The social psychology that Manchester United have missed, and must reclaim, since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure

The social psychology that Manchester United have missed, and must reclaim, since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure

This statement is going to make a lot of you shake your heads, that is to say it seems strikingly obvious, at least on the surface. Manchester United can be saved, and Sir Alex Ferguson knows how to do it. There we go. Who’d have thought?

Everyone has an answer for how to save the sinking ship of a football club. José Mourinho himself pointed that out. But few have the experience that he does. So what went wrong? I’d say it’s as simple as Mourinho not being who he thought he was. What did Ferguson know, then, that Mourinho didn’t? For one, he knew how to lead by incorporating his intimate understanding of social psychology into his managerial philosophy.

United have a high-powered side. There can be no excuses. There is a title-challenging side in there, at least in attack. Not only that, but a title challenging side for some years.

Maybe the first thing that Ferguson knew, which subsequent managers should be made to read and learn before they get to set foot on the training pitch, is a lesson from poet John Donne entitled No Man Is An Island. Yes, no man is indeed an island; nobody exists in isolation. We are products of others and they of us. The greatest influence on our behaviour is that of those around us. If there is a weak link, the chain breaks because of it. There was rarely a weak link in a Ferguson side, and when there was, he swatted it away instantly.

One of the common criticisms of Mourinho’s tenure were the performances, and as an extension, the behaviour of Paul Pogba. He’s what many fans would rightly deem as an “elite” player. He is one of the best in the world. Versatile, accurate, technical and with the undeniable capability to lead. He’s also young and a bit stroppy. Throw that in with a propensity for dodgy haircuts and dressing-room dance-offs and you’ve got Public Enemy Number One.

Memories are short, of course. Cristiano Ronaldo was no saint, although his work-ethic was superior to Pogba’s. David Beckham, if I remember correctly, also had a penchant for peacockish barnets. Pogba, it seems, can do no right. The jury is out. As it stands, when Pogba is good, he’s very good. More importantly, when Pogba is good, everyone else is good, too. 

Ferguson knew that no one was bigger than the club, but that there had to be room for stars. Remember, no man is an island. Influence is important. In any team, a hierarchy is necessary. Paul Scholes and Roy Keane didn’t take orders from Kieran Richardson. Quite the opposite. Keane once sent the young player away from training before he’d even reached the grounds, on account of him driving in with blaring music to the team car-park.

Professor Damien Hughes dubbed Keane a “cultural architect”. He was a role model for players. In any functioning society, of which a football club is a microcosm of, there must be a hierarchy of both capability and authority. This is something else Ferguson understood. It came from his pre-footballing days as a dockyard labourer. Nothing gets done if there’s no one to respect and take orders from.

Read  |  How Sir Alex Ferguson became the greatest winner in Britain

It’s a technique that Pep Guardiola knows about. When he took the reigns at Barcelona, he transformed the club into the best in the world. He managed this by identifying a handful of these so-called “cultural architects”, who others would respect and abide.

Back in 2012, Ferguson met up with Harvard academics to discuss the more theoretical side of his managerial philosophy. Incidentally, it was a side that his players were well versed in. His psychology and philosophy was clear to all, rarely hidden, even if some intimate techniques remained masked. Eric Cantona, Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand still talk about it today. Today they are gentlemen; products of the great man. When they talk, especially about United, it’s as if Ferguson is still in the room watching them.

In these meetings at Harvard, Ferguson detailed the way he implements psychological techniques in training. What stood out as the common denominator in everything he said was the importance of developing a team mentality. It was as simple as ‘if you’re not in, you’re out.’ Under his leadership, no one seemed to want out. That’s because he knew how to deal with people on an individual level. He said: “Players these days have lived more sheltered lives, so they are much more fragile now than 25 years ago.”

An interesting line on Mourinho recently was that he is an analogue manager in a digital world. He hasn’t evolved. There are merits to his approach, but it’s less durable and malleable than previously. Ferguson clearly and methodically incorporated evolution into his approach.

Realising that players’ egos are difficult to deal with, the Scot admitted that he mellowed out over time to integrate his own personality into that of the new generation of players. The next manager, whatever age bracket they are in, must talk to players on their level. You can implement an idea, but only if people listen. The manager must remain a director and not veer into being an auteur. They must tell the club’s story before they try to tell their own. 

Ferguson was always switched on. Before entering the pitch, the mind-games had already begun. Dominance hierarchies are a key part of social psychology. To make his place at the top clear, he used to wait in the tunnel and, as the players exited the dressing room, he’d shake every one of their hands. This wasn’t so much for his team, though, as for those who were looking on.

