How Sir Alex Ferguson became the greatest winner in Britain

How Sir Alex Ferguson became the greatest winner in Britain

This feature is part of The Masterminds

Something was clearly not right. Although his voice began calmly enough, an unusually anxious Kevin Keegan began stuttering, struggling to find the right words as his finger began jabbing towards the camera, punctuating his fluctuating responses. All season long his great entertainers had danced and driven their way into the heart of every neutral with a thrillingly fluid brand of gung-ho football, but their manager was suddenly falling to pieces in front of the whole country.

To the casual observer, it would have seemed plausible enough if his Newcastle United team had just lost a key match, but they had won a pulsating battle against a Leeds side who had hit the woodwork twice before Keith Gillespie’s early headed winner. Before going on camera, the usually upbeat former European Player of the Year had a quick word with Terry McDermott where he had reassured his assistant that he was just going to present a solid united front, but unable to contain his frustrations that had been simmering for months, he finally caved in. A startled Richard Keys and Andy Gray were barely able to believe the spectacular implosion they were witnessing from the Sky Sports studio.

The root of his rapidly rising consternation was not based on the pitch, however. Well, not exactly; prior to the now infamous live TV interview, the integrity of his opponents had been openly questioned by the man masterminding the most improbable of comebacks, Sir Alex Ferguson. With Nottingham Forest having lost to Manchester United the day before Keegan’s stunning post-match destruction but due to play Newcastle a few days later, Ferguson suggested publicly that the UEFA Cup-chasing Midlanders might exert less effort against Newcastle simply because they weren’t Manchester United. That Keegan took the bait so completely is all the more remarkable given the comprehensive 5-0 thrashing that Stuart Pearce and his Forest teammates had succumbed to against the Mancunians, but is also a sign of the insatiable psychological campaign that had been waged all season by the wily Scot.

Many have tried, most have failed, and very few at all have begun to comprehend the sheer complexity and scale of the mental battle that Ferguson made his trademark ever since he took his first step into management over 40 years ago. Rafa Benítez launched a tirade about “facts” in January 2009 to counter Ferguson’s claims of fixture favouritism towards United’s rivals, mentioning the phrase “mind games” three times, despite his Liverpool side sitting four points clear of their great rivals. Although Fernando Torres ran rings around Nemanja Vidić in a stunning 4-1 demolition at Old Trafford in March, the immediate aftermath of Benítez’s extraordinary press conference made his claims that United were nervous seem hollow at best.

‘Mind games’ is the phrase bandied around today, as if it is almost a grown-up type of child’s play, but Ferguson most certainly wasn’t playing. Where others may have attempted to create a vortex of carefully stage-managed psychological warfare to gain an advantage over rivals, his utterances were borne out of a steadfast belief in his cause. His greatness has been built around his ability to use and manipulate the power of belief to wean every ounce of potential out of players, and every ounce of fear and respect out of opponents.

Unlike many iconic managers, his groundbreaking success wasn’t influenced primarily from his specific style of play, but by pure brute force of character. His approach hasn’t always been met with approval, while circumstance and a fair amount of fortune has often contrived to provide him with the stage he has required to weave his brand of magic. But make no mistake, every one of his 50 club trophies and more than 80 personal awards and honours were prised from the grasp of his competitors through the power of his utterly unshakeable self-confidence.

Where did this steely determination and belief come from? Like many successful figures in the sport, he had a working-class background, but that alone is but a slim portion of the makeup of his managerial career. As a striker, he made his name in the Scottish game, not for pure natural talent but through grit, aggression and unparalleled determination.

The fee of £65,000 paid by Glasgow Rangers for his services, whom he had supported as a boy despite his father’s passion for their eternal enemies Celtic, made him the most expensive transfer in Scottish football history in 1967, but once there he had to scrap for every minute of playing time. Even into his eighth decade, he was known to spend 14 hours a day at the training ground or in his office, while his wife Cath joked upon his consideration of retiring in 2001 that she wouldn’t have him around the house.

While this work ethic did mirror that of his father, who grafted in the Govan shipyards for over 40 years despite recovering from bowel cancer in 1961, his interpretation of hard work always went further than just grafting to earn a living. Alex Senior had coaxed him to enjoy his football from a young age, when he roared criticism to his elder son and to Martin using only their common surnames, which instilled a strict obedience and familial loyalty that would never be shaken.

This drive was very nearly spent on an entirely different career had it not been for a tongue lashing from his mother after a tough period of his early playing days. A bright schoolboy career led to an amateur debut at the age of 16 with Queen’s Park, where he scored on his debut, and although he went on to score a goal every other game, he moved on after three seasons to St. Johnstone. He again struggled to maintain a first-team place despite continuing his impressive scoring rate at the now-demolished Muirton Park and was on the verge of giving up on a career as a footballer following a serious injury in a reserve game against Airdrie.

Upon his return to the pitch, the reserve side lost three consecutive matches conceding 24 goals, which was the final straw for Ferguson, prompting him to file papers for emigration to Canada. “On the Friday, my brother’s girlfriend phoned my manager at St. Johnstone and told him I had the flu,” he recalled in 2010 in a speech to students in his native Glasgow. “But when I arrived home from a night at the swimming baths with my pals, my mother tore into me. She said ‘I’ve had a telegram from your manager – get down to the telephone booth and call him’. The manager said: ‘Report to the Bath Hotel tomorrow, you’re playing against Rangers’.

“I scored a hat-trick and became the first player to do so against Rangers at Ibrox – it changed my life. I became a full-time footballer in the summer and never looked back.” His feat, against one half of the historic duopoly of Scottish football, earned him a move to Dunfermline, and his debut season amongst the paid ranks almost ended in stunning fashion as the Pars finished a single agonising point behind Hearts and eventual champions Kilmarnock, while Celtic edged past them 3-2 in the Scottish Cup final.

Jock Stein had been the first man to try to bring Ferguson to Dunfermline after his heroics at Ibrox, but by the time the young striker had signed in the summer of 1964 Stein had already moved across the Forth Road Bridge to take charge of Hibernian. In his time at Dunfermline, he had guided them to previously unprecedented success by winning the Scottish Cup in his first season, and then to the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup the following year. After a year with Hibs he moved onto Celtic where he forged his legend, but his and Ferguson’s paths would later cross, binding them closer together than either of them realised at this stage.

The younger man finished as top scorer in each of his three seasons in the black and white stripes, with a phenomenal 45 goals in just 51 games in his second term, before the dream offer from Rangers came in 1967. His time at Ibrox was punctuated by a strained relationship with David White, who was manager for the majority of his two years at the club, as he was again in and out of the first team, and sometimes played out of position.

In the 1969 Scottish Cup final against Celtic, he was assigned to mark opposing captain Billy McNeill – who he would later go on to succeed as manager of Aberdeen – but was directly blamed for at least one goal, a deed he was punished for by being relegated to the youth team.

He had been questioned about his wife’s religion upon signing for the predominantly Protestant club, who was confirmed to be Catholic. His father had also broken the taboo of marrying across the sectarian divide, and this singular mindset was one trait passed down a generation in the family. Although the director who questioned him seemed satisfied that their ceremony had been held in a registry office, Ferguson later claimed in his autobiography that he felt a lingering hostility from the PR manager Willie Allison. Whether this issue alone is responsible for the antipathy he felt from the club is uncertain, but what is beyond doubt is that he felt mistreated by the club he had grown up in awe of. It was a resentment that would fuel his first great dynasty at Aberdeen nearly a decade later.

A move to Falkirk where he was appointed player-coach followed, but after John Penrice arrived as manager in 1973 and subsequently removed his coaching responsibilities, Ferguson handed in his notice and headed to Ayr United for one last season as a player. He had received his first coaching badges while still at Dunfermline at the age of 24 so clearly boasted a strong passion for leading teams and was indignant that his position had been taken from him. While he had been an apprentice toolmaker in Glasgow, he had become an early member of the trade unions and frequently voiced his strong opinions, a heated streak that formed the bedrock of his political leanings as well as his personality.

In the summer of 1974, East Stirlingshire offered Ferguson his first full-time manager’s position, despite having finished 16th in the Second Division in front of around 400 average spectators a game with a playing squad of only 12 that didn’t include a single goalkeeper, and with a budget of £2,000 to rebuild. This was exactly the sort of opportunity that Ferguson relished; being the relatively big fish in a smaller pond gave him a decent chance at setting his demanding stall out from the off in his managerial career. This was his first chance to flex his muscles, and he didn’t disappoint.

Standards of punctuality and appearance have always been an important part of how he operates. In Daniel Taylor’s book This Is The One: Sir Alex Ferguson, The Uncut Story of a Football Genius (2007), he recalls how in his reign at Old Trafford, Ferguson would cheekily quip about a journalist’s unkempt hair or stubble by asking if he “has walked into an Oasis concert”, but would be scathing, either in words or by looks, for anyone who missed the scheduled start of the midday press conference.

He quickly set strict rules on codes of conduct and dress at The Shire, as well as organising analysis sessions of opposition, in a flurry of organisation the club had rarely experienced before. Most intriguingly of all, he began his first battle with the media from the word go without any apparent personal motivation other than gaining every shred of advantage. He wasted no time in spreading the belief among his players that the local paper, The Falkirk Herald, was biased towards the city’s bigger club, thus bonding them together by making out that they were being victimised.

All this came from a 32-year-old recently retired player with no experience. He implemented an attacking brand of football that drew plaudits from the fans as they rocketed up the table to third place, but already his work was not going unnoticed. Club chairman Willie Muirhead had given Ferguson the job from a list of 20 candidates, but it would be the last interview process the manager would have to go through. Even the first altercation with the board ended positively for the fiery boss – his decision to release £40 of club funds to a visiting youth team dragged him in front of the directors to explain, but instead of bowing his head respectfully he threatened to resign, and the club soon backed down.

It was St. Mirren who were sniffing already at the sign of this electric new managerial talent, and they offered him their manager’s position even though they were now below East Stirlingshire in the Second Division. They were undoubtedly the club with more instant potential, and while he wavered between remaining loyal to his first employers and grabbing such a swift opportunity to improve his lot, he reached out to Jock Stein for advice. The Celtic supremo’s advice was to sit at the top of the main stands of Firs Park and Love Street and then decide; having taken in the view from the top of St. Mirren’s 50,000 capacity terraces, it was a no-brainer.

He had only been in charge for 17 matches and 117 days in total, but Muirhead reckoned Ferguson was the most significant figure in the club’s history. The whirlwind of change showed no sign of slowing down; once appointed in Paisley, he redoubled his efforts to instil an invigorated sense of urgency at his new club by riding around the streets with a loudspeaker trying to encourage locals to come and support their side instead of passively watching on TV, or worse still, being drawn in by the inevitable pull of supporting Celtic or Rangers. Michael Grant describes it as “an imaginative, almost comic, ploy which made him look like a political candidate on General Election day” in his book Fergie Rises: How Britain’s Greatest Manager Was Made at Aberdeen (2014).

Without uprooting trees in his first two seasons, where he finished sixth both times, first in the old Second Division and again in the newly formed Second Division (now the second tier of three, as opposed to just two tiers), he stamped his authority and released 18 players after his first season. Finally his methods came together as they stormed to the title by four points, scoring 91 goals in 39 matches as they returned to the top flight. He trusted youth, making 18-year-old Tony Fitzpatrick his captain, while reinforcing astutely by signing Jackie Copland from Dundee United. Fitzpatrick recalls the intensity of his new boss after a heavy victory in Grant’s book vividly: “I was silly enough to say, ‘What the fuck are you looking for? We won 5-0! Are you not happy?’ He came over and gave me Fergie special. He told me in no uncertain terms that he was the manager and it was his standards that counted.”

Notice how the young captain recalls his role in that exchange; ‘I was silly enough to say’. Not a shock of misunderstanding, but an instant acceptance that the boss was right. This force of character was fine in the dressing room, but it led to fiery outbursts directed at officials that incurred fines and touchline bans and inspired the tag ‘Fergie’s Furies’ for St. Mirren. The board could stomach the difficult first season back in the top flight – they escaped immediate relegation by one place – but they were finding it too much to accept the complete control he demanded over the running of the club.

A board meeting convened to discuss his future, and it was decided he was out of control and should be fired. Among the 13 breaches of contract they drew up to substantiate their claims was his intimidating treatment of the office secretary after she hadn’t cooperated in arranging tax-free expenses. It was said that he locked away her keys and refused to communicate with her except through an assistant. This aggressive behaviour was more than St. Mirren could handle, and they sacked the man who had re-energised the club. In what can now be looked back on with glorious hindsight as one of the all-time most ludicrous statements, chairman Willie Todd fired a parting shot at the tribunal, saying Ferguson had “no managerial ability.”

The year 1978 was when the situation aligned itself to suit Ferguson perfectly. At the same point when he had been made redundant, Jock Stein had accepted an offer to take over at Leeds United, making Celtic look for a replacement. Their Lisbon Lions captain Billy McNeill was appointed after less than a year at the helm with Aberdeen and, given his explosive fame and success, Ferguson was swiftly enticed to step up another level in the North East.

It was not a smooth transition, despite the extraordinary speed with which negotiations were concluded. Ferguson was keen to take on the challenge, but the fans were initially wary of the firebrand who was still a proud Glaswegian at heart. The two cities had never enjoyed a comfortable relationship, and around the late 1970s the discovery of oil in the North Sea off the coast from Aberdeen had seen the city boom as the arrival of black gold heralded the arrival of industry on a scale not seen before. Meanwhile, Glasgow was suffering from an economic slump, which only served to pique the rivalry.

