His teams always played to win, to pass the ball, to impose their football, to play a Scottish attacking style. They were aggressive, dominant and resilient, never giving up, regardless of the game situation. But there was so much more to Sir Alex Ferguson’s multi-faceted teams than just collective force of will and personality.
The temptation, specifically within a sneering English press, is to focus on the Scot’s achievements solely with Man United and also view them through the prism of a cult of personality surrounding the manager.
Other coaches, whose names typically end in vowel inevitably get the glamorous briefs. They are the tactical and technical innovators, the guardians of the game’s development. Ferguson meanwhile, is stereotypically viewed as a meat and two veg 4-4-2 man, a blue collar boss who specialised in expedient solutions. Not only is this veiled slur patently wrong. It is also long overdue to be put to sleep forever.
The fact is, Sir Alex Ferguson has never been a parochial football man or a parochial football fan. His role as a 16 year old centre forward at the legendary Queens Park, alone would have seen to that.
The romanticism of his football philosophy exists on a continuum that runs from The Spiders’ Hampden home and the birth of the Scottish Game, modern, passing football as we know it, to the present day. Indeed, Pep Guardiola, that most modern of coaches, has turned that journey full circle with his re-imagining of the classic 1895 Victorian Queens Park Model early in his reign at Man City.
A philosophy forged in Glasgow
The one consistent aspect in Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘philosophy’ is the primacy of key influences at every stage of his career.
Reflecting Glasgow’s status as a then world football capital, the young Sir Alex Ferguson imagined a brand of football that was both local and global in tone – a refraction of Real Madrid and the 1960 European Cup Final at Hampden (a game he watched enraptured), of The Old Firm in Glasgow, of his mentor Jock Stein and The Lisbon Lions, of the Scottish scout John Barr of Leeds United who visited him at Love Street as a young manager at St Mirren and told him all about Don Revie’s innovations at Elland Road. This background informs Sir Alex’s view that the manager should control every aspect of club culture.
Though the philosophy remained the same, Sir Alex’s teams were tactically very versatile in terms of shape. He has used a variety of formations – 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1 – and even a 4-6-0 against a stubborn Greenock Morton side at Cappielow while manager of Aberdeen around 1985.
That particular innovation was probably 27 years or so ahead of its time. That 4-6-0 formation gained notoriety with Spain in 2012. And the Scot was also over a decade ahead of Romania’s use of the same formation in 1994. Luciano Spalletti used the 4-6-0 in 2006 with Roma before Ferguson again revisited the formation in 2007-8, while winning the Premiership and Champions League.
In short, Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams were always more tactically diverse (and interesting) than the pigeon-holing of his teams as direct and broadly 4-4-2 in shape.
Crucially though, the philosophy always remains the same – a commitment to dynamic, romantic attacking football. And the solution is always a slave to those core characteristics.
After Sir Alex Ferguson’s keynote breakthrough FA Cup win v Crystal Palace (1990), The 1990s became United’s decade, as they won five of the first seven English Premier League titles after the league was founded on the back of a blockbuster Sky television deal.
Ferguson’s 13 English Premier League titles, two Champions League crowns and five FA Cups followed and established the Manchester club as one of a handful of global heavyweights. Prior to that point United had been a faded giant, trapped in the shadow of their own illustrious Busby-era history.
But the legacy doesn’t end with a list of titles.
Mapping the way for the modern manager
There’s the player development: Ronaldo, Rooney, Beckham, Scholes, Neville et al and the establishment of an international scouting system and academy at Carrington, part of a long term infrastructural plan.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest contribution has been his creating the roadmap for every modern era boss – he is a manager from a different era who successfully reinvented himself again and again over a period of 40 years or so. Not just in England, but also in Scotland.
His achievements in Scotland with Aberdeen (who smashed the stranglehold of Rangers and Celtic and also became a force in Europe (beating Real Madrid in Gothenburg to win the Cup Winners Cup) stands comparison with his success at Man United. Equally, his work at St Mirren created the backdrop for success there and also a conveyor belt of notable coaches, international players and also competition in Europe – again an incredible achievement in a provincial Scottish town like Paisley.
All the great pre-1992 managers of a similar stripe to Ferguson, including Clough, Paisley, and Shankly, all largely enjoyed their success at one club or in a condensed period of time. Ferguson had success at every club (relative to the brief he was even a success at East Stirling) over 40 years as a manager.
Crucially, Sir Alex Ferguson is the only manager to flourish in both the Bosman and pre-Bosman eras to any real degree – and that cannot be understated as a challenge.
Ferguson’s success also straddled the transitional era of ‘working class boys’ to cosmopolitan superstar players, agents and international 24 hour media. Most other comparable big names of his era Brian Clough, Bob Paisley, Sir Bobby Robson, Jim McLean couldn’t really make that transition to a new world order of clubs as international brands with paying customers as opposed to loyal fans.
Tactically Sir Alex was far more adroit than appreciated too. He was a master team builder who adapted his systems to the players at his disposal and also the players available in the transfer market short, medium and longer term (he was a master long-term planner). It was this planning ability as a team-shaper that allowed him to build his dynasty, keep his work fresh and see off rivals with innovations, deeper pockets (or both).
As well as his team-building problem-solving ability that led to United playing all sorts of shapes and styles, Sir Alex Ferguson’s use of set-pieces (dating back to Aberdeen v Bayern Munich) and instinct for game-changing substitutions was superb. And it also led to one of the great football comebacks of all-time in the Champions League Final of 1999.
Outlasting younger rivals
As a comparable, Arsene Wenger, for example, came into football in England with a blank slate and some exciting ‘of the moment’ ideas that upped the bar for everything in the newly formed Premiership.
But visionaries in football terms tend to be mediocre 10 years after their peak of success – and Wenger has not been so successful in his later career phases (albeit there are valid excuses). What is staggering about Ferguson is both the length and breadth of his sustained contribution – on and off the field.
It is also worth addressing the issue of a ‘mere’ two Champions League trophies as a failure for Sir Alex Ferguson – as a charge that is sometimes cast Sir Alex Ferguson’s way. In reality, it is always easier for the likes of Bayern, Real Madrid and Barcelona for example to dominate the Champions League because the leagues they play in offer a far less competitive context than the blood and guts, physical Premiership where every game is up and at ‘em for 90 minutes and the fans demand blood, sweat and tears above all.
United also simply came up against ‘the best team ever’ in Barcelona during the Messi era. And there is no shame in being bested by that particular side. At their peak the Catalans played football from another galaxy, a fact generously acknowledged by the manager and his players, such as Wayne Rooney.
Equally, the format of the old European club certainly helped previous era managers’ cause in the old English First Division, just as the pre-eminence of English clubs did generally. However, the restructuring of the European Cup tournament and the consequences of the Bosman judgement effectively means that clubs like Nottingham Forest, Celtic, Aston Villa, Steaua Bucharest and maybe even Liverpool and Arsenal are very unlikely to ever win a Champions League again now – barring some unforeseen change in circumstances.
Having had dealings with Sir Alex Ferguson as a journalist and considered his achievements from the perspective of a scout, my impression is that Sir Alex’s achievements are of a higher rank than managers like Clough, Shankly, Paisley, Stein and Wenger – and many others he is routinely compared to.
I say this firstly because his trophies were harder to win and secondly because of his overall contribution to the game during the last 40 years.
The big three Clough, Shankly, Paisley and Stein were beneficiaries of a simpler time. And as good as Wenger is, he is a manager who has not kept pace with the times and reinvented himself, to recreate his ideas and his teams anew.
I think that the combination of versatility, stamina and flexibility is what makes Sir Alex Ferguson’s contribution so telling, and ultimately so impressive.