Making sure to catch the eyes of the opposition and the referees: Ferguson was displaying his ability to exert control. The players were at his beck-and-call. A disciplined team is daunting. The opposition were made the feel that immediately. A respectful team were less likely to get booked. The referees noticed that immediately, too. His display was part of an elaborate web. United were a goal up before the players had kicked a ball.

Repetition in football is key in things like training drills. Not in team-talks, though. Ferguson once heard a story about a manager starting a team-talk for the “thousandth time you’ll have heard it”, to which a player jokingly responded, “And I’ve been asleep for half of them.” This wouldn’t do for Ferguson. Every talk was important, so he had to use his imagination. It’s this idea of influence again. If no one listens, your influence diminishes. To avoid this, Ferguson told his players stories.

He’d talk about war, great sportsmen, world leaders, even an Andrea Bocelli concert. This is a little hack that dually keeps the audience alert and helps them retain information. The key is not to make it sound like information. Our minds are lazy. Firing up neural pathways with something new is an exciting way to capture and ignite the players’ own creativity. Doing so in a group, usually just after they’ve eaten, is part of its efficacy. 

His team-talks worked. They were the stuff of legend. One of the defining attributes of Ferguson’s United was grit. Grit is a key mental, not physical, attribute. This pertains to the player’s and club’s ability to work strenuously towards goals. Not short-term, but long term ones. Key aspects of grit are passion, ambition, self-discipline and optimism.

Drawing on all of these, Fergie delivered his side’s most important and influential team-talk ever in the 1998/99 Champions League final: “At the end of this game, the European Cup will be only six feet away from you and you’ll not even able to touch it if we lose. And for many of you that will be the closest you will ever get. Don’t you dare come back in here without giving your all.”

Everything had been put in place before the match, in training. He knew it was down to the players now. Their attitude and work-rate are what stood between them and glory. Emphasising the negative feeling of failure, and the long-lasting presence it will have in their lives, was enough for his side to transform their fortunes.

United were never beaten until the final whistle blew, and part of this came down to the way long-term plans were instilled. The here and now was important, but only because it built towards greater glory in the future. All great leaders have this mentality. Not everyone used Ferguson’s neat tricks to make it happen, though.

In an incident now referred to in psychology books, the Scot often became a master of mind tricks. United won their first league title in 1993 after a long 26-year wait. It felt good. Great, even. So good that Ferguson worried the players might lose their heads a little in all the confetti-laden celebrations. He devised a plan to make sure that didn’t happen.

Read  |  José Mourinho: the early years

He had the players sit down and told them, “I’ve written three names down. I’ve put them in an envelope. Those are the three players that are going to let us down next season.” The players naturally didn’t want to be one of those names. But if they were in the envelope, they wanted to prove him wrong. They wanted to defy their own manager’s expectations. 

Ferguson said that he did the same thing the following season, too. He also later revealed that there was no envelope. It was his way of grounding the players, or as he said: “It was just a challenge to them, because dealing with success is not easy.”

Success was always going to go to their heads. The point was flipping the way it went to their heads from being a question of ego to a point that drives them forward. In Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion, Kevin Dutton explains: “Ferguson released a virulent strain of persuasion that laid everyone equally low. That tapped straight into their ancient, hardwired need to be team members.” This need stems from, as with most mental procedures, our basic survival instincts.

All sound a bit nefarious? Maybe. Success doesn’t come easy. Employing such techniques might delve into the Machiavellian at times, but it’s better than losing. Losing is something a club like Manchester United cannot do. It isn’t in their DNA. Sir Matt Busby was a winner. Sir Alex Ferguson was, too. Whoever comes next would be wise to use any such techniques at their disposal to continue with the club’s legacy.

Not to misrepresent, it’s important to note that Ferguson wasn’t all hairdryers and split eyebrows. He was a caring man. He nurtured talent and created a team of local boys that could compete with international superstars. He got into the players’ heads, but only to make them champions. He managed to boil his psychology down to two simple words that encompassed praise and positive projection, whilst affirming his respect and acknowledging the maintenance of a particular standard. “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 sports. You don’t need to use superlatives.”

If Ferguson is the king of Manchester United, then Eric Cantona is the prince. The Frenchman talked about the manager, stating: “I think it’s just as important to be a good psychologist as it is a tactician. Maybe more. And Ferguson is that.” Hopefully the board of United will keep this in mind, and possibly even consult Ferguson, moving through this bleak time.

Statistics have understandably gained a strong foothold in football over the last half-decade particularly. Science and numbers are undoubtedly crucial, but so is heart. United have proved that time and time again. Hopefully, building on the foundation of grit, determination and teamwork – augmented by Ferguson’s firebrand social psychology – they will go on to prove themselves as a team still willing to zig when everyone else wants to zag.

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

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