatest irony is, of course, that with football now an industry in which the demand for a return on an investment has bred the most myopic short termism, were Sir Alex to be starting his Manchester United managerial career today, then the man who took seven years to win the league would most likely have been sacked long before he had the chance to lift his first trophy.