Sir Alex Ferguson, for 27 years the Manchester United manager and the club totem, rushed through his second autobiography last year after he retired. There's a supreme irony in this eagerness, for Ferguson was never particularly keen to share information with the media. Why did the crusty, menacing old manager open up so quickly? To give expression to the pent-up thoughts of 27 years, to take potshots at enemies, to justify and defend, and to make money?
All of these, it appears, and especially the last. A sum of a million pounds is a very fine persuader - even a multimillionaire Socialist, as Ferguson confesses he is, can't resist that.
Ferguson's book reveals him thoroughly — as is often the case with very successful people, the picture that emerges from his own words is not particularly flattering. The Scotsman clearly is an extremely distrustful man who prized loyalty but brooked no dissent. He was a forbidding presence at Manchester United - a father figure to the likes of David Beckham. The relationship was based less on affection and more on fear and authority. Ferguson built his successes — including 13 Premier League and two Champions League titles — on extreme hard work and iron-fisted management of the talented young men in his teams.
Ferguson was advised by a great Scottish manager, Jock Stein, not to trust easily. "As Big Jock said to me about players: Never fall in love with them, they'll two-time you," Ferguson writes. Ferguson's distrust extended to the management of football clubs. This distrust of the moneyed men, the club owners, could be traced to Ferguson's working class background -his father and younger brother both worked in the shipyards of Glasgow. Stein's following advice probably cemented that distrust: "Remember, Alex, we are not them. They run the club. We are their workers." "It was us and them," Ferguson writes. "The landowner and the serf."
Ferguson, similarly, exerted authority and control over his own players -- not necessarily a bad thing, for the team did rise to unprecedented heights under him. Sport does require a very strict regimen, which often must be enforced in a dictatorial manner. The ruthlessness of a manager, thus, could often seem inhuman. It does in the case of Ferguson. He seems to be dealing with players as just commodities - as perhaps they really have been turned into by the modern football economy.
For instance, Ferguson notes with regret that he had to tell Jaap Stam at a petrol station that he was being sold. "By that time Jaap was 30 and we were concerned about his recovery from the Achilles injury," he writes. Right, so the result of the manager's concern for his injury is that the player is sold? The concern, clearly, was for the team's wellbeing, not the injured player. This is quite pragmatic, for the manager must put the team above individuals. But it somehow doesn't seem right.
Ferguson thrived on authority. Anyone who questioned it was gone. "As with David Beckham, I knew the minute a football player started trying to run the club, we would all be finished," he writes. "The real players like that. They like a manager who's tough… They like a manager to be a man."
Ferguson uses the book to take potshots at people perceived to be his rivals or even enemies — Roy Keane and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, for instance. He tries to reveal a bit about himself - he's deeply interested in horse racing and vineyards, likes to read about dictators and "great men". He tries to be humorous, but he's clearly not a funny man.
Ferguson was a great manager in England - but just how great was he? His team won two Champions League titles in 27 years. During that time, AC Milan won five, Barcelona four and Real Madrid three titles, under different manager, of course. There are other great managers in Europe -Vicente del Bosque won two Champions League crowns with Real Madrid, and the European Championship and the World Cup with Spain. Since 2000, Pep Guardiola won two Champions League titles. His work with Barcelona raised the club to breathtaking heights of inventive football. Manchester United, for all their success, could never achieve that sort of an aura. And though the club is represented heavily in the England team, it never really produced a really great player.
What Ferguson leaves out reveals a great deal about him, too. During his time as manager, Manchester United was taken over by the Glazer family of the US. This left the club £700m in debt -- to repay that, ticket prices rose manifold. Exactly how did that square up with Ferguson's Socialism? Indeed, exactly how do his socialist ideals help him deal with the rampant commercialisation of sport? He doesn't say.