Fergie Time

David Runciman

  • BuyMy Autobiography by Alex Ferguson
    Hodder, 402 pp, £25.00, October 2013, ISBN 978 0 340 91939 2

Alex Ferguson is a conspiracist, which is not quite the same as being a conspiracy theorist. Conspiracists see patterns of collusion and deceit behind everyday events. Their default position is that someone somewhere is invariably plotting something. Conspiracy theorists go further: they want to join up the dots and discover the overarching pattern that makes sense of seemingly unrelated happenings. They are looking for the single explanation that underwrites everything. A conspiracist thinks that nothing is entirely innocent. A conspiracy theorist thinks that nothing is entirely incidental. Conspiracists can be devious, suspicious, confrontational and difficult to be around but they are also capable of making their way in the world, leveraging their paranoia into real power. Conspiracy theorists are often simply nuts.

Ferguson may be a conspiracy theorist as well, but if so he isn’t letting on. In this, his fourth autobiography, he has a chapter about his interests outside football. One of his passions is the Kennedy assassination, to which he has devoted a lot of time and a fair bit of money, collecting documents, videos and artefacts. He bought at auction an edition of the Warren Commission report signed by Gerald Ford. He has a treasured personal copy of the autopsy report. He kept photos of the event in his office at the Manchester United training ground (I love the thought of nervous trainees coming in for a dressing down and glimpsing scattered pictures of Dealey Plaza and the grassy knoll: that would keep you on your toes). But Ferguson gives no hints as to what he thinks really happened or what it is he’s looking for as he thumbs these documents. He paints his interest in JFK as a part of a wider habit of book collecting and a general fascination with Americana of all sorts: Lincoln, the Civil War, American football. He slots it in with his wine collecting and his taste for horseracing as an escape, just another ‘welcome distraction from the gruelling business of football’.

When it comes to the football business itself Ferguson is much less reticent. He lets us in on the full range of his suspicions. In one of the best scenes in the book, and one of the very few capable of raising a smile, he describes the moment he tried to seal the purchase of Wayne Rooney from Everton in 2004. He was in his office, and the Everton chairman, Bill Kenwright, was weeping copiously. Through his tears Kenwright makes a phone call and hands the receiver to Ferguson. On the other end an elderly female voice berates him: ‘Don’t you dare think you’re getting that boy for nothing. That boy’s worth fifty million pounds.’ This is Kenwright’s mother. Ferguson can’t quite believe it:

David Moyes was giving me the eyes. For a minute I thought it was a get-up, a performance. Bill’s background was in theatre, after all. It occurred to me while all this was going on that I ought to check Wayne’s medical records. Was there something physically wrong we had missed? Was this a ruse to push the price up? … Was I being lured into a gigantic sting?

Ferguson is in no doubt that football is a cut-throat business. Give your opponents an inch and they will take you for all you’ve got. But this doesn’t just apply to opposing teams. It includes members of your own club, whether in the boardroom or on the pitch. That’s why Ferguson sets such a high price on loyalty, because the people you can’t rely on are the people who will screw you over. There’s nothing in between. Once Ferguson begins to suspect a player of divided loyalties – to his family, his friends, his image, his career, anything over and above Ferguson’s Manchester United – he starts to look for ways to let him go. He picked up some of these lessons from his mentor, the great Scottish manager Jock Stein, a more benign presence than Ferguson but no less ruthless. Stein taught him never to fall in love with his own players, ‘because they’ll two-time you’. He also told him never to think that the owners of a club had the manager’s interests at heart. ‘Remember, Alex,’ Stein warned him, ‘we are not them. They run the club. We are their workers.’ ‘It was us and them,’ Ferguson adds, ‘the landowner and the serf.’

Ferguson makes it clear that he felt underpaid and undervalued at United, a club that he helped turn into a vast commercial enterprise but in which he was never given a significant stake. He never became one of the owners. That might explain why he had so much time for the Glazer brothers after they took over the business in 2005 and loaded it up with debt, outraging many supporters who thought their club was being turned into a private cash cow. A group of them called on Ferguson to resign to show his solidarity with the ordinary fans who were being betrayed. He never considered it for a moment. In many ways, the Glazers were his kind of employers. Not only were they outsiders to the comfy world of permanent seats on the board – new money rather than old – but the precariousness of their business model made them hugely dependent on Ferguson, the most successful manager in the history of the British game. The Glazers needed him to keep the show on the road and the trophy cabinet full. They were far too reliant on him to consider betraying him.

Ferguson’s us-and-them mindset may also explain the mess he got himself into over a racehorse called Rock of Gibraltar, a subject he barely mentions in this book, one of many incidents he prefers to gloss over. Ferguson had a share in the horse with the Irish businessman John Magnier, a very wealthy man whose interests (in conjunction with his associate J.P. McManus) ranged from stud farms to currency trading. What started out as a bit of fun turned deadly serious once Rock of Gibraltar began winning race after race, making him one of the most valuable racehorses in the world. Ferguson believed he had been promised a share in the ownership of the horse, which would have given him a sizeable portion of the vast fees to be paid when Rock of Gibraltar was put out to stud. Magnier maintained he had only ever offered Ferguson a share of the prize money, still a significant sum but nowhere near the huge rewards available in the breeding business. It was the difference between several hundred thousand and tens of millions of pounds. It was also the difference between just another handout and finally joining the ranks of the owners. This was salary v. equity, serfs v. masters, us v. them. Ferguson, who had thought the Irish boys were his sort of people, was outraged to discover he was still on the wrong side of the fence. He insisted on his rights. Magnier and McManus, a pair of operators whose interlocking gambling, financial and political interests could make a conspiracist out of anyone, put him back in his place. They started buying up shares in United to put the frighteners on. Eventually Ferguson realised he had met his match and backed down. Within United the only person who dared to confront him over the issue was his captain, the fearless Roy Keane, who accused Ferguson of having betrayed the club for the sake of a horse during a furious slanging match in front of the rest of the players. Ferguson quickly decided it was time to let Keane go.

For Ferguson the key to his own position within United was his ability to distinguish power from control. ‘Power is useful if you want to use it,’ he writes, ‘but control was my aim … The big decisions you make in those jobs are usually seen as exercises in power, when control is really what it’s about.’ Power is throwing your weight around. Control is making sure things go your way regardless. One of Ferguson’s techniques was to avoid giving miscreant players a bollocking when he knew they were expecting one. Other managers would rant and rave when players stepped out of line. Fergie would simply avoid them until they came looking for him, so unnerved by his silent treatment that they preferred to risk his wrath. When the News of the World ran an exposé of Wayne Rooney’s private life in 2010, Ferguson knew it was a sign of impending trouble: players who betray their wives are often about to betray him as well. But Ferguson kept his cool. ‘I didn’t phone him the morning after the story broke. I know he would have wanted me to. That’s where my control was strong. He would have been looking for a phone call from me, an arm round his shoulder. To me that wasn’t the way to deal with it.’ Sometimes wayward players would be so alarmed by Ferguson’s refusal to acknowledge they had done anything wrong that their mothers would call him up and beg him to put the lad out of his misery.

Of course, Ferguson could go the other way as well. He had a ferocious temper, which caused him regrets, but never lasting doubts. ‘I had some terrible mood-storms after games and was never proud of my outbursts. Some nights I would go home assailed by fear of the consequences. Maybe the players wouldn’t be talking to me next time I entered the training ground. Perhaps they would be raging or conspiring against me. But on Mondays, they would be more terrified of me than I was of them.’ Better to provoke a conspiracy you can safely ignore – conspiracies being a fact of life in Ferguson’s worldview – than risk a coup you didn’t see coming. Ferguson’s abiding fear is of the momentary lapse that opens the door to a total loss of control.

It only happens once, and then it takes place in the family home. In 2001 he decided it was time to retire, after a decade of success and a recent health scare that had left him feeling his age (he had recently turned sixty). His wife, Cathy, and his three adult sons thought this would be a very bad idea, since they knew how likely he was to fret with a sense of missed opportunity throughout a long retirement. On the evening of Christmas Day, after Ferguson had fallen asleep in front of the TV, they held a meeting and decided to take him on. ‘In the kitchen,’ he writes, ‘a mutiny was brewing.’ The conspirators emerged into the open to confront him. ‘The chief rebel came in and kicked my foot to wake me. In the frame of the door I could pick out three figures: all my sons, lined up for maximum solidarity.’ They inform him that they’ve decided he must rescind his retirement and recommit to the job. They tell him there’s a lot more success he can achieve. They are right, of course, and he knows it. Still, he’s been outmanoeuvred. ‘That’ll teach me to nod off for five minutes,’ he writes half-jokingly. But he’s only half joking.

