A man for all seasons
On November 6, Sir Alex Ferguson will celebrate 25 years in charge of Manchester United. He has some way to go to match the tenures of the likes of Fred Everiss, Guy Roux, Willie Maley and Bill Struth but, in the modern era and at so famous a club, it is an achievement that cannot be overstated.
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"I don't think anybody would expect a manager of a football club to last 25 years, especially one the size of Manchester United, but I think this guy showed from a very early age in his managerial career that he was a bit different from everybody else," Gary Pallister tells ESPNsoccernet. "To do what he did with a club the size of Aberdeen and break the stronghold of the Old Firm up in Scotland marked him out as somebody a little bit special. Fortunately it was Manchester United that thought so and managed to secure his services."
Pallister was there to witness Ferguson's transition from his early years at Old Trafford, as he toiled against persistent setbacks to wake a sleeping giant, to an era of dominance that was to see Manchester United established as the Premier League's foremost club. It could all have been different.
Ferguson had led Aberdeen to a Cup Winners' Cup triumph over Real Madrid and won the Scottish league title on three occasions, achievements that owed much to their manager's excellence in the fields of fitness and psychology. When he arrived in Manchester following the dismissal of Ron Atkinson, though, he inherited a squad whose fondness for the party lifestyle was undermining progress. It was not a culture shock, as such - Ferguson had been well aware before taking charge - but his task, it became clear, was renewal from top to bottom, and many outside the club thought he would be denied the chance to achieve it.
The story often told is that, had Mark Robins not rescued the team in their FA Cup third-round tie at Nottingham Forest in January 1990, chairman Martin Edwards would have ended Ferguson's reign after little more than three years. Those connected with the club have always denied that was the case.
"Everybody said if we got beat he was going to lose his job but I think they'd seen what he was doing with the structure of the club," Pallister says. "Not just what he was doing with the first-team but how he was building up the scouting network, how he was working with the youth system in the club and clearing out a lot of deadwood from the place - revitalising the whole club.
"I think the work ethic is one of the great things you see in the manager. He's one of the first into work and one of the last to leave - well, he is the first into work and probably the last to leave. You don't see him trying to take any kind of shortcuts. He's hands-on with everything from the youth system to the canteen to the bloody kit man. He's wanting to know what's going on all the time. Everybody sees that work ethic that he's got when they're around him and understands why he is so successful."
Ferguson has benefitted from fostering a sense of continuity at the club - the likes of Brian McClair, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mike Phelan are among the former players to have been given backroom jobs - but that approach predated his arrival. Bobby Charlton was appointed to the board of directors in 1984 to add a club man after the stepping down of Sir Matt Busby, and the former England star was instrumental in Ferguson's appointment; he may also have been instrumental in ensuring the chairman did not lose faith. "I'm sure people like Martin Edwards would have spoken to Bobby in private moments and asked him what he thought," Pallister says. "He'd been under Sir Matt and played under Sir Alf Ramsey and he'd seen how great managers had worked. I think he maybe saw similarities in that."
Patience paid off. Having invested heavily in the summer of 1989 in Pallister, Paul Ince, Danny Wallace, Neil Webb and Mike Phelan, and with Robins' famous assistance, United went on to lift the FA Cup in 1990 and end the trophy drought that would otherwise have stretched into a fifth year.
"You'd look back now and think it was pennies but at the time all those signings represented a lot of money and that brings a pressure all of its own, I think," Pallister says. "Because of the amount of cash that was spent you would expect some kind of instant success. Fortunately we did win the FA Cup and that gave the chairman a bit of relief, and gradually we reached the holy grail of winning the title."
That first league title under Ferguson, finally delivered in 1992-93 after a near miss in the previous campaign, was as much a triumph of man-management as anything else. He had taken the brilliant but volatile Eric Cantona from Leeds, the 1992 champions, and the Frenchman had provided the orchestra with its conductor. For that, Ferguson was prepared to make some concessions.
"His man-management is second to none," Pallister says. "That's absolutely top-class, and it's a prerequisite for any manager who's going to be successful in the game to get the best out of the players. Certainly in my time maybe Eric got a little bit more... well, I don't think he ever suffered the hairdryer. I think he was the only player that never did.
"You're managing temperaments and egos - different characters. We're all different. Eric, after the Crystal Palace episode, decided he was walking away from football and the gaffer went out to France, found him, spoke to him and managed to change his mind. To be honest, if he hadn't done that, I've no doubt Eric would've walked away from football. I think he's that kind - once he'd made up his mind on that, he wasn't for changing, but the manager did change his mind. I don't think he'd have done that for every player, but Eric was a bit special and I think at that exact period of time somebody needed to put an arm around his shoulder and say, 'Let's get through this'."
This yielding to the needs of the occasion has been central to Ferguson's continued success. Though a manager of strong principles, his approach has not been encumbered by a clinging to the past.
"He's got old fashioned values. He takes from old-fashioned managerial styles - he picked up the best pieces from people he worked under as a player and brought them into his management - but he moves with the times. He was one of the first with the diets, fitness coaches, working on peripheral vision - brought people in to help with that. I think he takes everything on its merits and if he can improve the team then he'll do that. He's into all them kind of things. He's not blinkered in the respect that there's a kind of managerial style that's going to work forever. I think he's flexible with what he learns and what he's picked up over the years and he puts that all together in the package that is Sir Alex Ferguson."
Even now, two months shy of his 70th birthday, Ferguson refuses to lean too heavily on the familiar, and his appetite for more shows no sign of abating. Recent signings have placed the emphasis on youth, and Pallister expects the manager to see them through to maturity.
"He's putting together another terrific team and he's enjoying the challenge that's coming across from his neighbours in Manchester, even though he'll be stung by the 6-1 defeat," he says. "He's tried to walk away before and I think he'd have missed it too much. I certainly believe that, as long as he's fit and healthy and he's got that burning desire to carry on winning things, he's going to stay in the job. You're waiting for that candle to burn out that is his desire. When you see it now, you don't see it fading."
Gary Pallister was speaking on behalf of ESPN Classic (Sky 429/Virgin533) to promote their new 5-part documentary series '25 Years United: Sir Alex Ferguson' which premieres every weeknight from Monday 31st October at 10pm. For details visit: www.espnclassic.com