independent

Monday 21 April 2014

When Fergie speaks, even Harvard listens

"For a player – and for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing 'well done'. Those are the two best words ever invented in sport."

The students gathered in Harvard Business School recently must have scratched their heads in astonishment to hear these words delivered by their visiting lecturer.

Everything they had read in advance about Alex Ferguson suggested his management technique was based largely on the application of fear. Yet here was Ferguson again, talking about how he likes to reassure those players who are not in his starting 11.

"I have been dropped from a Cup final in Scotland as a player at ten-past-two, so I know what it feels like. I'm not ever sure what they are thinking, but I tend to say: 'Look, I might be making a mistake here' – I always say that – 'but I think this is the best team for today.' I try to give them a bit of confidence, telling them that it is only tactical, and that there are bigger games coming up."

The hairdryer, the temper, the flying boots in the dressing-room, these are the things more usually associated with the most successful coach in British football. Several small forests have met their end in printed studies of his ferocity. And here he was coming across like a Liberal Studies undergraduate at the University of Pleaseyourself San Diego, a man apparently in thrall to west coast touchy-feely emotional sensitivity.

Complex

Except Ferguson has never been the one-dimensional ogre of popular imagining. His continued dominance of a trade as complex as football management has long been based on far more sophisticated foundations. He is understanding when he believes it will help the cause. And he is an arch pragmatist, constantly seeking new ways to lead his organisation.

Even in his '70s, there is nothing he loathes more than the idea of being thought to be stuck in his ways. Well, apart from losing to City that is.

Indeed, the very reason he was at Harvard's management school in the autumn was likely to have been motivated as much by what he might learn from them as what he might pass on. That and an urge to put his methodology properly on the record as the inevitable conclusion to his career draws nearer by the day.

And further reading of the report by Tom Dye and Professor Anita Elberse, which is published this week, tells us that his expressions of sympathy towards those in his charge are not indicative of a weakening of his purpose. He may be in his professional dotage, but he remains a boss who could still give Don Corleone lessons in ruthlessness.

"You can't ever lose control," he tells the academics. "Not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires. And if anyone steps out of my control, that's them dead."

That one sentence sends sufficient shivers down the spine to counter his every earlier expression of compassion.

And that word – control – has long been at the core of Ferguson's managerial approach. Though it might be argued Chelsea managed to win the Champions League with the players in charge, he believes for success to follow, control can only be in the hands of one man – the manager. As its principal architect, he remains a passionate proponent of the cult of the coach.

"Some English clubs have changed managers so many times that it creates power for the players in the dressing-room," he says. "That is very dangerous."

But what is clear as Ferguson takes the academics on a tour of his personal history (biggest mistakes: selling Jaap Stam and announcing his early retirement; best motivational pep talk: at half-time in the 1999 Champions League final) is how he has adapted to the draining requirements of the modern game. In football these days there is no place for the old school.

No manager can prosper in a business as complex as the Premier League by refusing to embrace sports science, for instance. And the authors of the Harvard report reveal that, over the summer, Ferguson had installed in his Carrington training base a couple of booths to enable the players to maintain peak condition by topping up on Vitamin D during the long Mancunian winter. It seems his predecessor Ron Atkinson may have been on to something all those years ago – sunbeds have a medical purpose after all.

Though his embrace of the modern is not total. There are some fashions he does not follow. Unlike Brendan Rodgers or Alan Pardew, he is no fan of scribbling on the touchline.

"I see other coaches do it, but I don't want to miss any part of the game. And I cannot imagine going into the dressing-room, looking at my notes and saying: 'Oh, in the 30th minute, that pass you took'. I don't think it's going to impress the players."

His training methods, however, are as up to the minute as any in the game. Restless in his search for an advantage, Ferguson tells the academics that he has his players rehearse situations in which they are trailing with 10 minutes, five minutes and a minute remaining. Which might explain why they have gone behind in matches so often this season – they know too well what to do when they are losing.

"I tell them that hard work is a talent, too," Ferguson adds in the report. "They need to work harder than anyone else. And if they can no longer bring the discipline that we ask for here at United, they are out. I am only interested in players who really want to play for United, and who, like me, are bad losers."

Though he has not written it down, the main management tip Ferguson has is this: clarity. In the brief moments of half-time, in the harem-scarem of the technical area, wherever a manager is instructing his players, he has to ensure he is understood. So, what was Ferguson's message to his United squad ahead of this season? He said: "My motivation to the players will be that we can't let City beat us twice in a row."

It is a seductively simple instruction, one anyone could deliver. But then, only one man has 40 years of successful managerial heft to back it up, only one man has the depth of knowledge so succinctly to summarise a nine-month work programme in a single headline. As the rapt audience of America's leading managerial prospects demonstrated – when Fergie talks, everyone listens. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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