Whereas in his first two roles major restructuring of the playing staff had been essential to his success, at Aberdeen he inherited one of the most talented groups of players in the country, and minimal tweaking was needed in terms of personnel. A raw teenaged Alex McLeish was bursting to come through, 20-year-old Jim Leighton provided backup in goal, and the 21-year-old Steve Archibald and same-aged Gordon Strachan were two of the brightest talents around. The final ingredient, in the new man’s eyes at least, was to once and for all break up the overbearing mental control the Old Firm held over the rest of Scotland.

Sure, the Dandies were an established force north of the border, but they had only won a solitary league title in nearly 80 years of existence, and although they ventured to Hampden Park for cup finals, they invariably crumbled to the inevitably Glaswegian opponent. Time to swing into action Fergie’s psychology. In a mirror technique of his introductory attack on The Falkirk Herald’s perceived snubbing of East Stirlingshire, he banged the drum that the media fanned over Rangers and Celtic with monotonous regularity, until it didn’t become an active thought but a deep-rooted reflex reaction for his players.

He wanted fighters, aggressive but confident men who could topple the sickening hegemony of the long-established order. Renowned author, broadcaster and journalist Graham Hunter grew up supporting Aberdeen, and he explained natural tactics Ferguson employed. “He was building a talented, hungry, aggressive, home-bred group of players and he had a public which wanted success and would travel with the team,” he told These Football Times. “Between the home-bred players, the local media, the fans and the board it was easy as pie to sell them the idea that the Old Firm were swaggering bullies who just needed a regular jab to the nose to make them run away, and to sell the idea that the West of Scotland media were biased and, in the main, supporters of Rangers or Celtic.”

While time would show his abrasive style to be a successful one, it didn’t initially go down well with the core of leaders in the squad, chief of whom was the magnificent defender Willie Miller. The de facto leader of the club, Miller would go on to become the club’s record appearance maker with 797 matches over an 18-year period, and upon Ferguson’s arrival, he was not simply going to bow down to the new man. Blazing rows over Ferguson’s unrelenting reference to how wonderful his previous charges at St. Mirren were, in particular Jackie Copland who he compared favourably to Miller, didn’t sit easily with his new squad, nor did his almost bloodthirsty quest for the utmost standards.

“He referred to St. Mirren a lot,” Miller told Grant. “That’s what got up my nose a little bit. I had my own way of doing things … so when Fergie kept referring to how St. Mirren did things I didn’t take it that well. Eventually I pointed it out to him. The thing with Fergie is that he’s a good judge of character. I wasn’t trying to undermine his authority in any way and he knew that. He was pretty rash when he came into Aberdeen. He was only 36. He wasn’t schooled in man-management. He wasn’t the type of manager he became later. He was abrasive; he spoke his mind.”

After a couple of months of increasing tension, he called a team meeting on the pitch before training and opened the floor to his squad. It was a rare moment in his career where he allowed free discussion in front of the whole squad, and grievances flowed forth. Joe Harper, the gifted striker who would become the club’s all-time record goalscorer, ‘King Joey’ to the fans, voiced his concerns about the tactics where he had been deployed as a lone frontman in one away game. Later he was summoned to Ferguson’s office where he was admonished for daring to question the boss’s tactical nous in front of the squad, despite having been assured all issues could be made free from fear of recriminations.

Their relationship never fully recovered, although they both maintained a degree of professionalism by tolerating each other’s presence as Harper continued scoring for another two seasons while Ferguson kept selecting him. It was a crucial moment in the development of Ferguson the man manager; as Miller pointed out, he was still a young man, but even he realised the need to acknowledge the influence of others such as his captain, even if he did not bend entirely to his will. In the following three-and-a-half decades, Fergie’s trademark became his ability to build bridges where others seemed incapable, but always on his terms.

The first season was a struggle on many levels for Ferguson, but it forced him to steel his will even further. His departure from St. Mirren had left a sour taste as he was pursuing a tribunal case against the club for unfair dismissal, with the hearing spread over four days in November and December. This meant spending time away from his new charges allowing seeds of discontent with some parties to brew as he often didn’t make the return journey with his players after away games. The panel ruled against Ferguson, as he had apparently, amongst other claims, been withdrawing unauthorised expenses. Worse still, he was away from his father who had fallen ill having contracted lung cancer before Christmas 1978.

