How to manage a maverick

'Ferguson succeeded where others failed - by accepting Cantona was a rare talent and had to be handled as such'

'Ferguson succeeded where others failed - by accepting Cantona was a rare talent and had to be handled as such'

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 sports brand of them all, sum it up with their ‘no dickheads' policy.

It takes a brave man to argue with an All Black, but shouldn't a ‘dickhead’ with exceptional talent be incorporated into a team? Isn’t it a coach's job to get the best out of them?

That's certainly the view of 1986 World Cup winner and former Real Madrid General Manager Jorge Valdano, who 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 an opinion more and more coaches are coming round to.

Germany General Manager Oliver Bierhoff says his staff treat players like 'independent entrepreneurs', each with their own individual career path and motivations, while England rugby coach Eddie Jones recognises it is no longer enough to just "tell players what to do".


Andy Cole, the former Newcastle United, Manchester United and England striker, admits he wasn’t an easy player to manage.

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,” and Cole admits: “I took it on board literally and I’ve upset a lot of people along the way."

Perhaps he was ahead of his time though, as New Zealand manager Fritz Schmid, formerly of Grasshoppers, Spurs and Basel, points out.

“We are seeing a change in coaching styles," Schmid said. “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 a superb Q&A session at Soccerex last year.

“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, Cole played under one manager who “knew what buttons to press to get the best out of me” and another who chose an autocratic style that led to a formal complaint to the PFA.

The latter was Graeme Souness, the manager at Blackburn Rovers.

“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," Cole said.

“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.”

Cole complained to the PFA about unfair treatment and, despite having a talented squad, the Lancashire team finished a disappointing 15th in the Premier League. The difference between Souness and Cole's previous manager, Sir Alex 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 said.

“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."


In his 2002 biography of Ferguson, The Boss, Michael Crick wrote 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 branded a dickhead and jettisoned. But to Ferguson, the French striker was a maverick who could transform 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 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 Ben Lyttleton's excellent book 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.

More stories

Sign up to our newsletter to get all the latest news from The Guru