Despite this, Ferguson is not a control freak. He knows there are some things that aren’t worth worrying about. A lot of what happens on the pitch is simply beyond his or anyone else’s power to control. In their book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know about Football Is Wrong, Chris Anderson and David Sally suggest that roughly 50 per cent of everything that happens in a game of football is down to chance – it’s just the bagatelle of the bouncing ball.[*] This explains why bad teams sometimes beat good ones or why one team can create all the chances but the other gets the crucial goal. Players, managers and everyone else involved in football are all fighting over the remaining 50 per cent. Ferguson instinctively gets this. ‘Football, bloody hell!’ as he said on the night in 1999 when his team snatched the European Cup off Bayern Munich; the Germans had played all the football but United won the trophy thanks to two goals in stoppage time at the end of the game. He rides his luck but he also spends little time complaining when it goes against him. When Manchester City scored two last-gasp goals to snatch the Premier League title off United at the end of the 2011-12 season Ferguson is utterly wretched but he is not aggrieved. These things happen. His focus is on the parts of the game over which he can exert a grip. His managerial genius is to know where strength of will really matters and to exploit it. He pushes his players, he goads their opponents and he chides referees, all in pursuit of the advantages he can press home. His primary interest is in human beings and their weaknesses, not in the ball and its bounces.

This means he doesn’t have much time for sports science, at least not the kind that promises a fix for every problem. Ferguson is not interested in joining up all the dots, unlike those managers who think the numbers hold the key if only you know where to look. I once interviewed Aidy Boothroyd when he was manager of Watford, a team he had just guided into the Premier League. Boothroyd had been reading Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball – which revolutionised baseball by showing how spreadsheets and statistical analysis could produce a winning formula – and he told me he had a team of number crunchers slaving away to work the same magic on football. He thought they would have the code cracked within six months. Six months later Watford were relegated. Until recently Boothroyd managed Northampton Town. He was sacked when they dropped from second from bottom to bottom of League Two. Ferguson has never fallen for this sort of snake oil. In his list of thanks to the staff at United he pays tribute to ‘Tony Strudwick and his energetic bunch of sports scientists’ in the same sentence as acknowledging the tireless contribution of ‘our laundry girls’.

In many ways this is an anti-Moneyball book. Lewis’s central theme was that managers needed to discount the evidence of their own eyes and learn to trust hard numbers. Ferguson remains loyal to his instincts, above all to what he can see. It’s not only his own eyes that he relies on. He looks into other people’s to discover what they are made of. When Rio Ferdinand was banned for missing a drugs test, Ferguson was certain it was all an innocent mistake: he knows when his players have a drug problem because ‘it shows in their eyes’. When the hard-as-nails Serbian defender Nemanja Vidić tells him he might be called up to go to Kosovo, Ferguson takes it at face value: ‘He had the eyes for it.’ Only when a threat gets really serious does he find other ways of registering it. Once money started flowing into Manchester City from Abu Dhabi, Ferguson was in no doubt that his local rivals had become his biggest menace. ‘The danger no longer emanated from London or Merseyside. It was so close you could smell it.’

*

Yet in one respect, Ferguson embodies the Moneyball philosophy. As in any sport where small margins can make a big difference, what you need in football more than anything is time. Ferguson understood the value of time. He pressed his players to push themselves to the last minute, knowing that that was when other sides tended to weaken, especially at Old Trafford. ‘Fergie time’ – the period at the end of a home game when Ferguson would put pressure on referees to grant the extra minute his team needed to find the killer punch – was real. Ferguson claims he didn’t intend to intimidate referees. The point was to remind the opposition that United would always get there in the end. He trained his teams to come on strong in the second half of the season, knowing that their rivals were liable to wilt under the pressure. He outwaited and outlasted the managers of clubs that were less patient than he was, the ones who were always looking for the quick fix, the rapid turnaround, the magic bullet that would restore them to former glories. Rafael Benítez, the Liverpool manager who seems to have irritated him more than anyone (and that’s saying something), made the mistake of trying to goad him. Ferguson is contemptuous: ‘The mistake he made was to turn our rivalry personal. Once you made it personal, you had no chance, because I could wait. I had success on my side. Benítez was striving for trophies while also taking me on. That was unwise.’

Every year Ferguson lasted made him stronger, as other managers discovered they had less and less time to work with. He saw off 14 managers of Manchester City, including Roberto Mancini, the only one who actually beat him to a title. Liverpool got through nine managers during Ferguson’s time in charge at United. Chelsea got through 17, only one of whom, José Mourinho, got the better of him, and even he didn’t last. The mistake they all made, Ferguson thinks, was to look for the secret formula to beat United, when the only way to do that was to be stronger in the long run. ‘They would buy players to fit a jigsaw,’ Ferguson writes. ‘There seemed to be a desperation … it was that kind of short-term thinking.’ He knew that football was nothing like a jigsaw. It was far too messy and attritional for that. The only other manager who had anything like Ferguson’s staying power was Arsène Wenger, now in his 17th season at Arsenal. But even Wenger wasn’t patient enough in Ferguson’s eyes. He became too attached to the ideal of a player who would slot neatly into the Arsenal system. He grew inflexible and prickly.

