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In what is possibly the most wide-reaching talk ever given by Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager has told students at Harvard Business School in Boston the secrets of his success.Ferguson, who was the subject of an academic study by professor Anita Elberse at the Harvard Business School, visited the school earlier this year to meet students to discuss the report.
The Scot later described the experience as “excellent, enjoyable, and comfortable” while also learnt a lot about himself.
“The whole atmosphere was professional,” Ferguson told the HarvardGazette . “It was clear that they had done their homework. They had properly read the case study and supplemented that with their own opinions and research. That gave me a certain assurance that I had made the right decision to go ahead with the case.
“The key element for me was Anita, and how she controlled the room. I am always talking about ‘control.’ She controlled that room. She was the boss. I thought that was very impressive, plus the fact that she has a certain humility about her; she’s quite down-to-earth.
“The process was excellent, enjoyable, and comfortable,” Ferguson added. “I never felt intimidated in any way, and I never felt reluctant to be anything other than completely open.
“The part of the discussion from which I learned the most about myself was when they were discussing the balance between ‘fear’ and ‘love’ in my approach to managing people. If you look at my history, there’s all this hype about hair dryers and anger and so on. But the students acknowledged another side to it, which is more apt in terms of how I have fostered relations with people and developed the team over the years.
“The reality is not always how the press portray it. I felt the students were quite accurate in terms of how they analysed this aspect, questioning and recognising this important dynamic of management.
THE BEST OF FERGUSON
“I once heard a coach start with ‘This must be the 1,000th team talk I’ve had with you,’ and saw a player quickly responding with ‘And I’ve slept through half of them!’
“So I like to tell different stories, and use my imagination.
“Generally, it is about our expectations, their belief in themselves, and their trust in each other.
“I remember going to see Andrea Bocelli, the opera singer. I had never been to a classical concert in my life.
“But I am watching this and thinking about the coordination and the teamwork, one starts and one stops, just fantastic. So I spoke to my players about the orchestra – how they are a perfect team.”
“Tactics can change depending on whom we are playing.
“I tend to concentrate on one or two players of my opponents – the ones that are the most influential.
“Who’s the guy who is taking all the free-kicks? Who’s the guy who’s on the ball all the time? Who’s the one urging everyone on? The rest of the time I concentrate on our own team.
“On Friday we take our players through a video analysis of our opponents: their strengths, their weaknesses, their set pieces, what their team is likely to be, and so on.
“Then on Saturday, we might give them another, shorter version – just a recap of the previous day.”
“There are maybe eight minutes between you coming up through the tunnel and the referees calling you up on the pitch again, so it is vital to use the time well.
“Everything is easier when you are winning: you talk about concentrating, not getting complacent, and small things you can address.
“But when you are losing, you know that you are going to have to make an impact.
“The last few minutes of the first half I’m always thinking of what I’m going to say. I’m a little bit in a trance. I am concentrating.
“I don’t believe in taking notes. I see other coaches do it, but I don’t want to miss any part of the game.
“And I cannot imagine going into the dressing room, looking at my notes, and saying ‘Oh in the 30th minute, that pass you took’. I don’t think it’s going to impress the players.”
“I’ve still got a wee bit of anger in me, thinking of how we threw the league away last season.
“It was another day in the history of Manchester United. That’s all it was. It created the drama that only United can produce.
“Who would have thought that Blackburn, bottom of the league, would beat us 3-2 at Old Trafford? Or that Everton would draw with us when we were up 4-2 with seven minutes to go?
“My motivation to the players will be that we cant let City beat us twice in a row.”
Old big ears
“It’s difficult to marry the two competitions in one season.
“We are in a country where tribalism is rife. There is strong competition between regions and top clubs, with Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham based in London, two clubs here in Manchester, and Liverpool.
“That puts tremendous pressure on you to win your league. But the European Cup is the biggest trophy.
“Last season, when we went out in the group phase, I made a mistake. I was playing a lot of the young players.
“Although that had worked in the past we got careless in our games.
“It was a shock, because it was only the third time I’ve not qualified for the knockout stage. I decided I wouldn’t be taking the risks I took in Europe last year.”
“The Glazers decide. They have generally been very supportive and are very low-key.
“If I owned United and they won the league, I would be over the moon.
“I remember when I played with Rangers, when the directors were under the shower with their clothes on, dancing about.
“But the Glazers shook a few hands and had some photographs taken, that was it.
“Some English clubs have changed managers so many times that it creates power for the players in the dressing room.
“That is very dangerous. Football management in the end is all about the players. You think you are a better player than they are, and they think they are a better manager than you are.”
“The first thought for 99 per cent of newly appointed managers is to make sure they win to survive. They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs.
“But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club – not just a football team.
“You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team.
“There are three categories: players from 30 and above, the players from roughly 23 to 30, and the younger ones coming in.
“The idea is that the younger players are developing and meeting the standards that the older ones have set before.
“For me the hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy.
“But all the evidence is on the football field. If you see the change, the deterioration, you have to start asking yourself what it is going to be like two years ahead.”
“Jose [Mourinho] is very intelligent, he has charisma, his players play for him, and he is a good looking guy.
“I think I have most of those things, too, apart from his good looks.
“He’s got a confidence about himself, saying ‘We’ll win this’ and ‘I’m the Special One’.
“I could never come out and say we’re going to win this game. It’s maybe a wee bit of my Scottishness?
“[Pep] Guardiola is an impressive guy. He’s brought about change in Barcelona, urging the team to always work hard to get the ball back within seconds after losing it.
“They are gifted but work hard. It was a fantastic achievement. He elevated the status of his players.”