How Sir Alex Ferguson built a winning culture at Man Utd
Written by Professor Damian Hughes — October 16, 2018
IN their book Soccernomics, economist Stefan Szymanski and journalist Simon Kuper write that money determines somewhere between 80 and 90% of the performance of a football club.
According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, referencing research from Australian Rules Football, the cultural fit of a leader is key in extracting the remaining 10 to 20%.
The big question, therefore, is how can a leader affect the culture and, by definition, the performance of their team? There are several examples of how the Scottish knight managed to do this so successfully throughout his 26-year reign at Manchester United.
1. WINNING IN EVERY DETAIL
“Winning championships is Manchester United's trade. Sir Alex Ferguson understands the business of winning them in every possible detail," said Steve Bruce, the former Manchester United captain.
This was especially true on a sodden May afternoon in Wigan, when Manchester United came seeking a victory that would secure the Premier League title.
“It was a difficult game,” the United manager said. “It was an away game and the conditions also made it tough.” United had to win because anything less might have afforded closest rivals Chelsea victory in the 2008 title race.
Despite Cristiano Ronaldo's opening goal from the penalty spot, it was not sufficient to induce a mood of serenity in the away technical area.
“When it remained at 1-0, we had some nervous moments and when the rain came, anything could have happened then,” Ferguson admitted. “I was thinking, ‘Please give me a second goal.’”
Instead, it Wigan's powerful forward, Emile Heskey, who came closest to scoring. He put a header just wide of the goal. As he watched the opportunity go begging, the striker punched the turf in frustration. “I knew it was a good chance,” the player later admitted.
It was a small, seemingly insignificant moment to the 25,000 or so spectators and millions of television viewers watching on. To Ferguson, it was an important detail.
He noted that the grass came loose beneath Heskey's fist and immediately instructed substitute Ryan Giggs to get ready to go on. “Heskey's punch showed me that the ground was soft and so Ryan's pace would be crucial,” Ferguson explained.
Ten minutes later, Wayne Rooney looked up, measured the space and slid the ball through a gaping central defensive hole into which Ryan Giggs cantered. The 34-year-old steadied himself before slipping a finish beyond the goalkeeper to record their second goal.
This, it could be argued was a goal crafted 21 years earlier, on a cold, dark November 1987 evening.
On his 14th birthday, the doorbell rang at Ryan Giggs’ home in Swinton. It was Alex Ferguson himself, there to ask Lynne Giggs whether her eldest son would sign schoolboys forms for United.
“If the manager of Manchester United comes round to your house,” Giggs later said, “you tend to be a bit flattered. It’s a rather nice feeling and not the kind of offer you turn down.”
Giggs’ goal against Wigan moved Ferguson closer towards his 10th title and drew United level with Liverpool’s haul of 18, cementing the club amongst Europe’s elite.
2. RECRUITING CHARACTERS
Ferguson figured out an efficient way to test for character.
Here’s how it worked: he invited the prospect to a meeting. The player walked in, Ferguson said a brisk hello, clicked off the lights, then pressed PLAY to start a video of one of the player’s worst moments. Then he would turn to the player and ask, “So what happened there?”
Ferguson was not really interested in what happened, of course. He was interested in how the player reacted to adversity. How did their brain handle failure? Did they take responsibility, or make excuses?
Did they blame others or talk about what they would do differently? The idea was not just to weed out people with the wrong mindset, but also to identify those who had the right one.
“There are lots of young men who like the idea of being a footballer but don’t want to invest the time to work at being a footballer,” is how he explained it.
In March 1993, Ferguson applied this principle with a cohort of young players who were beginning to show rare talent. David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes were required to analyse their best and worst performances both in writing and then in mock television interviews.
Long-serving Manchester broadcasters Jimmy Wagg and Eamonn O’Neal conducted the interviews, while Ferguson and Paul McGuinness, the highly-respected youth coach, looked on.
The results make fascinating reading, not least for the unsparing nature of the players’ self-assessment.
“I played crap. I didn’t do too well, really. Just nothin' was going right. Nothin' went our way,” wrote David Beckham in his assessment of his worst performance. When he was interviewed, his shy smile could not disguise the steeliness of his ambition. By working hard, he said, “I hope to play for United's first team in the next couple of years and emulate my hero, Bryan Robson.”
In his notes, Giggs could not think of a single match he had played well in and chose to leave a blank space. He did, however, note that one performance against Oldham was not good enough: “I got marked out of the game and I must of kicked the ball about twice.”
Gary Neville, now famous for his incisive analysis as a television pundit, described his poorest performance, in the 1993 Youth Cup Final second leg against Leeds, in blunt, forthright fashion: “My arsehole dropped out. Didn't feel in the game.”
“It was obvious, even then, that these guys would go on to enjoy impressive careers,’ O’Neall recalled. “They didn’t make excuses for their failures and they didn’t dwell on their successes. Ferguson sat smiling throughout.”
3. BUILDING SOMETHING SPECIAL, BRICK BY BRICK
One day, Beckham and his team-mates were sitting in the dressing-room at Manchester United's Carrington training centre when in walked Ferguson.
He proceeded to recount a tale which fired the players' imagination and fuelled their desire to create something special in the name of Manchester United.
He told them a story about three men who were laying bricks. Each was asked what he was doing. "Laying bricks," answered the first. "Earning £10 per hour," replied the second.
The third was driven by a bigger vision and said: "I'm building a cathedral and, one day, I'll bring my kids back here and tell them that their dad contributed to this magnificent building."
Ferguson suggested to Beckham and his team-mates that they could apply these three approaches to the training session they were about to begin.
“I’m just practising," would be the answer from the first player training. “I’m earning £1,000 an hour," would be the second.
The third response would be: “I’m helping to build the best Manchester United team ever and I'll be proud to tell my grandchildren I was part of it.”
Still pondering the manager's words, Beckham and company commenced training. Beckham promptly scored a gem from 30 yards and ran off in celebration, shouting, “Cathedral 1, Bricklayers 0."