One of the misapprehensions about Wenger is that because he is French and professorial-looking, he must be a cultivated man with wide horizons outside football. Those who know him say he is interested only in football: the bookshelves that you might expect to contain actual books are all full of football DVDs. He is obsessive and monomaniacal. It’s Ferguson, the traditional football man, who has the hinterland: books, wine, the horses. Once Wenger’s compulsions had caused the trophies to dry up, Ferguson knew how to exploit his position. Arsenal began to lose their top players to Manchester City, who signed up one after another with the promise of higher wages and quick success. When City started sniffing around Wenger’s most valuable player, Robin van Persie, Ferguson offered to buy him instead. He knew that Wenger was frightened that his club would start to look like a feeder team for City if van Persie moved there. Wenger took United’s bait, handing over his prize possession to his archrival for less than he might have got elsewhere. He was desperate not to seem weak, which is just the weakness Ferguson likes to take advantage of.

My Autobiography is not an easy read. It is a hectoring, petty, repetitive book. Ferguson returns again and again to the things that nag him: players who let him down, deals that came unstuck, people who should have known better. He will take up a subject, drop it, then come back to it a page later, not because he has anything to add, but simply because it’s still bugging him. It’s like being stuck in a room with the man himself as his mind whirrs away through its grudges and grievances and no one else gets a chance to put a word in. And that, presumably, is the idea. Ferguson’s ghostwriter is Paul Hayward, one of the most elegant sports journalists around. In this case, though, Hayward has absented his own voice entirely and decided to give us the authentic sound of Ferguson in full flow. The result reads like the unedited transcripts of taped conversations in which Ferguson was allowed to say whatever occurred to him whenever it occurred, without interruption. It’s ugly, it’s grinding, but it gives you the flavour of the man. The only other autobiography I’ve read recently that comes across like this is Tony Blair’s, which was also so disconnected, erratic and self-referential that it had the unmistakeable ring of authenticity. Blair jumped from subject to subject in such a peculiar way that it had to be the way his mind really worked. Interestingly, both books have sold far better than anyone expected, especially given how unpopular the two men are with many members of the public (Ferguson’s has been shifting nearly a hundred thousand copies a week, which means a lot of people are going to get an uncomfortable Christmas present). Part of it, of course, is sheer celebrity. But authenticity also sells.

The two books overlap at one point. Ferguson notes that in Blair’s memoirs

he wrote that he had asked my opinion on sacking Gordon Brown when he was prime minister and Gordon was next door in No. 11. My recollection is that Tony wasn’t specific about Gordon. His question was about superstars and how I dealt with them. My answer was: ‘The most important thing in my job is control. The minute they threaten your control, you have to get rid of them.’ He did say he was having problems with Gordon but didn’t ask me specifically what I thought he should do. I kept my advice general because I didn’t want to get into personality issues.

Ferguson has more in common with Brown than he does with Blair. The two men bonded over their shared interest in the Kennedy assassination (part of Ferguson’s JFK collection consists of books and DVDs sent to him by Brown). They both fit the conspiracist mould: suspicious, relentless, brooding, unable to shake the feeling that it is always, in the end, them and us. Brown, despite his reputation, wasn’t a control freak. Like Ferguson, he understood that many things were beyond his power to control (markets can move as randomly as a football). He just wanted to control the people with the power to do him harm. What Ferguson had that Brown didn’t have was time. Ferguson almost ran out of time early in his United career, when after barely three years of misfires and no trophies he was on the brink of being sacked. Then a lucky break in the Cup bought him the time he needed and he never looked back. Brown never had that luck. Blair was the lucky one, the man who was given an unassailable position as prime minister, which gave him the time to do what he wanted. He squandered it. If Ferguson had been Blair he would have sacked Brown (‘It never made sense to me to go to bed every night worrying when you could do something to cut the problem away’). If Brown had had the time given to Blair he would have accomplished more. But he got less than three years, which as Ferguson would be the first to admit, isn’t long enough to see off your enemies.

[*] Viking, 384 pp., £12.99, May 2013, 978 0 670 92224 6