Watching football fans watching the football
It was once said of England’s rugby World Cup winning coach, Sir Clive Woodward, that he became aware of the impressive job he was doing.
That he and his coaching team began to believe there was little – if anything – they could learn from others.
That they stopped trying to improve, that they simply assumed their methods could not be topped.
Given that it’s universally accepted that Woodward did a superb job when in charge of England, it’s a true mark of the man Sir Alex Ferguson – celebrating an incredible 25 years managing Manchester United – is, given that perhaps his greatest strength is that he continues to learn from the role.
The modus operandi Ferguson has employed over that quarter of a century, under continually changing conditions, to counter a vast variety of opposition and challenges, has been one of steady yet certain evolution and one that reflects the transformation of English and European football during that time.
Ferguson has had unparalleled vision. He has learned from his mistakes, taken gambles when necessary and consistently sought to improve a winning side.
That he has had such a solid grasp upon reality, such concrete control over how a football club should be run and how the sport should be played adds further qualities to his portfolio as the greatest football club manager of all time. Bob Paisley, Brian Clough and others may have argued otherwise, but Ferguson’s longevity – his inexhaustible drive and desire for greater success – truly sets him apart from even those managerial greats.
Before winning his first European Cup he said in his autobiography: “After giving the last of my preparatory team-talks for the 1999 [Champions League] final at lunchtime on the Wednesday, I found myself sitting on the veranda of my hotel room in Sitges, looking out over the sea and wondering if perhaps this was one piece of silver destined to stay forever beyond my reach. If it did, I would still have reason to be satisfied with a career in management that had begun 25 years earlier.”
"Satisfied" at his trophy haul. Not overjoyed, delighted or ecstatic. Mere satisfaction – like not burning one’s toast or catching the early train home. Satisfied with, to that point, 21 major trophies – more if you include the then Charity Shield or European Super Cup – in 25 years, a total many would be thrilled at after a century of management let alone a fraction of that time.
It is this insatiable desire for success, this mentality from which the greatest part of United’s success has stemmed. The winning mentalities of Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane are rightly lauded but it was from Ferguson’s that theirs originally grew.
If the greatest challenge to a club as successful as United is to avoid the complacency that comes with such regular triumph, then it can be safely assumed that, for Ferguson, climbing Mount Everest would be akin to an afternoon amble.
One of his greatest – perhaps the greatest – signings of Ferguson’s career was the goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel. Herein, however, was also one of the manager’s greatest challenges – replacing him. Schmeichel was outstanding but, upon his departure in 1999, it took six years for Ferguson to truly replace him in the form of Edwin van der Sar.
Having learned from that previous error, and knowing Van der Sar’s career was coming to a close, Ferguson – if anything, prematurely – sought to replace him. Ben Foster was brought in in the hope was that he’d succeed Van der Sar and that he showed he hadn’t the mentality or temperament to be United’s goalkeeper was ultimately irrelevant. Ferguson, in acting at such speed, still had enough time to prepare another.
An entire season, if not more, was spent monitoring David de Gea, Manuel Neuer and Hugo Lloris – possibly others – before deciding that De Gea was the most suitable replacement.
Similarly – another mistake Ferguson has admitted to was not having a suitable replacement for Jaap Stam when he was sold to Lazio in 2001 – he’s now brought in Phil Jones and Chris Smalling so that they can be the long-term replacements for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Nani, too, was bought a full two years before Cristiano Ronaldo’s eventual departure.
Gone are the days of simply having good back up, such as Henning Berg once being suitable cover for Stam and Ronny Johnsen. Ferguson – as is often overlooked – with Dwight Yorke, Andrew Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham, was the first to truly introduce the rotation policy culture, a mark of extreme prudence and masterful man-management.
The art has been mastered of knowing the right time to sell players and balancing it with a need to keep them to allow others more time to develop. David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy, huge contributors to Ferguson’s success, were considered to be having a detrimental effect upon the team and were sold, for good returns, shortly before they began to decline as players. Neville and Scholes, conversely, were kept as long as possible in order to pass on their wisdom and mentality to the younger members of the squad.
That balance, between keeping a squad fresh and motivated while not overhauling it to the point of inhibiting progress or continuity, has been so finely struck at United it makes the cutlery section at Harrods look like that at a children’s tea party.
In his years at Old Trafford, Ferguson has had to overcome the challenges posed by club politics, fierce managerial competitors, wealthy foreign owners – internally and externally – the age of celebrity players and motivating decorated multi-millionaire modern day footballers.
That he continues to learn, to conquer these challenges and to adapt within the ever-changing nature of the game is one of the many marks of his greatness.
Others come and go, they peak and they threaten. Ferguson’s desire for success – as a teenager, he once didn’t speak to his Dad for several months because of a row stemming from his footballing aspirations – means he alone remains at the very top. As things stand, he’ll stay there for a while longer.
Follow Declan Warrington on Twitter @decwarrington
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