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The Steve Jobs of football

Alex Ferguson has left behind an unforgettable mark in the history of football

The Steve Jobs of football
Alex Ferguson

The world of sports has produced many wonderful stars, but few know about the genius who work behind the doors, in developing these super athletes and professional sports clubs that earn millions of dollars every season, thus contributing towards the national revenue streams.

David Beckham

David Beckham

Sir Alex Ferguson is one such genius who left behind an unforgettable mark in the history of football, not only by producing great stars such as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and winning 13 English league titles and 25 other domestic and international trophies, but by also giving a system to Manchester United Football Club that keeps on churning out great players with winning habits. How this all happened is unveiled by a Harvard Business School professor, Anita Elberse, who examined Ferguson’s management and coaching approach in the backdrop of his eight leadership lessons as a case study. She very rightly compares Alex Ferguson with Steve Jobs as both brought a new dimension to their respective businesses.

1. Start with the Foundation

Upon his arrival at Manchester, in 1986, Ferguson set about creating a structure for the long term by modernising United’s youth programme. He established two “centres of excellence” for promising players as young as nine and recruited a number of scouts, urging them to bring him the top young talent. The best-known of his early signings was David Beckham. The most important was probably Ryan Giggs, whom Ferguson noticed as a skinny 13-year-old in 1986 and who went on to become the most decorated British footballer of all time. Together with Giggs and Beckham, they formed the core of the great United teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Ferguson says that the job of a manager, like that of a teacher, is to inspire people to be better.

2. Dare to Rebuild Your Team

Even in times of great success, Ferguson worked to rebuild his team. He is credited with assembling five distinct league-winning squads during his time at the club and continuing to win trophies all the while. His decisions were driven by a keen sense of where his team stood in the cycle of rebuilding and by a similarly keen sense of players’ life cycles — how much value the players were bringing to the team at any point in time.

Ferguson had been a uniquely effective “portfolio manager” of talent. In the past decade, during which Manchester United won the English league five times, the club spent less on incoming transfers than its rivals Chelsea, ManchesterCity, and Liverpool did. One reason was a continued commitment to young players: Those under 25 constituted a far higher share of United’s incoming transfers than of its competitors’. Young players were given the time and conditions to succeed, most older players were sold to other teams while they were still valuable properties, and a few top veterans were kept around to lend continuity and carry the culture of the club forward.

3. Set High Standards — and Hold Everyone to Them

Ferguson speaks passionately about wanting to instill values in his players. More than giving them technical skills, he wanted to inspire them to strive to do better and to never give up. He recruited what he calls “bad losers” and demanded that they work extremely hard. Over the years this attitude became contagious — players didn’t accept teammates not giving it their all. The biggest stars were no exception.

He never allowed a bad training session. He didn’t allow a lack of focus. It was about intensity, concentration, speed. He expected more from the star players. He expected them to work even harder. He said, “You’ve got to show that you are the top players.”

4. Never, Ever Cede Control

“You can’t ever lose control — not when you are dealing with 30 top professionals who are all millionaires,” Ferguson said. “And if any players want to take me on, to challenge my authority and control, I deal with them.”

An important part of maintaining high standards across the board was Ferguson’s willingness to respond forcefully when players violated those standards. If they stepped out of line in a way that could undermine the team’s performance, Ferguson let them go.

There are occasions when certain players are affecting the dressing-room atmosphere, the performance of the team, and the manager’s control of the players and staff. Then the manager has to cut the cord. There is absolutely no other way. It doesn’t matter if the person is the best player in the world. The long-term view is more important.

5. Match the Message to the Moment

When it came to communicating decisions to his players, Ferguson — perhaps surprisingly for a manager with a reputation for being tough and demanding — worked hard to tailor his words to the situation. When he had to tell a player who might have been expecting to start that he wouldn’t be starting, he would approach it as a delicate assignment.  Although the media often portrayed him as favouring ferocious halftime and postgame talks, in fact he varied his approach.

No one likes to be criticised. Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. So he tried to give encouragement when he could. For a player there is nothing better than hearing “Well done”.

At the same time, in the dressing room, the manager has to point out mistakes when players don’t meet expectations. He would do it right after the game.

6. Rely on the Power of Observation

Ferguson started out as a manager at the small Scottish club East Stirlingshire in 1974, when he was 32. As he moved up, he increasingly delegated the training sessions to his assistant coaches. But he was always present, and he watched. The switch from coaching to observing, he said, allowed him to better evaluate the players and their performances. “As a coach on the field, you don’t see everything,” he said. A regular observer, however, can spot changes in training patterns, energy levels, and work rates. The key is to delegate the direct supervision to others and trust them to do their jobs, allowing the manager to truly observe.

7. Never Stop Adapting

In Ferguson’s quarter of a century at United, the world of football changed dramatically, from the financial stakes involved to the science behind what makes players better. Responding to change is never easy and perhaps even harder when one is on top for so long. But all his associates have mentioned his great capacity to adapt and change.

In the mid ’90s Ferguson became the first manager to field teams with large number of young players. He was also the first to let the four top centre forwards spend a season battling for two positions on his roster, a strategy that many outsiders deemed unmanageable but that was key to the great 1998-1999 season, in which Manchester United won the Treble: the Premier League, the FA Cup, and the UEFA Champions League.

Off the field, Ferguson greatly expanded his backroom staff and appointed a team of sports scientists to support his coaches. Following their suggestions, he installed Vitamin D booths in the dressing room in order to compensate for the lack of sunlight in Manchester, and championed the use of vests fitted with GPS sensors that allow an analysis of performance just 20 minutes after the training session. He employed an optometrist and also hired a yoga instructor to work with his players. He unveiled a state-of-the-art medical facility at his training ground so that all procedures short of surgery could be handled on site.

8. Prepare to Win

Ferguson’s teams had a knack for pulling out victories in the late stages of games. The in-depth analysis of game results shows that over 10 recent seasons, United had a better record when tied at halftime and when tied with 15 minutes left to play than any other club in the English league.

When their teams are behind late in the game, many managers will direct players to move forward, encouraging them to attack. Ferguson was both unusually aggressive and unusually systematic about his approach. He prepared his team to win. He had players regularly practise how they should play if a goal was needed with in, five, or three minutes remaining. “We practise for when the going gets tough, so we know what it takes to be successful in those situations,” one of United’s assistant coaches said.

Ferguson retired from Manchester United on May 8, 2013, with the 20th English league feather in his cap. He has left the club with the annual financial turnaround of 320 million pounds and more than this the great Ferguson has left his leadership, management and coaching style for others to follow. In a sport culture like ours where coaches have little value the research carried out by Anita on Ferguson is of great value, provided we have the heart to look into the golden principles of Sir Alex Ferguson.

One comment

  • There are lots of football supporters who supports the players. But the supporters like Steve Job is quite different.

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