ESPN’s Roger Bennett is a writer I like, and so when he wrote a piece on a Harvard Business School “study” entitled Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United, I did something I rarely do: paid $7 for a PDF file.
Call it buyer’s remorse: the text of the report is a measly 14-pages, and is almost entirely unabashed propaganda that barely touches on the contentious ownership of the Glazers and Ferguson’s role in preserving it. However, it does offer a unique window into SAFs managerial approach.
If you’re a United fan, you will love it, particularly when it profiles FC Barcelona in relation to Manchester’s continued dominance, and concludes “it’s unclear whether they could sustain their success.” If you’re not, you’ll take interest in SAF’s managerial philosophy, which can be very roughly and haphazardly summed up as
a) Don’t talk to the press about anything, whether tactics or player discipline
b) treat your players like members of a family and go out of your way to treat them professionally
c) adapt to changes in the game.
In all, SAF comes off as very, very competent, and shrewd to the nth degree. But there is evidence in the study that a legacy like his may not be repeatable, for reasons that extend well beyond the fact there is only one Sir Alex Ferguson.
For example, when Sir Alex arrived at the club, he did so at a time when there was a greater likelihood a board would give more time to a promising manager, when the financial stakes were generally lower. So his vision of building the structure of a club—with an emphasis on establishing youth players—was more tenable. Could you imagine anyone with the powers afforded to SAF, to essentially reinvent one of the most popular club’s in England after several decades’ worth of stagnation? Now, in the climate of rent-a-managers, you’re only as valuable as your last W.
His view to press relations however is refreshing. There’s no need for a club to hoist its dirty laundry for the benefit of the viewing public, or to seem “tough” to the press by publicly admonishing your employees. This is perhaps SAF’s most translatable skill as manager. Simple, sound, careful professionalism. Ferguson seems to be one of the few managers who knows his players are human beings, albeit sheltered ones making millions of pounds to play football at a very delicate period of their adult lives. Most managers now are in a perpetual pantomime of looking and sounding like a manager, instead of just being a good one. Who can blame them though, when they know their backers are watching?
But his position of authority with his players comes largely on the back of his considerable success rate. It’s far easier for SAF to garner loyalty from his players than a club’s fifth manager in as many years, no matter the honours listed on their CV. In other words, SAF’s success is in many ways self-perpetuating. The more you win, the more opportunities arise—increased authority, for one—to ensure you keep winning. Sir Alex Ferguson’s gift has been in exploiting those opportunities whenever they arise, including using his legendary status to earn the respect of his young charges.
I’m not sure we needed a Harvard study to tell us that, but it’s an important lesson for trigger-happy owners nonetheless. Perhaps if FFP calms the financial seas, we may see indeed see another SAF-like genius grace European football again…