“Steve Jobs was Apple; Sir Alex Ferguson is Manchester United” – David Gill, former Manchester United’s chief executive
It was 1986, Manchester United had only won a solitary league title in the past two decades and were far behind Liverpool – their fiercest rival, who were then the dominant force in English football.
Then a red nosed Scot who had a relatively modest reputation was appointed to lead the underachieving club back to its glory days.
By the time the legendary manager retired – after being in charge for 27 years and amassing countless trophies and achievements – Manchester United became the paramount club of English football, leaving Liverpool’s once proud record of being English football’s most successful club, obsolete. His managerial prowess took Manchester United from a moderately decent club to not only one of the biggest clubs in football but in the world of sports as well.
Although his brilliance and man-management skills are well-known and praised, if anything his skills are more highly valued now because since his retirement, Manchester United had struggled to replicate all those successful years under his dynasty. So without further ado, here are 9 managerial lessons that we can take note from him:
1. Visualize the future
Well known to give young players a chance to shine, he had a vision of building world-class youth academies as he wanted the club to build its nucleus around a group of young players as the club’s identity. He made long-term investments in developing that idea by establishing youth programs while he also concentrated in building a network of scouts who would watch and recruit highly talented and potential young players from all over the world to the club.
Initially, his vision got off a rocky start – which lead to many criticisms – including the “you’ll never win with kids” criticism by a respectable football commentator.
Nevertheless, Ferguson stood by his vision and the dream ultimately paid off as Manchester United’s core in the following years always had a group of young players who understood the club’s tradition and philosophy and was one the many reasons that the club had a run of successful years.
2. Never stop winning
Ferguson have always been known to have an insatiable hunger to win – no matter what the cost. As a result, his mentality and energy were translated and integrated into his teams.
When his side trailed games, their work rate and the tempo of the game would increase substantially. His players desire to win meant that they would give every ounce of energy and never gave up until the final whistle is blown. This would in turn transpire fear into their opponents eyes and more often than not, and his teams would overcome games, even at times when his side trailed games by huge margins.
His teams were also known to have an incomparable fighting spirit and were brave as they boldly faced any challenges in front of them.
Ferguson also tinkered with his tactics or players so that the formation and rhythm of the game could shift favorably and bring momentum to his side.
3. Build stability
One of the main reason why Manchester United went through years after years of success under Ferguson’s watch was because he was instrumental in building stability for the club, which ensured that the players and staff could concentrate on their work and not be preoccupied with disturbance and disorder. He created a bubble around the club which protected his players and staffs.
4. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer
Throughout his long career, he gained a few friends while he also crossed swords with many other rival managers, football personalities and even the media. He knew who to rub shoulders with because he completely understood the significance of forming friendships and allies with important personalities in the world of sport.
On the other hand, he always kept a close eye on his competitors so that he would always be aware of their latest developments. By doing so, he understood his competitors’ strengths and weaknesses and formulated his plan and tactics to rightfully respond to them.
5. Build an unbreakable team spirit
Ferguson is known to emphasize greatly on the chemistry and cohesion of the team because he wanted his players not to play for themselves, but to play for the team, for the badge and for the club.
His players were close-knitted and would spend time together whether if it’s having breakfast before training or during away trips to play other teams.
He also created a family environment and collective team spirit. Each time his players entered the field, they worked together as a unified team with the mentality to play for each other and for the club.
6. Be strict but fair
Being an old-school person, he is known to be a strict disciplinarian but wasn’t by all means an authoritarian who controlled and restricted the players’ freedom. He is also known to be a fair person who rewarded and punished players accordingly. Even though he had disagreements with many of his players during his time as a manager, his players respected his management methods and some of his former players even acknowledged that his decisions were usually right.
7. Maintain control over your team
Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, David Beckham, Ruud Van Nisterooy, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney were some of the superstar players that played under him, but he never lost control of his authority and role because he drew a fine line between the manager and the players.
“If the day came that the manager of Manchester United was controlled by the players—in other words, if the players decided how the training should be, what days they should have off, what the discipline should be, and what the tactics should be—then Manchester United would not be the Manchester United we know.
Before I came to United, I told myself I wasn’t going to allow anyone to be stronger than I was. Your personality has to be bigger than theirs. That is vital.”
8. Balance is key
Some teams are stronger at defending, while others concentrated on flair and attack.
Other than a never-say-die attitude, Ferguson’s teams were also known to have balance in all areas in the team including technicality, tactical prowess, physicality and dynamism.
“Balance is the key to every team, it’s impossible to win a football game with 11 goalkeepers or with a group with identical talents. I suspect that’s true in other organizations, too.” Ferguson stated in an interview.
9. Do not be afraid to praise your team if they deserve it
“No one likes to be criticized. Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. So I tried to give encouragement when I could. For a player—for any human being—there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done.’ Those are the two best words ever invented. You don’t need to use superlatives.” he said in an interview with Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse.