Saturday 20 December 2014

Ian Herbert: Alex Ferguson used fear as a management tool, Roberto Martinez uses empowerment

Ian Herbert

Published 08/04/2014 | 08:20

Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson will teach in Harvard's executive education programme
Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson will teach in Harvard's executive education programme

The Harvard Business School is about to be introduced to the importance of fear and control in management, courtesy of its new star speaker Alex Ferguson who, ever since he helped resident professor Anita Elberse create a detailed picture of his success at Manchester United, had seemed destined to make academia his next step in life.

A recommended set text guaranteed not to be on the official Harvard reading list is a new book about the young players Ferguson blooded, Fergie’s Fledglings, by United historian Wayne Barton, which will be published a few weeks from now.

In the course of providing a valuable insight into those players of his who did not make it, the book reveals exactly what the fear and control looked and felt like, to some of those who didn’t make the cut with Ferguson.

There are some previously unknown stories, like Ferguson “nailing” Wes Brown for a bad performance and walking off with a grin on his face, an episode remembered by John Curtis, who made 12 league appearances between 1997 and 1999. Alan Tonge, Ferguson’s first signing, talks enthusiastically of how Ferguson “worked fear but normally to his advantage” and woe betide anyone who crossed him.

Of course, the book highlights all the good in Ferguson’s modus operandi – the modernity of him employing podiatrist Steve Lyons, dietician Trevor Lea and ocular scientist Gail Stephenson, for example.

We see the same all-seeing Ferguson of legend; the man who watched A-team and youth-team games on the same day that United’s first team would play and worked his motivational skills in the raw.

But you do wonder whether the academic world will challenge the virtues of fear and control in management which Ferguson extols, because they do not seem so healthy. And because we are now discovering that there can be another way of managing.

One of the reasons to celebrate the rise of Roberto Martinez is that he has no need of fear.

His creed at Wigan Athletic was actually about banishing it altogether – sin miedo (without fear) as he’d say – and though it was the opposition – rather than himself – he wanted his players to feel comfortable about, there is something far more progressive about his way of managing his players than Ferguson’s mantra.

Credit players with some intelligence, Martinez says. Encourage them to think for themselves.

Empower them. Granted, it is far easier to make Wigan and Everton a test-bed than Manchester United but there is something incredibly liberating about a management culture based around the notion that footballers can have intelligence and that they should be respected for it.

British football has always been abysmal at this.

It was Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski in their excellent book Soccernomics who described how the sport in this country has not encouraged an educated, analytic mindset in players.

“Many British coaches and players are suspicious of educated people. Being studious is frowned upon inside the English game,” they wrote, linking this to a wariness of the middle classes at the core of the game and arguing that this explains why the academies of the rich British clubs do not produce better players than the poor nations in the world.

Ferguson shared some of these suspicions. By contrast, there was something incredibly uplifting about the story Martinez told last week of how he had taken Leighton Baines to watch United play Bayern Munich as part of an effort to make him think through his own development into someone akin to Philipp Lahm.

“You need thinking players to be able to take those instructions on board and change things during a game,” Martinez said. “You need to have a flexible mind to play in different positions and to occupy the space rather than just being solid in your role.”

Brendan Rodgers shares this creed – and another reason to celebrate the success the two managers have enjoyed is that it scrambles the notion that the only people who can take English clubs into the Champions League are those who have handled big clubs and big egos before.

Management at the elite level has seemed to be a closed shop in recent years, when the only individuals who need bother applying belong to that self-selecting group – like Mourinho, Ancelotti, Scolari, Capello – who are deemed to have something that others lack.

Ferguson was always rather suspicious of the so-called “bright young manager”, always heaping praise on the older men like Harry Redknapp and, latterly Arsène Wenger.

Though he went outside of his own generation when recommending a successor last May – David Moyes – he still selected someone he felt was in his image.

Reporting the Harvard story as front page news at the weekend, the Financial Times reverentially explained “Fergie-time” to its readers as if it was cutting-edge management speak. Fergie-time was actually the rather less sophisticated act of putting such fear of God into referees that they think twice before a decision. Successful? Yes. Sophisticated? No.

Martinez does not seem to inject the fear of God. He won’t be delivering a Harvard lecture any time soon but he’s achieved what he’s achieved at Everton this season after delivering his new club an £18m profit in the transfer market.

He, not Ferguson, is the one I’d beat a path to hear speak. Everton’s challenge may be holding on to him. Martinez managing Arsenal or Barcelona some time soon is not such a far-fetched notion.

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