Mike Phelan: Motivating the motivator
Written by Simon Austin — October 9, 2018
MIKE PHELAN was Sir Alex Ferguson’s right-hand man from September 2008 up until the Scot’s departure from Manchester United in May 2013.
During this time they won three Premier League titles, the Club World Cup, two League Cups and reached the final of the Champions League.
Their association went back much further than that though, with Ferguson having signed Phelan as a player in 1989, before employing him at the club’s Centre of Excellence a decade later and then as first-team coach in 2001.
The 56-year-old gave a fascinating insight into his work as Ferguson’s assistant and as part of the ‘team behind the team’ in the This Football Life podcast.
IF ONE SUCCEEDS, WE ALL SUCCEED
Mike Phelan: One thing about Manchester United was the fact there was a team behind the team. Everybody saw the performances of the team and the players expressing themselves, but they didn't see what was going on in the background.
What Sir Alex created was a good group of people, a good work ethic and people who weren't so precious as to claim glory.
There were people that would go the extra yard because everybody felt that if one succeeds, we all succeed. I think that's lost a little bit in the game now.
That was huge and was really, really important to our success. Now the game of football is a little bit more precious than it's ever been. The demands are greater and the rewards are massive and I think people sometimes lose track of the fact that it’s groups of people that make things happen.
People may not always agree, but if the objective is the same and you all buy into it then you have a terrific ride ahead. Certainly I experienced that and couldn't thank all of the staff enough when I departed Manchester United, because it had been a collaboration.
The manager sat at the top of the tree and was unbelievably successful and I just appreciated the fact that I was a part of it. I want to try and recreate something like that again.
I think the role of the assistant is two things: it’s listening and it's being a decision maker. You sit in the middle of a process which is looking after the players but also looking after the manager above you and the staff around you. You are sitting in quite a nice place, so long as you are respected by the people around you. Then you can make things work.
You are the link man and have to be good at listening and offering advice, but also sometimes you have to be pretty cutting as well. How much does the manager need to know in order to make his job a little bit easier? It comes down to communication and being open and frank.
I remember one particular decision I got involved in and it wasn't anything to do with players. Manchester United always used to go on pre-season tours - one year it would be Africa, one year the Far East and one year America, so it kept rotating. This time we were due to go to the Far East or into Asia [in 2005].
It wasn't really discussed at any length, but the club was pushing towards this certain game in Tokyo. And at the time the manager wasn't available and it came to my door and I made the call that yes, this game could be fitted into the schedule. We planned it meticulously, that we could fit it in and it was worth our while.
But I failed to actually mention it to Sir Alex and he gave me a phone call and asked me, quite outright, ‘Where has that come from? Who made that decision?’ So I said, ‘Well, I made it.’ ‘Well, who gives you the right to make that call, to make that decision?’ I said, ‘Well you did, when we first talked about my role in the club.’ He took it really, really well. He was angry at first but accepted he had given me that role to play.
So we fit it in, we play the game, we do the visit and everything went sweet. I made the decision based on all the facts I was given and Sir Alex went along with it in the end.
When I go back and reflect, I probably did get away with one or two things that most people wouldn’t. At certain moments I felt as though a bit of humour or a little bit of mickey taking and being in a relaxed environment, we could all take that really well.
And I think one of the strengths of the group that worked in and around Sir Alex was that we could all express something in confidence and enjoy the moment together and all smile. We could laugh at our own mistakes, we could laugh at each other and we could party hard together but certainly work hard together.
One of the assistant’s roles is to lighten things up. It's a serious job, don't get me wrong, but there are moments when you have to live. Do you know what I mean? You have got to enjoy and you have got to put a smile on your face and experience the good times. And I think that was great, to make Sir Alex laugh or to make him a part of the group, when he sits alone in a chair and sits alone in his office.
It's important to get him out of that situation so he can live, he can be a part of the work he was putting in and we could all enjoy his company, I think that was really important.
So yes, I did get away with it. I grew my beard once and was probably the only one allowed to do that - and still to this day I can't believe he never told me to get rid of it, because he told everybody else to get their hair cut and make sure they were clean shaven.
For some reason he just forgot or he didn't see it or he just turned a blind eye to it.