Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography, Hodder & Stoughton, RRP£25, 416 pages
The only person I ever coached who was totally unaffected by his mistakes was David Beckham,” writes Sir Alex Ferguson in this mixed bag of afterthoughts to his career. “He could have the worst game possible and still not believe that he had underperformed in any way ... In a way, it was a great quality.”
Vignettes like that make this autobiography worth reading. Ferguson understands people – a skill honed while running pubs in Glasgow – and he observed a lot of people in his 27 years managing Manchester United Football Club before retiring in May. Phil Neville was a player to whom you could say, “Phil, I want you to run up that hill, then come back and cut down that tree” and he would reply, “Right, boss, where’s the chainsaw?” Paul Scholes hit such an accurate long ball “that he could choose a hair on the head of any teammate answering the call of nature at our training ground”. Mark Bosnich was “a terrible professional”. Roy Keane’s mood swings “would determine the whole mood of the dressing room”.
Unfortunately, though, this book, written with journalist Paul Hayward, offers only scraps of what many readers will crave: a great manager’s secrets of management. This is a memoir, not a business book.
There are fragments of a Fergusonian management manifesto. He unfolds his belief that if you give people total loyalty and trust, they will give it back to you. (This explains the endless tributes to supporting characters that make the book’s early parts read like a long retirement speech.) Behind closed doors, you can scream at people. In public you must always “protect them from outside judgments”, however accurate. That, he writes, is “the one constant principle of my time as a manager”.
His need for control seems to have been pretty constant, too. Ferguson writes of Beckham: “You cannot have a player taking over the dressing room. Many tried ... that was the death knell for him.” Beckham, he believes, had begun working harder at being a fashion icon than a footballer. Consequently, after leaving United “he never attained the level where you would say: ‘That is an absolute top player.’”
Keane, too, was banished for taking on the manager. Ferguson – who places himself on the left of the Labour party – once advised Tony Blair to sack disobedient superstars in cabinet, because control was paramount. Only later did Ferguson realise that Blair had had Gordon Brown in mind.
Other supposed Fergusonian methods turn out to be less important than presumed: the media deconstructed his every word, imagining that he was playing “mind games” to upset opposing managers. Usually, he says, he wasn’t.
He says little about football tactics, confirming suspicion that his brilliance lay exclusively in man-management. He ponders whether United should have played more defensively against Barcelona in the lost Champions League finals of 2009 and 2011. Defence, he writes, wouldn’t have been United’s way – it would have been to “put myself through torture, put the fans through hell”. Instead, “I wanted a more positive outlook ... and we were beaten partly because of that change in emphasis.” It is a fascinating dilemma. Often, though, the insights disappoint. Here is Ferguson on assessing players: “The demarcation line was always: what can they do and what can they not do?”
We learn more about the private man. He explains that the death of his wife’s sister – which left his wife feeling alone – helped push him to retire. As for pursuits, “[horse] racing taught me to switch off, along with reading books and buying wine. That side of my life developed really from 1997, when I hit that wall and realised I needed to do something else to divert my thoughts from football.” Among other things, he began to obsess about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, collecting conspiracy theories and memorabilia – including a copy of the Warren Commission’s report signed by Gerald Ford. But he also, encouraged by Gordon Brown, became a serious reader of American history. (Ferguson’s network within the British establishment – his pals include Jim O’Neill, Greg Dyke and Alastair Campbell – may be unparalleled.) His library seems to consist largely of biographies of leaders, with a large section on despots.
Ferguson himself didn’t tolerate dissidents or free media, yet this is a surprisingly good-tempered book. It has kind words for former enemies such as Liverpool FC and the Irish racing owner John Magnier, though he does patronise Arsenal’s Arsène Wenger. It is an entertaining read, but less than Ferguson deserves. He attempts jokes, but humour isn’t his forte. It’s a shame, too, that the book seems to have been written too fast, presumably to get it out before Christmas.
Perhaps managerial greatness always arises from an unrepeatable combination of person, place, moment and luck, and therefore cannot be taught by a book. Other managers can’t simply decide to be like Ferguson. Despite that lecture about control, Blair lacked the power to discard Brown as Ferguson had Beckham. If it were possible to copy Ferguson’s management secrets, everyone would have done so long ago.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist