A rare insight into what makes the Man United manager tick

Alex Ferguson, who was the subject of an academic study by professor Anita Elberse at the Harvard Business School, visited the school to meet students to discuss the report.

The Scot later described the experience as “excellent, enjoyable, and comfortable” while he also learnt a lot about himself.

These are some of his thoughts.


“I once heard a coach start with ‘This must be the 1,000th team talk I’ve had with you,’ and saw a player quickly responding with ‘And I’ve slept through half of them!’ So I like to tell different stories, and use my imagination. Generally, it is about our expectations, their belief in themselves, and their trust in each other.

“I remember going to see Andrea Bocelli, the opera singer. I had never been to a classical concert in my life.

But I am watching this and thinking about the co-ordination and the teamwork, one starts and one stops, just fantastic. So I spoke to my players about the orchestra – how they are a perfect team.”


“Tactics can change depending on whom we are playing. I tend to concentrate on one or two players of my opponents – the ones that are the most influential. Who’s the guy who is taking all the free-kicks? Who’s the guy who’s on the ball all the time? Who’s the one urging everyone on? The rest of the time I concentrate on our own team.

“On Friday we take our players through a video analysis of our opponents: their strengths, their weaknesses, their set pieces, what their team is likely to be, and so on. Then on Saturday, we might give them another, shorter version – just a recap of the previous day.”


“The last few minutes of the first half I’m always thinking of what I’m going to say. I’m a little bit in a trance. I am concentrating. I don’t believe in taking notes. I see other coaches do it, but I don’t want to miss any part of the game.

“And I cannot imagine going into the dressing room, looking at my notes, and saying ‘Oh in the 30th minute, that pass you took’. I don’t think it’s going to impress the players.”


“I’ve still got a wee bit of anger in me, thinking of how we threw the league away last season. It was another day in the history of Manchester United. That’s all it was. It created the drama that only United can produce. Who would have thought that Blackburn, bottom of the league, would beat us 3-2 at Old Trafford? Or that Everton would draw with us when we were up 4-2 with seven minutes to go? My motivation to the players will be that we can’t let City beat us twice in-a-row.”


“It’s difficult to marry the two competitions in one season. We are in a country where tribalism is rife. There is strong competition between regions and top clubs, with Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham based in London, two clubs here in Manchester, and Liverpool. That puts tremendous pressure on you to win your league. But the European Cup is the biggest trophy. Last season, when we went out in the group phase, I made a mistake. I was playing a lot of the young players. Although that had worked in the past we got careless in our games. It was a shock, because it was only the third time I’ve not qualified for the knockout stage. I decided I wouldn’t be taking the risks I took in Europe last year.”


“They have generally been very supportive and are very low-key. If I owned United and they won the league, I would be over the moon. I remember when I played with Rangers, when the directors were under the shower with their clothes on, dancing about. But the Glazers shook a few hands and had some photographs taken, that was it.

Some English clubs have changed managers so many times that it creates power for the players in the dressing room. That is very dangerous. Football management in the end is all about the players. You think you are a better player than they are, and they think they are a better manager than you are.”


“The first thought for 99 per cent of newly-appointed managers is to make sure they win to survive. They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs. But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club – not just a football team. You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team.

“There are three categories: players from 30 and above, the players from roughly 23 to 30, and the younger ones coming in. The idea is that the younger players are developing and meeting the standards that the older ones have set before.

“For me the hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy. But all the evidence is on the football field. If you see the change, the deterioration, you have to start asking yourself what it is going to be like two years ahead.”


“Jose [Mourinho] is very intelligent, he has charisma, his players play for him, and he is a good looking guy. I think I have most of those things, too, apart from his good looks. He’s got a confidence about himself, saying ‘We’ll win this’ and ‘I’m the Special One’. I could never come out and say we’re going to win this game. It’s maybe a wee bit of my Scottishness?

[Pep] Guardiola is an impressive guy. He’s brought about change in Barcelona, urging the team to always work hard to get the ball back within seconds after losing it. They are gifted but work hard. It was a fantastic achievement. He elevated the status of his players.”


“There is no room for criticism on the training field. For a player — and for any human being — there is nothing better than hearing ‘well done’. Those are the two best words ever invented in sports. Also, you can’t always come in (after a game) shouting and screaming. That doesn’t work. No one likes to get criticised. But in the dressing room, it’s necessary that you point out your players’ mistakes. I do it right after the game. I don’t wait until Monday, I do it, and it’s finished. And I never discuss an individual player in public. The players know that. It stays indoors.’’


“One of my players has been sent off several times. He will do something if he gets the chance — even in training. Can I take it out of him? No. Would I want to take it out of him? No. If you take the aggression out of him, he is not himself. So you have to accept that there is a certain flaw that is counter-balanced by all the great things he can do.’’


I tell players that hard work is a talent, too. They need to work harder than anyone else. And if they can no longer bring the discipline that we ask for here at United, they are out. I am only interested in players who really want to play for United, and who, like me, are bad losers.


“We never reveal the team to the players until the day of the game. We think of the media and the players’ agents. And my job is to give us the best chance possible of winning the match, so why should we alert our opponents to what our team is? For a three o’clock game, we tell them at one o’clock.’’


“I do it privately. It’s not easy, but I do them all myself. It is important. I have been dropped from a Cup final in Scotland as a player at 2.10 so I know what it feels like. I’m not ever sure what they are thinking, but I tend to say: ‘Look, I might be making a mistake here,’ — I always say that — ‘but I think this is the best team for today.’ I try to give them a bit of confidence, telling them that it is only tactical, and that there are bigger games coming up.’’


“We don’t start the pre-season training at one hundred miles an hour. We do a gradual build-up. And we’re not normally the strongest in the early part of the season, but October is usually a month where we get ourselves going. I always tell the players that if we are within three points from the top come New Year’s Day, we’ve got a great chance at the title.’’


“Some managers are ‘pleasing managers’. They let the players play 8-a-sides, games they enjoy. But here, we look at training sessions as opportunities to learn and improve. Sometimes the players may think: ‘Here we go again,’ but it helps to win. The message is: we don’t sit still here.’’


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