Ferguson, Valdano and how to manage a maverick
Written by Simon Austin — September 13, 2017
ONE man’s dickhead is another man’s maverick.
For a long time, the collective has taken precedence over the individual in team sport. We all know the slogans: ‘There’s no i in team.’ ‘No player is bigger than the club.’
The New Zealand All Blacks, probably the most successful and compelling sports brand of all, sum it up with their own ‘no dickheads policy.’
Their mental skills coach, Gilbert Enoka, coined the phrase and describes dickheads as “people putting themselves ahead of the team, people who think they’re entitled to things or expect the rules to be different for them, people operating deceitfully in the dark, or being unnecessarily loud about their work."
He adds: “Often teams put up with it because a player has so much talent. We look for early warning signs and wean the big egos out pretty quickly. Our motto is, if you can’t change the people, change the people.”
It takes a brave man to argue with an All Black. But what if the ‘dickhead’ has exceptional ability and can elevate the team to another level? Isn’t it the job of the coach to get the best out of them?
In his brilliant new book, Edge, Ben Lyttleton interviews the World Cup winner and former Real Madrid General Manager Jorge Valdano.
The Argentine advocates “a progressive approach [that] rejects the mainstream belief that organisation takes precedence over freedom, that the collective counts for more than the individual.” This is something more and more coaches are coming round to.
Germany General Manager Oliver Bierhoff has explained how his team treats players as 'independent entrepreneurs', each with their own individual career paths and motivations. AZ Alkmaar Head of Performance Marijn Beuker has spoken of empowering players. And England rugby coach Eddie Jones recognises that you can no longer simply "tell players what to do".
These are themes that Sir Alex Ferguson recognised a long time ago.
Andy Cole and transformational leadership:
Cole, the former Newcastle United, Manchester United and England striker, admits he wasn’t an easy player to manage during his career. The second-youngest of eight children born to an immigrant couple in Nottingham, his mum always told him, “If you don’t like something, you must speak your mind.”
“I took it on board literally and I’ve upset a lot of people along the way,” he admits.
In his approach, Cole was probably ahead of his time though, because the modern player is more inclined to question than obediently follow.
“We are seeing a change in coaching styles," Fritz Schmid, the former Grasshoppers, Spurs and Basel coach says in Edge.
“It is a move away from the traditional ‘transactional’ model - I give you something, you give me something back - to a transformational model, where coaches present players with a vision and inspire them to join the project. This is led by inspiration not direction.
“There is a growing development of individuality and so we find players who would rather establish their personal brand before they think of the team or collective. You no longer give orders - it’s all about convincing, explaining.”
England rugby coach Jones touched on this during his superb Q&A at the Soccerex Conference last week.
“The players have changed considerably from 10 years ago,” he said. “You have to treat them differently - they have different motivations and values. It’s neither right nor wrong. You can’t just tell them what to do, you’ve got to guide them to discover what to do. That’s the fun part of coaching – if you don’t evolve you don’t carry on.”
It was at Soccerex that I caught up with Cole, the former Manchester United and England striker, and spoke to him about the art of man management.
During his career he played under a manager who “knew what buttons to press to get the best out of me”, elevating him to almost unimaginable levels of success; and one who chose an autocratic style of leadership that led him to complain to the PFA and mentally down tools.
First, the worst: Blackburn Rovers and Graeme Souness.
“I’ll be brutally honest with you,” Cole said in an interview in 2005.
“I was at a stage, in my last season at Blackburn, where I wasn’t bothered whether I was in the game or not, because the relationship I had with the guy up there [Souness] was never going to work.
“In the end, I just didn’t want to be there — not Blackburn, because there was nothing wrong with Blackburn, it’s a lovely club and the fans and the players were great — I mean working under him.
“It was a vicious circle. He tried to dominate someone he couldn’t dominate. He couldn’t dominate me. That’s just the way I am. I won’t be dominated by someone I don’t like. So in the end, we just went round and round and it became obvious the best thing for the pair of us was to go our separate ways.”
His second season at Rovers ended with that complaint to the PFA for unfair treatment and a 15th-placed finish in the Premier League. The difference with his previous manager, Ferguson, could not have been more stark.
“We’ve all got different personalities - some are quiet, some are loud, some are strong, some are weak,” Cole told me at Soccerex.
“Sir Alex recognised how everyone is different. To deal with people, to show them the respect they deserve, that’s a great quality and it’s why he was such a phenomenal manager. I don’t know how he did it.
“You’d have stand-up rows with him at certain times. But after, it was always finished. I remember missing a chance in the last minute against Chelsea, when we drew 3-3, and we had a massive row.
"Yet on the Wednesday we played PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League and before the game we had a laugh about what had happened and it was gone. I’m always going to have a row with someone, that’s my nature, but when you know you can have a row with the manager and it’ll be forgotten, you can play for a guy like that.
“He knew I was a determined so-and-so, and he knew what buttons to press to get the best out of me. He likes strong characters. At United, you face a lot of pressure and you have to be mentally strong.”
It reminded me of a quote from Sir Terry Leahy, the man who turned Tesco into the third biggest retailer in the world: "Be more tolerant of the difficult people. They’re the creative ones. They’re not happy with the status quo."
Eric Cantona - how to manage genius:
In his 2002 biography of Ferguson, The Boss, Michael Crick writes that Eric Cantona “was allowed to turn up late for training or for the team coach; he ignored the club dress code, and was often unshaven.”
According to the All Blacks’ code, the Manchester United forward might have been dismissed as a dickhead. But to Ferguson, he was a maverick capable of transforming his nearly men into champions.
“Alex Ferguson succeeded where several previous managers had failed - by accepting that Cantona was a rare talent and had to be handled as such,” Crick wrote.
“Paul Ince pointed at Cantona on one occasion, complaining to his manager, ‘You never shout at him.’ Similarly, Lee Sharpe tells of once being told off by Ferguson for arriving at a civic reception at Manchester town hall dressed in a trendy silk suit, only for Cantona to turn up wearing a T-shirt and trainers.
“What was genius, is that Ferguson knew if he carried on treating Eric like royalty he would start performing like the king, and then automatically all the players would accept that their king should be treated a little differently.”
Valdano understands the value of mavericks better than most, having played alongside Diego Maradona for Argentina. The number 10 was temperamental and unpredictable, but his ability turned an otherwise functional side into world champions.
“Geniuses aren’t always easy people to live with," Valdano says in Edge. "But their contributions produce such a jump in quality that they deserve the collective hard work and support. There is a transaction between the genius and the team - this genius will make me better and help me win a World Cup.”
Of course, Ferguson understood that transaction too. He indulged Cantona because he realised what he could bring to his team. Had he not been such a special player and personality, the leeway wouldn't have been there.
Not everyone is imbued with the talent of a Cantona or Maradona. But the truly great managers are expert psychologists who understand that every player is different and requires treating as an individual.
And what coaches like Eddie Jones have recognised is that a different style of management is now required. The days of expecting orders to be followed unquestioningly have gone.