Lessons From Fergie

It’s difficult to take counsel from anyone in April 2020, it’s a time quite annoyingly described perpetually as ‘unprecedented’, an accurate term, but nevertheless annoying and overused. The difficulty with taking advice from anyone in a time like this, is no one has much experience of living in a time like this, no one that’s alive anyway. And so, it leaves a lot of us scratching our heads, chain reading the news and repeating different timelines to one another, repeating the words; “3 weeks”, “3 months”, and “July!”, without any great appreciation for anything supporting such time-frames. It’s all very new and it’s all very weird and it’s all very unhelpful. In the absence of any relevant guiding resources, I am sharing some lessons I learned from fanatically studying Alex Ferguson over the years, not only a great man manager but arguably the greatest navigator of chaos and uncertainty in the last 40 years of sport, some situations are analogous to the present and therefore somewhat useful, some are just great lessons for any hitchhikers guidebook.

#1 Embrace speed and an unrelenting charge

A Fergie team is embodied by that cheesy but appropriate song that rings round old Trafford on Saturdays, “Attack, Attack, Attack – Attack – Attack!”, it is corny but it’s something quite simple and powerful. Alex Ferguson’s football teams always attack, even when they defend, they attack. They move at pace, and they adopt a powerful approach to their challenge. To make my point here, compare him to other great managers of this era. The Chelsea and Real sides of Jose Mourinho were successful for short periods by adopting a reserved, calculated way of approaching their game, the strong but intricate Wenger sides of the early 00’s often adopted a more cultured and measured approach to success, but ultimately they allowed perfection to the be the enemy of the good. Fergie moved fast and broke things, and embraced this all the way to the top, he was happy to part with his best players, go on the attack against the best teams with a side of “kids” and would encourage even his 39 year old winger to keep running at his full back in the 80th minute. He was smart, but he never settled for possession stats. He knew the way to play your cards against chaos, was to keep going, and keep going at a steady speed.

#2 Expect a few highs and terrible lows

It’s not always a fairy tale story, most of the time it’s not even close. After roaring success with Aberdeen, Fergie’s first few years at Utd were woeful. At the tail of end of the 80s, UTD recorded league finishes of 11th, 11th and 2nd (9 point off the leaders – not even close), he was mocked with banners reading “Ta-Ra Fergie”, by the fans, as well as being heckled by the City fans after losing the derby 5-1 weeks later. The lows are part of the journey, but nothing is permanent, Fergie embodied the concept that most things in life are cyclical, you win and you lose, one season you take a group of Scotsmen to beat Real Madrid in a European final, the next your Man Utd team draw 3-3 to Crystal Palace in South Norwood. Sometimes it just sucks. You were the European Champion, you’re not now.

Expect the dark days because they will come, but know they are only temporary. You have won before and you will win again, the lows might be worse than the highs in some instances, but that’s the game, and that’s why we play it.

#3 Draw on your own life experience – not everyone else’s

There is a chapter in his first autobiography called “Life at Fergie’s” which is one of the shortest but most eye opening insights into Fergie’s success. During one of the many down times of the 70’s, Fergie had retired as a player and taken up ownership of a pub by the docks in West Glasgow. He doesn’t credit it too much as having a major impact on his managerial success but it’s a small window of life experience, woven into the fabric of a life of mayhem that shaped his capacity for control and direction. We don’t need to have managed a pub in the Docklands to have life experience, but we need to draw on things we’ve done outside the game we’re playing to help us during extraordinary times.

Managing drunk navy sailors is difficult, so is managing a drunk Lee Sharpe the day before a cup final. Playing crib against the locals is tricky, so is outfoxing Catalonian tacticians at the Nou Camp. We all have our own back catalogue, and it’s in times of chaos we should draw upon them. Our own stories, and our own experiences, are useful, use them.

#4 You can always rely on Fergie time

If you trust your process, you should follow it into the 95th minute and beyond and you’ve always got a chance of getting a result. The hallmark of Ferguson’s career was simple, regardless of the minutes on the referees watch the game would go on until Fergie’s side had had enough, and no example is more iconic than the 30 seconds of football that culminated in Solskjaer’s outstretched leg cannoning the ball past Oliver Khan, into the back of the net, securing Utd’s 1999 treble. The goal was recorded at 90+2:17, 2-1 Utd, the game was over, mercifully ended by the whistle of PierLuigi Colina,
sparking scenes of jubilation and ecstasy.

Fergie always said how much he envied managers who wrapped games up in the first half, soaking up their success and watching their teams coast to victory, but if you ask me, the continuous endeavor makes the final-minute-victory all the more appealing.

You can always rely on Fergie time, so keep playing, and don’t give up yet.

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