Sir Alex Ferguson reveals the real reason for his retirement as Manchester United manager

The shock felt by Manchester United when the golden era ended with an emotional changing room speech is still shaking the foundations two years on.
So United fans will be pained to hear for the first time that Sir Alex
Ferguson would have stayed on as the most successful manager in English
football history, but for the death of his wife Cathy’s twin sister,
Bridget Robertson, which persuaded him to retire to be by her side.
“I definitely would have carried on,” Sir Alex says in an exclusive interview with the Telegraph to mark the publication of his new book, Leading, about the art of management.
Sir Alex and Lady Cathy Ferguson in 2008Sir Alex and Lady Cathy in 2008

“I saw she [Lady Cathy Ferguson] was watching television one night, and
she looked up at the ceiling. I knew she was isolated,” Ferguson says.
“Her and Bridget were twins, you know?” In 2002, Cathy had talked her husband into reversing his intention to stand down: “But when I told her this time I was going to retire she had no objection whatsoever. I knew she wanted me to do it.”

Sir Alex Ferguson felt he owed a debt to his wife

Bridget died in October 2012 and Ferguson felt he owed a debt to his
wife, who he married in 1966 after falling for her at a “strike meeting”
in Glasgow. In his autobiography, Sir Alex revealed: “She always waited
up for me. Even if I came through the door at two or three in the
morning, Cathy would be there to greet me.” He dedicated that book
(which, to declare an interest, I co-wrote), to “Bridget – Cathy’s
sister, rock and best friend.”
The bereavement was mentioned as a
catalyst at the time, but only now can he admit that he would not have
gone when he did, without his need to put Cathy “first.”

Many will be touched to learn Ferguson put his wife’s
needs ahead of his own ambitions after 39 years in management; while
also wishing things had turned out differently. ‘Fergie’ had become
shorthand for success and longevity. Since he abdicated after winning
the last of 13 Premier League titles in May 2013, Manchester United have
struggled to find a new identity – with his successor, David Moyes
lasting less than a year and the Dutchman Louis van Gaal so far failing to convince supporters he is up to the job.

We talk at his home in Cheshire shortly before he leaves to attend the
funeral of Neville Neville, father of former United players Gary and
Phil. When fans see him climb from his car, from across the street, they
shout: “Thank you, Sir Alex,” in tones so grateful he might just have
given them the gift of eternal life.
Farewell to Fergie bannerA fond farewell from Old Trafford

The end at Manchester United

Recalling the end of his 26 years at United, he says: “Even when I knew
I was retiring we still tried to put some things in place, with players
coming in. Like everything I say about Manchester United, the bus was still moving forward. No one was getting left behind. Everyone was optimistic about where we were going.

Life after Old Trafford

“Once I made my decision I wasn’t going to go into it as a grumpy old
man leaving his job. My dad left the shipyards at 65 because you had to
leave your job at 65. The challenges in front of me were good ones, especially the Harvard thing
[he teaches part-time at the Harvard Business School]. Then my
involvement with United as a director, as an ambassador, and my jobs
with Uefa, Unicef. I’ve travelled a bit and I love watching the team.”
Sir Alex FergusonSir Alex Ferguson addresses students at the Harvard Business School  Photo: Anita Elberse/HBS

Leading was written with Michael Moritz, chairman of Sequoia Capital,
the private investment firm that “helped shape and organise” such
corporate giants as Apple, Cisco Systems, Google, PayPal and YouTube.
Moritz, who was drawn to Ferguson’s long record of success, writes in an
epilogue: “Not many Silicon Valley CEOs, perhaps because many of them
are so young, can modulate their tones with comparable dexterity. Sir
Alex could simultaneously play cheerleader, motivational speaker,
shrink, confessor, piano-tuner, puppet master, choreographer, teacher,
judge and lord high executioner.”

The man himself argues that “your personality, your energy, your
decision-making, your observation, your communication,” are all part of
the mix. “All these things apply to the guy walking into a cable company
or Barclays Bank. You’re dealing with human beings, and human beings
need to be directed, inspired. They need to have a trust in their boss.”

Alex Ferguson, before the knighthood, completes the treble in 1999

The book covers the whole gamut of management, but what shines
brightest is Ferguson’s capacity for continuous rebuilding, his aptitude
for handling mavericks and his gift for control.

Secret of his success

“I was never afraid to try things. I was always prepared to risk in
terms of winning a game of football. Also, my convictions about young
people were always there. I really believe in young people. I’ve always
believed in that, producing the young players I did at Aberdeen or St
Mirren. Then to Manchester United, where I tried to create what I saw
laid down by Matt Busby way back in the 1950s; because that, without
doubt, is a true reflection of Manchester United – how it’s developed
young players for half a century.”
The firebrand we saw on the
touchline at United for two and half decades concealed a multi-layered
personality, forged in the shipyards of Govan and then tempered by a
tough managerial apprenticeship in Scotland before the move south to
United. Throughout there was a need to impose his restless personality
on events.
“My trade union background helped a wee bit,” he
says. “You’re trying to help people who are less fortunate. For instance
the apprentices’ strike – I had no need to go on strike, or encourage
the apprentices to go on strike. We [the toolmakers] were well paid. But
there were some people who were married with kids and getting paid
Sir Alex Ferguson and the successful graduates from the Class of 92Ferguson and the six most successful graduates from the Class of 92

