Iron Gentleman of Britain

Ferguson, the modernist, is behind the tactical flexibility to adopt a horses-for-courses approach. Unlike other British managers of his generation, Ferguson is an empire builder of the free market era. He works in tandem with the commercial management at United. By Abilash Nalapat.

A British national newspaper, The Independent, recently narrated an incident when a journalist praised Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, 71, who announced his retirement on May 8 for health reasons after managing his club to its 13th English Premier League win under his stewardship. The scribe in question exclaimed that Ferguson could survive on a daily quota of only five hours sleep round the year, an attribute he shared with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died exactly a month to the day Ferguson called it quits. “Don’t associate me with that woman,” was Ferguson's response.

Not an entirely surprising repartee from the incomparable English Premier League trophy-collector considering that the man who has been the bulwark in the creation of Manchester United Incorporated is still wedded to his working class origins as a shipbuilder’s son in the Govan district of Scotland. Working class Britain, as we have all been reminded in the recent days following the Iron Lady’s death, remembers the country's only woman Prime Minister in a rather unambiguous fashion.

At the risk of self exposure to Ferguson's vintage ‘hair dryer treatment’ meted out to United players who have not tried hard enough and to blundering officials, the submission of this writer is that the journalist's comparison is not far off the mark. By selling State-owned industries (such as coal, iron and steel, telephone, railways and electricity) and council houses to the private sector and asking heavily State-subsidized industries (such as automobile manufacturing and ship building) to self monetise, Lady Thatcher was seeking to unlock the ingenuity, enterprise and innovativeness among the British working classes which, according to her, was discouraged in the socialist model that had underpinned Britain’s existence in the country's immediate post Second World War and post-imperial decades.

Born as a grocer’s daughter, Lady Thatcher decided autocratically that she needed help from no quarters to understand what is best for her country’s working class population. She was appalled at the aspiration among the new 1970s middle class to look upon early retirement and attendant relocation to the countryside. ‘English Culture and Decline of the Industrial Spirit’, an academic book by Martin Wiener in the early 1980s, was particularly a Thatcher favourite. The book, a critique of the elite English value system which had privileged an idyllic rural universe over the Victorian industrial world, made a direct connection between the elite cultural practice of early retirement to the countryside and the dwindling productivity of Britain post the Second World War. According to The Economist, Lady Thatcher got her political ally, Sir Keith Joseph, to distribute the book to all members of her cabinet thereby communicating her specific objective of reclaiming the work ethic of the Victorian industrial universe with the intention of leading Britain once again to economic recovery and growth.

The structure and ownership of Manchester United has changed many times from the season Ferguson managed the club to his first League title win (1992-93) to this season (2012-13) when Ferguson won his 13th Premier League title in late April 2013 — in 1992-93, the club was a public listed company (PLC) with Martin Edwards as the single biggest shareholder; it became a PLC with J. P. McManus and John Magnier as the biggest shareholders in the early years of the new century; then in 2005 mutated to a debt-ridden privately-owned company by the Glazer family and in 2012 the club again changed its structure to become a PLC with the Glazer family as the single largest share-holding group. Ferguson has masterminded Premier League triumphs during each of the four above-mentioned economic dispensations. This is a staggering achievement further amplified when taken into consideration that United had not won the title for more than quarter of a century before 1992-93 when Ferguson managed the club to his first and the club’s eighth title. To think that the club was second from bottom in the league table when Ferguson took over as manager way back in November 1986! For a global non-British audience, Ferguson’s achievement is the most high profile illustration of a working class Briton’s resourcefulness in Britain’s post Thatcher years.

Much has been written about the hallmarks of Ferguson’s long tryst with delivering success — the man management skills, tactical nous, the eye for spotting talent, the hard-nosed manner of closing transfer deals, fostering the one-for-all and all-for-one spirit in the dressing room with no place for disloyalty and backbiting and the utmost importance placed on practice and off-the-field discipline.

Over and above all these attributes, the main pillar of Ferguson’s inspirational ability to build title winning teams time and again is his assimilation skill. Though a member of the generation of the old English school of football management, where passion, character, grit and a physical and direct style devoid of complicated tactics reign supreme, the ease with which Ferguson has embraced modern tactics and realities of the global market has given rise to a unique professional.

While other modern members of the old school English football management, such as Kenny Dalglish and Kevin Keegan, have failed to master nuanced tactics so important to hold together under one umbrella the varied styles of the best talent from Continental Europe, South America and Africa, Ferguson has been a beacon in this aspect. The United teams managed by him have also embodied his old world never-say-die spirit and passion in clinching last-minute winners, the most prominent among them being the historic win against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in Barcelona in May 1999.

The United manager has been able to create a unique style blending pragmatism with flair over the years. The vintage United style, developed by Ferguson, is quick forward movement and direct passing and crossing aimed at scoring goals. However, there have been times when a more Continental defensive approach — keeping men behind the ball and holding shape at all times — devised by the Italian and German teams of the 1980s have been adopted by Ferguson.

During the 1995-96 Premier League season, a team which had the flair and vision of Eric Cantona, the pace of Ryan Giggs and the industriousness of Andy Cole, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and David Beckham displayed unexpected defensive discipline to grind out a series of 1-0 wins towards the second half of the season. A more recent example would be the title winning squad of 2008-09 — a title that was won on defensive discipline with 14 consecutive clean sheets by a team that boasted of the creative skills of Cristiano Ronaldo and the pace, power and physicality upfront of Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez.

Ferguson, the modernist, is behind the tactical flexibility to adopt a horses-for-courses approach. Unlike other British managers of his generation, Ferguson is an empire builder of the free market era. He works in tandem with the commercial management at United and has one eye open on United swelling its fan following in the Asian, American and African territories. Ferguson is well aware that a ruthless winning habit is a vital pre-requisite to win over support from people living in the opposite end of the globe who have little or no experience of having visited or lived in Manchester or England. An attacking style, centered on scoring goals, helps in winning global converts but falls short of achieving the desired targets when devoid of the pragmatic process of collecting trophies.

In his autobiography, Managing My Life, Ferguson has written about the challenge he faced to motivate the moody French genius, Eric Cantona, United’s talisman between 1992-93 and 1996-97, who was unhappy at being treated as a pawn by the club’s merchandising department.

Ferguson efficiently walked the tightrope for a couple of seasons, successfully convincing the Frenchman that he sympathised with him as a fellow ‘football man’ at the same time instilled small doses of free market pragmatism in his iconic player by talking about the importance of building the most famous global club — his advice kept Cantona going till the Frenchman prematurely retired from football in 1997 when he was at his peak.

Arsenal players gave their Manchester United counterparts a guard of honour upon winning an unprecedented 20th league title when United visited the North London club’s Emirates Stadium recently. Ferguson has admitted that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been his greatest footballing adversary, the two having fought many battles for league supremacy between 1996-97 and 2004-05.

One can’t but help thinking that Lady Thatcher, an ideological adversary from beyond the football fields, might be toasting Sir Alex Ferguson from whichever world she currently inhabits.