The following February saw St. Mirren host Aberdeen, and with it the return of the man whose legal battle against them had failed. Leading 2-0 at half-time through Archibald and Ian Scanlon, the Dons were looking comfortable, but then disaster struck. First, after the hour mark, St. Mirren pulled one back, and within a matter of minutes both Scanlon and Miller were sent off, leaving the visitors to desperately cling on to a slender lead for over 20 minutes. As the game was drawing to a close, none other than Jackie Copland scored the equaliser.

In the corridors after the game, Fergie was to receive his real bombshell: his father had died. He was distraught but battled on in public. The funeral was four days later, coinciding with a fixture against Partick Thistle, which the grieving son took charge of. Just over a month later was the Scottish League Cup final against Rangers, and the perfect opportunity to provide some catharsis, but Rangers won an ill-tempered match in the last minute of injury time.

In the context of sport, Ferguson grew to understand the value of a figure of utmost authority, but also of the bonds that could be developed in a tight-knit unit if one cut out the superfluous distractions of outside influence. Family was sacrosanct throughout his life and through all areas of his life. Although he made a career out of presenting himself as tough as a slab of Aberdonian granite when circumstance required it, his real secret was in knowing how, and when, to show his human warmth to shine through.

When he came to deal with the enigmatic magician in Eric Cantona at Manchester United, he had adapted and learned how to approach the most irascible talents, and how to spot the ones with real character beneath their seemingly awkward exterior. Cantona would inspire young players around him with his astonishing work ethic, as well as 50,000 fans each week with his balletic skill, and in return he wanted the freedom and understanding to accommodate his nuances off the pitch, and as much as anything, a father figure to guide him. If it meant allowing him to turn up in a t-shirt to a formal reception banquet and having to smooth it over with his teammates and directors, then so be it, as long as he performed in training and on match day.

Ferguson’s gregarious side often came out when least expected, but when it did it was overwhelming in its sincerity for the recipients. Hunter fondly recalls such an experience when he followed the Scottish national team at the 1982 World Cup in Spain with his friend Graeme Runcie, who was Ferguson’s neighbour in Aberdeen when the manager first arrived up north. “He was kind enough to take us out for dinner in Puerto Banús with the majority of the other Scottish Premier League managers at that time. For two young guys, football-obsessed and who’d travelled across Europe by train to get there for the Scotland games, that was a bit of an old treat and the night was full of stories and colour. Fergie was also good enough to secure our match tickets for all three Scotland games which was super of him.”

His time at Aberdeen was an unbridled success after the tricky first hurdle, as he went on to win three Scottish League titles, four Scottish Cups and one Scottish League Cup, but the undoubted crowning glory was the conquest of Real Madrid in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Today Aberdeen occupy 285th-place in UEFA’s rankings, but those glorious European nights remain firmly in the hearts of the club’s fans, and naturally they lead to even greater recognition for the manager.

Ferguson’s record at Manchester United is so well known it doesn’t serve a purpose to run through his achievements one by one here, but it is worth analysing how he built the dynasty for which he is best known across the globe. Upon his arrival in Manchester, he faced a similar situation that he had faced in each of his previous appointments; a more powerful, revered foe. In this case, it was Liverpool that got him going, with their peerless, untouchable air an instant irritant.

The manner in which he went about clawing back every one of those titles rankled with some more traditional members of the Old Trafford support. Those who had grown up on a diet of Sir Matt Busby’s strictly Catholic values were not impressed by the brashness and sour attitude towards opponents, officials and the media, and some have claimed he tarnished the image of the club by constantly complaining about every slight against them, whether justly made or not.

Busby famously defined what makes a great Manchester United player by aping a passage from Corinthians. “Skill, fitness and character – and the greatest of these is character,” he said. In that sense, Ferguson must be said to have perfectly identified the soul of the club, if not the identical manner of his famous countryman. Busby demanded that his players entertained the crowds who worked all week as a moral obligation; Ferguson could hardly be said to have failed on this front. Youth was absolutely critical to the post-war resurgence under Busby – and the entire world knows about the traditions that Ferguson continued in this vein.

So when his career is distilled down to the bare bones, how great is he? How era-defining was he? “He always had that ‘me against the world’ mentality,” says Hunter. “It’s special and you cannot just engineer it because you read it in textbooks that it might work with a group of sportsmen or women.” He revolutionised the art of psychology to the point where it was impossible to argue against him and coexist; those that remained either failed trying, or respected him in competing alongside him.

What makes him truly great is not his tactical innovation; he did not devise a revolutionary system like Rinus Michels or Valeriy Lobanovskyi. Nor is it his statistical record; others have won more in continental competition. It is simply that he redefined winning into its most basic form, and was bloody good at it. For Sir Alex Ferguson there was only one way – his way.

By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint

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