“I got my coaching badges by the time I was 24. So when I became a
manager at 32 years of age – which was young – I was ready. I had my
badges, I had played the game, I think I could make a decision.
Thereafter in an industry like that you have to learn or you don’t
As a player, Ferguson owned pubs in Glasgow: “It’s a
hard business. You’re fed up getting knocked in the head too many times
on a Saturday night. So when I got the chance to be a manager I said –
I’m going to win here, I’m going to be successful. The fear of failure
comes into that. Where was I going to go after that? Back to the pub? No
Cast into a world of mediocre players and minuscule
budgets, he was drawn to people who reflected his own abrasive and
indomitable nature. “It was at Aberdeen where I realised the strong
characters in the dressing room were the backbone for the young
players.” Manchester United have seen plenty of these warriors down the
years and Ferguson mentions several: Bryan Robson, Brian McClair, Mark
Hughes, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince, Roy Keane. His definition of a leader is
clear: “A strong character can deal with issues they don’t enjoy. They
do something about it. They have a determination about them, a purpose
about them. They’re winners. Simply that.”
Sir Alex Ferguson with Champions League trophy in 2008Ferguson won a second Champions League in 2008

A working-class background wasn’t obligatory but often helped: “When
you see guys walking at five or six every morning to a pit shaft, to go
down to the bowels of the earth, you have to say it must do something
for them. It develops a character that people of that ilk would be proud
of. In miners’ rows the doors would be always open. In shipbuilding
they would all walk to work together and come home together.”

The later years of management

In his later years in management, though, Ferguson found himself
dealing with multi-millionaire players and global celebrities who might
have resisted his autocratic style. David Beckham was another of those
instrumental to United’s long winning run, until his growing fame caused
friction between player and manager. Ferguson sold him to Real Madrid
in 2003, but the two are now on friendly terms again, after Ferguson
forced himself to move with the times.
“You have to embrace it.
Dealing with an ego doesn’t bother me. You used to see [Cristiano]
Ronaldo standing in front of the mirror loving himself. But it was a
nice vanity. The players used to throw jockstraps, boots and all sorts
at him. It never bothered him one bit.
“They need to win, these
guys: the ones that are cultivating their egos a little bit. You might
see a player in a Ferrari and think – what’s he driving that for? But he
has to live with that. He’s not going to be driving into town when he’s
bottom of the league, or he’s been dropped. Some people can’t judge
that. True players can.”
Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 
With his 13th, and last, Premier League title

Eric Cantona, enfant terrible-turned-thespian, was another who
prospered under Ferguson’s leadership, which mixed romanticism with an
iron rod. He says: “I spoke to Cantona every day. He was a very
under-rated man and an interesting man. He needed the encouragement that
he was at the right club. And he was at the right club. On the training
ground you never got one ounce of difficulty with Cantona. Sometimes he
would come in for training with his eyebrows down and you would say –
what’s wrong with him today? Once he got warmed up, into training, he
was fine.
“Ronaldo was another one: a great, great kid. He’s just a serious professional.”

Ferguson’s first principle of management is trust. Both ways. “What you
have to do in management is give your trust to them, without any
payback. You have to get to a situation where they’re comfortable
playing for you and where, when the chips are down, you’re going to be
there for them.
“You have to sell yourself to them: ‘Look, I’m
here for one reason. To help you be the best you can possibly be. To be
the best human being you can possibly be. To make the most money you can
possibly make.’ I think I did that quite well at Manchester United.
They were my players. They made me successful. I owed them all that
Sir Alex Ferguson with Cristiano Ronaldo, who had a 'nice vanity'Sir Alex Ferguson with Cristiano Ronaldo, who had a ‘nice vanity’

The ‘hairdryer’ treatment

The eruptions, he maintains, were necessary but calibrated. The
‘hairdryer’ blast. “I had to carry that stupid name about me for a long
time. But my teams never played with fear. Not one of them ever played
with fear. They expressed themselves and enjoyed playing. They were
always adventurous, had a go. That’s the answer. There’s nothing wrong
with losing your temper for the right reasons. To make them aware: we
are Manchester United. We cannot afford any more of this nonsense.

“We always used to say: nobody comes to your door and gives you money.
You have to go out of the door and earn everything. You have to go on
the football field and win to achieve and earn your money.”
Moritz, Ferguson had a nose for stagnation; for success unravelling. He
tells me: “You have to have a mindset – yesterday’s gone. Tomorrow’s
another day. What I used to say to a lot of them was: how many medals
have you got? Have you got the same number as [Ryan] Giggs? How many
have 10 medals? How many have nine medals? When you get to nine, 10
medals, you know you’ve made it at this club.”
Retirement has
made him wish he had learned how to “communicate upwards” to owners,
chairmen and chief executives. “What I should have learnt earlier was to
get rid of that ‘I can rule the world type of attitude’ I had. ‘I can
do this myself. I don’t need you.’ I was wrong. The value of
communication never stops. Recognising your groundsman and the staff in
the laundry, the tea room; there’s a value in terms of creating a fort
round about you.”
Team talks were never verbose but always
pithy, resonant, in the manner of other great Scottish managers: Busby,
Jock Stein and Bill Shankly. “Brief,” he says, summing up his oratory.
“Get to the point. Get the bloody job done.”

Culled from Telegraph


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