My autobiography By Alex Ferguson, Hodder & Stoughton, Rs 1,299
I have never had a high opinion of English football. The long-ball philosophy, assiduously followed by English clubs and the national team, has always had a somnolent effect on me. Paradoxically, I am a devout Arsenal man. But that is only because Arsenal won critical praise with its attacking style of play, a strategy that was alien to the traditional English style. These two factors contributed to my initial wariness of Alex Ferguson’s book. (Paul Hayward, the Daily Telegraph’s chief sports writer, helped Ferguson present his thoughts.) After all, Manchester United, the team that Ferguson led to phenomenal triumphs in a managerial career close to three decades, is Arsenal’s biggest rival. Its success under Ferguson — two Champions League titles and several Premier League triumphs — meant that Manchester United had become synonymous with English football and its style of play. (Admittedly, they are better to watch than Chelsea.) Given my devotion to Highbury, I thought that reading about a rival club’s glory under the stewardship of one of the best managers the game has ever seen could be a trying experience.
But Ferguson’s forthright opinions allayed my apprehensions. For instance, his allegation that the referees’ union in the Premier League makes it difficult to rid the competition of inept and unfit referees is unlikely to endear him to the authorities. What makes My Autobiography enjoyable is also its ability to illuminate aspects of the world that revolves around football. Crucial, but underexplored, aspects related to the game such as football’s relationship with class and community, the psychology of man-management as well as the economics of club ownership are examined in detail.
Ferguson’s days of managing a pub in Govan, a ship-building district of Glasgow, are a wonderful testimony to the bond that football shares with collective life. Pubs afforded Ferguson rich insights into people’s dreams and aspirations, arming him with a knowledge that later helped him tackle gifted but temperamental prodigies as manager.
The most engaging account of Ferguson’s man-management skills revolves around his ties with, not Roy Keane, but with David Beckham. Ferguson never expresses any doubts about Beckham’s ability. But he does not mince words when it comes to the choices Beckham made in his bid to prioritize fame over football. “David was the only player I managed who chose to be famous,” he admits candidly. Ferguson’s criticism of footballers is often attributed to his obsession with maintaining authority. We are told that even Tony Blair, in a veiled reference to Gordon Brown, had once sought Ferguson’s views on getting rid of ‘superstars’. But the sanctity of a manager’s position, Ferguson argues, needs to be upheld because power itself comes with a degree of fragility. It also exacts a huge price. Ferguson describes how he spent lonely afternoons waiting for company after his day’s work was over in his office. None ever came.
To be fair to him, his criticism of Beckham stemmed from his fierce resistance to the forces of commerce that were threatening to swallow, and thereby extinguish, a rare footballing talent. In contrast, Ferguson’s dismissal of Roy Keane was a result of the latter’s bid to undermine his position as manager. Ferguson learnt early that in a world where coaches are known to have been booted out on the flimsiest of grounds — Mel Machin of Manchester City was fired apparently because he did not smile enough — exerting authority in a fair manner was a survival tactic. The fact that Ferguson (affectionately called the Boss) did not wilt easily helped him survive the media’s brutality too. The media twisted his quotes and launched slanderous attacks to sully Ferguson’s integrity, but the Scotsman fought back by banning reporters and issuing strong rebuttals. The game Ferguson presents here — between the media and a successful manager — can get as ugly as the one on the pitch.
Ferguson’s revelations about his rivalry with other coaches show a similar degree of frankness. Arsène Wenger he praises. But he is also unsparing when it comes to exposing the Arsenal manager’s shortcomings. José Mourinho, incidentally, is described as the “special” rival. Surprisingly, even though there is a separate, and effusive, chapter on Barcelona, there isn’t much on Pep Guardiola. Ferguson quotes Guardiola explaining Barcelona’s success in terms of the legacy of a system perfected by the likes of Johan Cruyff and Charly Rexach. But, surely, Guardiola deserves more praise for turning the Catalans into the most pleasing, yet clinical, team in the world. Perhaps the fact that Manchester United capitulated to Barcelona, not once but twice, in Champions League finals has to do something with Ferguson’s spartan praise for Guardiola.
Contrary to common perception, in a club like Manchester United, a manager’s duties do not end with coaching. Ferguson methodically unveils the myriad and complicated challenges that confronted him as manager. Scouting for talent, deciding on player transfer fees, monitoring the development of the youth side, keeping an eye on the club’s financial health, and, most importantly, trying to meet unrealistic expectations of winning nearly every game were some of the tasks he was saddled with. To his credit, Ferguson has an enviable record on most counts, including his financial responsibilities towards Manchester United. While on a holiday, he worked out that, on an average, he had spent less than £5 million per season during his time at the club. This was a commendable achievement, given that many other clubs have suffered by splurging on recruits — Real Madrid’s Galácticos come to mind — who had won them too few trophies. In fact, the manner in which Ferguson unravels the economics of football is astonishing. He pieces together the links between debt servicing, global sponsorship and revenue from stadium attendance to create a lucid picture that helps readers understand what makes a massive enterprise like Manchester United a successful commercial venture.
A demanding career made it imperative for Ferguson to cultivate other interests to survive the scars. Politics (he is decidedly Labour), horse racing and an intellectual engagement with certain epochs in American history (the Kennedy assassination, for example) are his hobbies. The candour with which he describes his personal life proves that a jovial, even likeable, man lay hidden under the mask of grim determination. He regales us with several anecdotes, one of which talks about a slightly tipsy Ferguson crooning in a room that has been deserted by his guests on account of the torture being inflicted on them.
It is a pity that Ferguson chooses not to dwell on some questions relevant to modern European football. For instance, does the slow decline of the tiki-taka denote the resurrection of a dour, defensive footballing style? What about Fifa’s tireless efforts to commercialize the game further? In the age of sporting mercenaries, should the club matter more than the country?
Hopefully, Ferguson will answer some of these questions in another equally engaging book, sooner than later.