Tuesday 26 September 2017

Ferguson: the master of control

Two immense forces: Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane
Two immense forces: Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane
My Autobiography - Alex Ferguson

John Spain

Memoir My Autobiography Alex Ferguson Hodder & Stoughton, €33.35 hbk, 416 pages

The launch of Alex Ferguson's autobiography last week demonstrated once again the great manager's defining characteristic – his insistence on total control. Ferguson may refer to Rafa Benitez in the book as a control freak. But the former Liverpool manager is a disorganised mess in comparison with Ferguson – the ultimate controller – as the book launch showed.

Usually when a title of this importance (in sales potential) is appearing, the publisher does a deal with a newspaper for exclusive extracts to appear on the weekend before publication. This serves two purposes: it brings in a lot of money before the book even goes on sale and it provides a lot of publicity at exactly the right time.

But Ferguson and his publisher decided against the usual approach, even though it meant foregoing the telephone-number sums that would have been on offer.

Ferguson seems to have decided that keeping the book under wraps until the day it was going on sale would create a frenzy of speculation and interest that would far outweigh the publicity of an extract.

He was right. The appearance of the book dominated the news agenda on publication day. There had been no leaks – another indication of the master's control.

Newspapers, television stations, sports writers, book page editors, the general public – everybody got the book at the same time as it arrived in the shops. It turned into a perfect media storm that went on for several days.

The result is that the book went straight to No 1. Nobody will be surprised if it is still there come Christmas.

There was a downside to the game plan, however. With no advance copies for reviewers, there was no time for any measured consideration of the memoir.

The book was scanned in minutes in newsrooms and the instant headlines screamed about how nasty Ferguson was being about Roy Keane, David Beckham and others.

The reality is that the book is far more nuanced and balanced than this immediate coverage suggested.

In the chapter devoted to Keane, for example, you can sense Fergie's deep regret about how that relationship ended. It is a chapter written more in sorrow than in anger.

Yes, he gets in the line about Keane's tongue being the hardest part of his body. (That made all the headlines.) But he pays tribute at length to Keane's service and leadership over the years, calling him "an immense driving force".

His description of the rows that destroyed their partnership as being age and injury catching up with Keane is convincing. The slower Keane got the angrier he became, both with himself and everybody else.

Most telling is the absence of any support among the players for Keane at the showing of the infamous MUTV interview tape to the team. Obsessed, isolated, unbalanced, Keane clearly crossed a line that day that no manager could allow, much less Ferguson to whom being the unquestioned boss was the key.

In the end, as always with Ferguson, it came down to control. Keane was openly challenging him, so he had to go.

In Beckham's case, again Ferguson goes into detail about how gifted he was and how hard he worked.

But he also makes it clear that in his last season at Old Trafford Beckham had lost some of his focus and it is hard to disagree. This is not to say that Beckham was wrong. He was already starting the process of turning himself into a global brand, like Ferguson had done for United. But the level of commitment and concentration Ferguson required from his players left no room for wider agendas. So Beckham had to go.

It was this unsentimental and unwavering maintenance of control that enabled Ferguson to build a succession of outstanding teams.

It is also evident in what he does and does not reveal in this book. It is highly readable, as you would expect from the Telegraph's Paul Hayward who is the ghostwriter, but it is a very controlled level of access.

So there is only a passing reference to the Rock of Gibraltar row, the stand-off with the BBC, the Glazers, and a lot of other situations that cry out for a full explanation. This is no warts and all account; it is Fergie telling us just as much as he wants, and no more.

Inevitably, that means it is all hinged on what influences the players and what matters on the field, as Ferguson sees it. To him it is all about the football, first and last.

What is probably most surprising about the book – especially after last week's headlines – is how soft-hearted Ferguson is behind that flinty exterior.

Maybe it's old age, but his regard and even affection for the players he fell out with over the years is striking. And that goes for Roy Keane as well as all the others.

Irish Independent

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