During an informal conversation with this correspondent last week, a senior Indian cricket board member had been reminiscing about the BCCI’s ‘glorious past’ while lamenting the ‘present doldrums’. Naturally, the late Jagmohan Dalmiya and N Srinivasan—the two most influential administrators in contemporary Indian cricket—became the central figures of the subject. “Mr Dalmiya was a leader who believed in dialogue and negotiations to get the job done. Mr Srinivasan was a boss whose mantra was ‘my way or the highway’,” the BCCI member said.
Apologies for such a lengthy cricketing prelude for a column that is dedicated to the greatest manager in the history of football. Argumentative minds can throw Helenio Herrera, Rinus Michels, Brian Clough, Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola into the mix. But Sir Alex Ferguson outshines them all by dint of his longevity, consistency and achievements. But back to the cricketing intro for a football story, and the board member was just trying to explain how leaders are essentially very good at man-management.
During his 26-and-a-half-year tenure at Manchester United, Ferguson became the most decorated manager in the British game, winning 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League Cups and two European Cups. Add the Uefa Cup Winners’ Cup, the Uefa Super Cup, the Intercontinental Cup and the Fifa Club World Cup to the tally and the legend grows exponentially. He had eight highly successful and trophy-laden years at Aberdeen also before joining United. In Scotland, he broke the Celtic and Rangers’ hegemony. In England, he knocked Liverpool off their perch and created a United dynasty which Ferguson’s former assistant Brian Kidd described as “unreal”.
Fergie’s boys would still speak about the man-management skills of their manager/mentor while narrating a great success story. Michael Carrick, the current United captain, would hang up his boots after playing against Watford on Sunday. Ahead of the fixture, the 36-year-old recalled how his former manager used to shut him out of the side until it started raining. “At the start of the season, for about three years in a row, he used to tell me, ‘you don’t play well until it starts raining’. “At the time, I was thinking, ‘What is he talking about?’ But then, you’d get in the team around September or October. I’d miss the first four to six weeks and then once I got in the team, I always pretty much stayed in the team,” Carrick told ESPN FC.
Ferguson signed the midfielder from Tottenham Hotspur in 2006 and Carrick would call time on his playing career as a United legend. His tribute to his erstwhile boss continued: “What a man! He was a massive, massive influence on me personally, not so much what he sat down and said to me but more the aura that he had, the feelings that he gave out and the culture that had produced at United when I came into that dressing room. His relentless will to win, again and again, was unbelievable.”
Wayne Rooney had a fall-out with Ferguson during their time together at Old Trafford. The former England captain twice threatened to quit the club, asking for pay rise. The old-school Ferguson put his foot down. For over 26 years, nobody was bigger than him at the club. Even the superstars had accepted that. Rooney, though, had a tendency to ‘walk on the wild side’ and Ferguson never liked it. The two eventually patched up their differences and on his Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football debut three months ago, Rooney was reverential towards his former manager.
“As a manager, he was the best, but his man-management was something which a lot of other managers would struggle to match. “He knew how to speak to players, how to get a reaction. He’s the only manager that could leave someone out and make them feel good about it. He was incredible,” United’s most successful centre-forward said.
When Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in 1986, the biggest challenge he faced was the drinking culture at the club. Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath severely tested the patience of their disciplinarian boss until the latter gave up. Ferguson was on a rocky road then and the two players had been the crowd favourite. But the manager refused to budge and Whiteside and McGrath had to, much to the chagrin of the United faithful. As Ferguson suffered brain hemorrhage and underwent an emergency surgery, McGrath wrote on Instagram: “Just heard about Sir Alex, my thoughts and prayers are with him and his family. If anyone can pull through this it will be the man himself…”
Whiteside’s post on Twitter said: “Such sad news to hear about my former manager Sir Alex. Get well soon boss…”
This just speaks volumes for the honesty and commitment Ferguson showed towards his club and the players. He never meant any harm to anyone. All his football decisions had been aimed at United’s well-being. People respected him even in animosity. Ferguson had several run-ins with his players, fellow managers, match officials and the FA. But he was the first on the phone to then Liverpool player-manager Kenny Dalglish after Hillsborough, offering help. He was always the first one to stand by a player in crisis or extend support to a sacked manager. Ferguson had created an aura of indestructibility around himself, which, in turn, offered assurance to a lot of people associated to football and beyond.
This aura of invincibility and indestructibility on the pitch has been a reason why his sudden illness sent such shockwaves around the world. Ferguson is now out of intensive care and recovering. Good news is that it’s likely to be a ‘Fergie time’ winner in this case also. But the reaction and the spontaneous overflow of feelings showed that even after five years of his retirement from active football, the great man from Govan remains the universe boss.