LARRY RYAN: Genius in any language

The most notable match report of a quiet footballing week should have been the account of Alex Ferguson’s visit to the Harvard Business School.

It ought to have been the most intriguing clash of the season. The kingpins of spoofology at home to the man who has had more spoofers for breakfast than he’s had breakfasts.

But Fergie, as he often does on his international travels, shut up shop in Boston and played it safe.

And despite all the nonsense the spoofers undoubtedly threw at him, despite all the guff about organisational culture and strategic innovation going forward, Fergie came away with the clean sheet he wanted.

HBS might have deepened its already bottomless reservoir of bullshit, but Fergie had given nothing valuable away and the rest of us, just like many rich men before us, left leafy Soldiers Field behind having learned little.

The only difference; there was no soft job in the upper echelons of a Fortune 500 waiting to cushion our disappointment.

Naturally, none of this proved any obstacle to HBS publishing, to considerable fanfare, a ‘case study’ of its findings about Fergie’s management style.

To give you an abstract, as the spoofers like to say, Fergie sometimes likes to praise players as well as roar in their ear-holes; he often, believe it or not, gets players to rehearse situations they might face on match day; he is willing, the crazy old innovator, to recruit top talent; and, if you’d like to sit down for a moment, “if United were behind in the latter part of a game, Ferguson would often direct his men forward, encouraging them to attack.” Method disguised as madness.

John Updike — literature’s answer to Fergie — once noted that four years was enough of Harvard. “I still had a lot to learn, but had been given the liberating notion that now I could teach myself.”

Similarly liberated in rather less time, one also began to see the value of home-schooling.

This week, you could watch Arsene Wenger attempt to sell the future all over again, taking advantage of a slow news day after a kind fixture to stand beaming behind five of his young players signing contracts — and you would know that he has, at this stage, devoted far too much of himself to the murky business of PR.

Or you could glance at the tactical document a Brazilian journalist fished out of Rafa’s Yokohama dustbin, see that the boldest print was reserved for the warning “Be aware of counter attack” — and you would sense that fear will always feature in the culture of whatever organisation Rafa is leading.

But it was Fergie we wanted to learn about this week.

Deepest Red — a new anthology of Manchester United writing — features a chapter by Daniel Harris called ‘Life: What happens to you while United are busy making other plans’. In it, the cheerful Harris describes the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay with Arsenal as “the zenith of football in this miserable country.”

Mindful of the key contributions David Beckham and Ryan Giggs made to United’s win, Harris remembers how Fergie told Hugh McIlvanney — a true institution of learning — how his team-talk had singled out the pair.

“David, in his eagerness to have a crucial impact on a game, can occasionally over-elaborate. He has abilities that set him apart from every other player in Britain. Nobody else strikes the ball as well.

In essence, my message to him was that he is at his deadliest when concentrating on the simple application of these tremendous skills.

“With Ryan, in contrast, my advice was that he should always be trying to do the difficult things. If he does not make frequent attempts to do something apparently undoable, he is not being true to himself. There will be plenty of times when the effort fails, but when it succeeds, the best opposition the game can offer will be helpless.”

On a night when two clubs’ fates diverged, Becks focused and curled a beauty; Giggsy dreamed, slalomed and stripped bare Arsenal and his chest.

In the language of the spoofer, Fergie empowered his stakeholders, he secured buy-in.

In the language of life; he showed his genius. He’s still at it.


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