As his managerial journey comes to an end this weekend, it would not do Sir Alex Ferguson justice to write a blog summarizing his strengths as a coach. There are so many to mention, they would be better suited to a book. Instead, I will focus on two key areas that I feel were keys to his reign at Manchester United and domination of English soccer for the past twenty years. I have chosen these specific skills because I believe they can be developed and are not a result of working with the best players or being exposed to the best facilities. Understanding Alex Ferguson’s methods of management can give us an indication of just what it takes to be successful in professional management.
He has probably never had an easy day in all his time at Old Trafford. Dealing with superstars is just as much work as dealing with amateur players. But the more you look at his career, the more you realize it has never been about him. Instead, it has been about the players he has led and the impact he has had on them on and off the field.
To say that he is not afraid to make a decision is putting it mildly indeed. From the early stages of his career at Manchester United, Sir Alex knew that he had to be ruthless to survive. I will never forget his decision to start Les Sealy in goal in the 1990 FA Cup final despite only playing in one game that season. Sealy was able to deal with the aerial barrage from Crystal Palace and United won their first trophy under Ferguson. Jim Leighton, who made way, was distraught and never recovered. Alex Ferguson never apologized. He set his stall out at that moment that if there was a choice between sentiment and victory, there was only going to be one winner.
I listened to a recent radio interview with Aidy Boothroyd and he talked about how Ferguson goes about his decisions. According to Boothroyd, Sir Alex believes himself that he gets seven out of ten decisions correct and that ratio is good enough to keep him as manager of Manchester United. This allows him to trust his gut instinct because he’s not worried about getting decisions wrong, which therefore saves time and gives him the mindset that he can handle one going against him.
How important is decision making at a club like Manchester United? You have to pick your squad, you have to pick your starting line-up, you have to pick the system of play, you have to make your substitutions, and most importantly in the game of football, you have to be ready to change all of the above in a split second. It wasn’t that Sir Alex Ferguson made the right decisions all the time; it was the fact that he made it quickly and was prepared for the outcome.
David Beckham looked upon him as a second father but when Ferguson saw a drop in his game or commitment level, he was out the door. Same with Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis, Mark Hughes and many more. This ability to make tough decisions had such a positive effect on the environment at United because they knew that if they put a tough decision into the manager’s hands, it would more than likely not turn out the way they would like. His reluctance to let teams grow old together also factored into his management style and he assembled at least five different teams during his time at Old Trafford.
It is one thing to have the vision, the knowledge, and the ability to make decisions, but if you can’t get players and staff on board, you will soon be out of a job. Ferguson communicated his hunger and desire to his whole team, and not many times was a Manchester United team outworked by the opposition. He also had different methods of dealing with different players. For the likes of Steve Bruce, Paul Ince, and Peter Schmeical, the famous ‘hair dryer’ was used to drive home a point but at the other end of the locker room, Eric Cantona was given the arm around the shoulder. Years later, Cristiano Ronaldo was given similar treatment by having a couple of weeks off over Christmas break to recharge his batteries simply because Ferguson felt he always underperformed at that time of the season. He knew exactly how each player worked and how to get the best out of them.
A lot of people have two misconceptions about coaching. The first is that they think players do whatever you tell them to do. The second is that you can simply motivate players by yelling and screaming at them. Both could not be further from the truth. It is not easy to motivate millionaires. Money and fame don’t usually mix well with hunger and motivation. For today’s players, their agent is just a phone call away and can engineer a transfer within 30 minutes. Sir Alex Ferguson has had to manage egos better than anyone has ever done and you always felt the players respected that. He made pointing to the Exit Door one of the greatest methods of motivation at United and this allowed players to be constantly aware of what the standards are and who they are representing.
Although his managerial record and legacy will never be bettered, I hope the majority of coaches believe that Sir Alex’s methods of management can actually be replicated with their team. If we all think he is a one-off, we will have missed the point of his managerial journey completely. It might sound ridiculous but any coach can be like Sir Alex Ferguson. You just have to do about ten simple things: Be the first one to the ground every day at 7am, after your day at the office go and scout youth players or the opposition, know your players inside out, be willing to make tough decisions time and time again, change your training techniques along with the times, manage expectations, deal with success the same way you deal with failure, and show no signs of fatigue or pressure. Add to this a desire and enthusiasm that is so fierce, it still rubs off on players who have left your company twenty years ago and you have half a chance.
Ferguson once said about coaching, “Don’t do it part time. You have to live your life and that of your players.” He couldn’t have put it any better. It was always about improving the team and getting that edge over the rest of the competition. He had the vision, saw where he wanted to go, and committed himself along with his lifestyle to get there. Above all, that is what I will take from Sir Alex Ferguson. Although it is so much easier said than done.