Shipyards, Geese and Liverpool — Sir Alex’s Management Secrets

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What happened to Liverpool? Why were “geese” and “shipyards” in his team conversations? And why did he keep Gary Neville for so many years? Sir Alex Ferguson explains his management secrets…

You used to talk about “shipyards” in your team conversations. Why was being grounded so important?

The players I dealt with then were probably not from the working class I came from. So I had to try and teach them that part – that hard work is a real talent.

I was referring to shipyard workers, to miners, to steel workers, and I think you may not have been the working class, but your fathers or grandfathers were. I value that everyone works hard – even your best player, even if he may be the most talented player – he has to show that he is willing to work just as hard as any other player. I think we have that.

I was lucky that the players believed that hard work is a talent.

How did you get United to keep doing it over and over again?

It’s a sacrifice. When I became a manager I was a decent player, I became a manager at 32, I thought this would be easy. I thought about other managers I had worked for. I lost my first away game 5-2, I went home in the car that evening and said to myself ‘I didn’t expect this’. I realized then that if I didn’t get a work mentality, a mental strength in my players, I didn’t stand a chance.

After one league win, the first team conversation I had the following year was about the geese. I bet the players were sitting there thinking ‘what is this guy talking about?’ But it’s a great story. A friend of mine – his cousin had a farm in Canada. He told me this story about geese in Canada flying 4,000 miles for a little warmth. I said to the players, ‘I’m just asking you to play 38 games to win the league’.

I would lie in my bed at night thinking about ways to motivate players because when you’ve been with a club like United for 27 years you don’t want players to feel like ‘here we go again’.

You don’t believe in psychology, you believe in management. What do you mean?

Psychology, I’ve never considered it part of my job. Management is based on communication, loyalty and trust. When I went to Aberdeen you have to trust the players and hope you get it back in time. I did exactly the same at United.

My communication was very important to me, recognizing and valuing my staff. I would never let anyone pass me in the hallway or dining room without saying “good morning.” If you think back to when we won the league or the cup or whatever, I had all the staff in the dining room on Monday. It was their cup. If you appreciate them and pay attention to the work they do, they will repay you.

You held me down for three or four years when things weren’t going well for me. Why did you keep players who weren’t necessarily performing for you, or weren’t the most talented? How did you let them win?

Through Eric Harrison (former United youth coach) and myself, we brought players where we developed good mental strength, a toughness that they could play for 75,000. We used to say to the parents, I said it to your mom and dad, ‘I hope Gary and Phil play for 75,000, that’s the goal’. They don’t all make it, but the amazing thing is that many of those players are still playing for different clubs today, so the preparation and training they received when they were built up at United is really important.

As for great players and hard-working players, this is something I’ve thought a lot about about players like Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce and yourself. They had something in them that made them as good as Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. There is something in them that drives them forward, forces them to put out everything they can put into a game. I’ve been lucky enough to see that develop.

Darren Fletcher is a good example, Steve Bruce, yourself. You started out as a central defender and we quickly realized that you wouldn’t be a central defender in our first team, so you developed into a right-back. That was because of your self-determination and having the fire in you – that made Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Steve Bruce all competitive players. The players who are so talented, like Cantona, Ronaldo, Giggs, Scholes, Michael Carrick, have to show that they are willing to work as hard as you do. That’s what the mix gets.

In most cases, the teams we built had these ingredients. They didn’t like to lose. They were developed that way. I like to see myself in the players. Of course, if I lost a match, you know how I reacted. You know why? Because my expectation was greater than theirs. I wanted to win all the cups, all the games, that was my attitude every morning.

The other word I always refer to with you is ‘risk’…

You’re 1-0 behind, what’s the point of sitting with your back four, your normal midfield and two strikers? The risk is to put people in the box, because the other team reacts to it. You push three or four in the penalty area, get the ball in, that’s the risk because you could lose quite easily in the breakaway.

We lost games that way, I remember Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being sent off at Newcastle and they played it off the last kick of the ball. But the value is you score in the last minute of stoppage time, remember the locker room? It was electric, absolutely electric. The fans are going home and can’t wait to go to the pub to talk about it, to go home and tell their wife or children what it was like to score at Old Trafford in the last minute. That’s the value.

When you play for our club, that risk should always be there. There’s no point fiddling with a few passes in midfield and not taking the risk and getting the ball into the penalty area because you’re not going to score from 40 yards. I don’t remember many players trying to score from 40 yards.

It felt like you were offended by the club being beaten by Liverpool at every level, and it made you angry. Was it an aversion, the rivalry? What made you feel this way?

It’s my respect for Liverpool. When I was manager of St Mirren, I went to Liverpool training for a week. I saw the intensity of their training, the consistency they had. When I came to United and they had won all the titles, I made that point.

When I was at Aberdeen there are only two clubs you have to beat to win everything, Rangers and Celtic. When I came to United there was only one team you had to beat to win the league – that’s Liverpool.

That was my intention, I put everything into that to produce a team that could beat them. Not necessarily beating them every game, but winning the leagues. I’ve always said to the players, when we played against Liverpool, if you don’t show up, we’ll be beaten. We went there with our best team – Keane, Scholes, Giggs and David Beckham, the back four were right, the front players – and sometimes, if we were just a little bit off, we lost. But we had a great track record there, in terms of any other club. I knew if you beat Liverpool you are on the right track.

You used to stand in front of the locker room, and the captain couldn’t get past you until you got there. What was the reason? Was it for your own team or the opposition?

For my own team. There was one time, we were 3-0 behind Tottenham, I never said a word in the dressing room. I sat on the radiator, and it was also piping hot, and I said ‘next goal is the winner’.

I went to the door and Teddy Sheringham who of course had played with us was their captain, he came out and looked at me, turned to his players and said ‘don’t let them score early’. We scored in the first minute. I thought that killed them. I looked at them, and they looked at me, I just said, ‘Come on, we can win this’.

It’s a funny game.

‘Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In’ hits theaters May 27 and Amazon Prime Video May 29

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