Sir Alex Ferguson focuses on winning as others idealise and innovate

20 March 2009 08:31
He has also – so far – won the battles that really mattered. He reduced Kevin Keegan, then manager of Newcastle, to his famous "I would love it if we beat them" rant – and lifted the title himself. Ferguson yielded temporary supremacy to Chelsea's Jose Mourinho, but United were the champions when Roman Abramovich parted company with Mourinho. Arsene Wenger threatened to draw level in the early 2000s, but Ferguson has since put clear blue water between them. And this season Rafael Benitez, in his scripted ad hominem attack, seemed to reprise the Keegan malaise.

How does Ferguson do it? Many believe his psychological hold over rival managers is central to his success. One former coach of mine used to say excitedly that Ferguson was "king of the mind games", as though he could undermine the entire opposition team by out-manipulating their manager.

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Or does the mind games tag understate his gift? Alastair Campbell, in a provocative interview with Ferguson in this week's New Statesman, draws parallels between Ferguson and political leaders, implying that Ferguson is a master of long-range strategic insight.

I am not sure of either argument. Nor, I suspect, is Ferguson. In fact, it may be precisely because Ferguson is not wedded to an over-arching strategy that he has been able to excel for so long. Perhaps we should see him as a genius of anti-strategy.

Mind games first. Though it is occasionally amusing and fills column inches, I think what managers say in public is less significant than the media wants us to believe. In sport, unlike politics, the facts are not open to much debate, and the facts are delivered on the field, not in television interviews. Those facts have proved Ferguson's case very eloquently. So I think Ferguson has won the 'mind games' because he won the football matches, rather than winning the football matches because he won the mind games.

How then can we explain his extraordinary track record of wins and trophies? Surely Ferguson is the master strategist? Campbell suggested to Ferguson that the three most important qualities in a leader are "being strategic, being ahead of the curve . and getting the best from people around you".

Ferguson's three leadership bullet points are considerably grittier: control, managing change, and observation.

It is significant that control comes first, the most central to his success. There has never been any doubt that he is in charge. Even when his greatest henchmen have challenged him – David Beckham, Roy Keane – he simply got rid of them. Machiavelli would have thoroughly approved.

'Managing change' is also a revealing phrase. The change is something external, something that happens to you, is not orchestrated by you. It is not about leading the change, but about adapting to it. This seems to me to be the opposite of Campbell's "being ahead of the curve". I suspect Ferguson is quite happy for other managers to be more innovative or original than him – to be ahead of the curve – so long as Ferguson can take the best of their ideas and use them to defeat the original architect. Campbell, surely, would approve of that.

With Brian Clough and Wenger you sensed a deep conviction about how football should be played which transcended whether their tactics were actually working at the time. For Clough, it was about keeping the ball on the deck and relishing the beautiful game. For Wenger the game revolves around athleticism and balancing the accounting books. Clough and Wenger managed as if the Platonic truth about football had been revealed to them in a vision. When events went against them, they interpreted events to be mistaken, not the vision itself.

In other words, Clough and Wenger are idealists. However much they want to win, they see management as being about more than just about winning. They are driven by an argument about ideas – in which they want their ideas to triumph. Sometimes this loyalty to ideas looks like vision; but another day it seems to be a debilitating stubbornness.

Ferguson's stubbornness is not intellectual but personal. He remains loyal to his feud with the BBC, and anyone else who crosses him, but not to a tactical vision. True, Manchester United play a positive, attractive brand of football. But you sense it is because Ferguson knows the game has evolved that way. You cannot win any more like Don Revie's Leeds, through controlled violence and intimidation.

Ferguson's footballing vision, I suspect, is very simple. Winning. Winning is always good enough for Ferguson, which may explain why he has been so good at it. So it is revealing that despite a passing nod to Abraham Lincoln in the Campbell interview, Ferguson seems particularly interested in Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. "I tell you," he says of Clinton, "that was a political genius speaking."

A political genius. Someone who gets the job done. Someone who wins. Someone who understands the real world. Someone not unduly attached to ideas and theories.

But a strategist? There are two dictionary definitions of strategy – first 'the art of manoeuvring an army', secondly 'a long-term plan'. I think it is manoeuvring an army that motivates Ferguson, not delivering a long-term plan. He has been, like his New Statesman interviewer, very much a man of his times.


Source: Telegraph