James Lawton: Willingness to adapt keeps Alex Ferguson and Manchester United one step ahead of the rest
He is a wonder of competitive force and working intelligence
They say you should start at the beginning. Examine the boy and the young man, the drive of his nature and his influences, and you pretty much have the unfolding story. In the case of Sir Alex Ferguson, though, it is not quite so straightforward.
The temptation is to dwell on those first days in the streets and the foundries and shipyards of Govan, and the ferocious ambition of a raw-boned young striker fighting his way to the top of the Scottish game. But then the graveyard of football hopes is filled with such stereotypes and one of Ferguson's first players, the East Stirlingshire forward Bobby McCulley, certainly offered a limited picture.
“In all my life,” said McCulley, “I'd never been afraid of anyone but Ferguson was a frightening bastard right from the start.”
It is fuel enough for the image of the flaming hairdryer and the flying cups and boots but it doesn't begin to explain why, at the age of 71, Ferguson continues to operate at the height of his powers as British football's most decorated manager.
The reason, it is suggested by a friend who has been close to him since those days of striving north of the border, the superb, icon-smashing reign at Aberdeen and his fierce but methodical mastery of every situation and challenge at Old Trafford, is a unique ability to remake himself along the road.
“The hairdryer is just a small piece of the jigsaw,” he said in the wake of the 13th Premier League title delivered with such stunning symbolism by Ferguson's signing of the season, Robin van Persie, on Monday night. “What is pretty miraculous is not so much the longevity, which is astonishing enough in itself, but the ability to adapt to each new phase of the game and the changes it brings.
”Each new generation of players brings new attitudes, new values, and the picture I have is of Fergie waiting for them - and then coming up with an effective way of working in a new environment. That is the really stunning achievement. I was at the Carrington training headquarters the other day and I was stunned by the way he communicated with the kids. He had them rolling with laughter one moment, but then he always had their attention.“
At one great peak of success, when Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney were heading for Champions League glory, he had one of his fiercest supporters, United director Sir Bobby Charlton, address all of the players on the meaning of the Munich tragedy. He wanted them rooted a little deeper in the soil of the club and, if there has been general astonishment at Ferguson's ability to drive a relatively modest squad to a crushing Premier League triumph this season, it was not difficult to identify a key explanation at Old Trafford this week.
It was an overwhelming sense of a team imbued with the drive to draw the best from themselves. Van Persie was exultant in his first success and Rooney, fighting to re-adapt himself to a less central role in the club's ambitions, delivered some beautiful passes, one of which helped create a goal that in the circumstances Ferguson unsurprisingly announced as a contender for goal not of the season but the century.
”You know,“ says the Ferguson watcher on intimate terms with his subject, ”he grew up deeply admiring managers like Jock Stein and Bill Shankly and Matt Busby, but I'm not sure any of these great men would have been able to have met the new challenges of the game - and the world - quite like him. He has always been a step ahead.“
None of this is likely to dissipate Ferguson's army of critics - or dislodge their complaints that for all his success he remains a one-eyed, ruthless discredit to the image of big-time football. You pay your money and you take your choice, of course, but the more dispassionate view has to be that Ferguson, for all the rough edges, remains a wonder of competitive force and working intelligence.
The ability of a squad outgunned in man-for-man talent to outrun so comfortably the champions Manchester City is above all a story of one man's unswerving vision of what constitutes a team. When his rival Roberto Mancini talks of the ebb and flow of commitment he is speaking a language with which Ferguson is plainly unfamiliar. When he lost to City 5-1 in September 1989, at a time when many were questioning what they considered the blind faith of someone such as Charlton, he said it was the darkest day of his football life. He said that when he walked from his door he felt like a criminal.
It was something you had to remember a decade later when he ran along the touchline at the Nou Camp with his arms aloft after his team, deprived of key players Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, came from the dead to win the Champions League. ”Football, bloody hell,“ Ferguson would later famously remark. ”Ferguson, bloody hell,“ says the rest of the game.
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