Henry Winter of the Telegraph writes of the unique relationship that Sir Alex Ferguson has with his players, and his role as the master man-manager.
Once again, as he hunts down another title, Sir Alex Ferguson has reminded everyone that the game is about heart, that a player is nothing without hunger, that a team cannot scale the heights without a unity of purpose keeping their footing safe on the rocky ascent.
Once again, Ferguson has demonstrated that football is more than cold tactics; it is a game played by humans, not robots, and nobody understands the human mind and soul better than the master man-manager of Manchester United.
With a kind word here, a bit of banter there, Ferguson makes players feel loved, part of the family, inspiring such devotion that they give everything in every game. Few managers enjoy such a bond with their players. That relationship was captured in the way he trailed around Paris on the back of a motorbike looking for a confused Eric Cantona.
That strong connection is seen in the way he stands up for his players, recently defending Paul Scholes from comments by Patrick Vieira. United’s manager is often at his most eloquent in rare defeat, channelling criticism away from his players and on to himself like a lightning rod, ensuring that strong words take place only behind closed doors.
Ferguson’s gift is not simply motivating the team but the squad. Even those on the fringe feel wanted, being ready to deliver whenever called on. It is why United are often so deadly late in games, when Ferguson unleashes impact-making, fired-up substitutes. Remember Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, even Federico Macheda.
The Scot treats players well. Some have left under a cloud, notably Paul Ince, Jaap Stam and Roy Keane. Some have briefly shown dissent.
Scholes was annoyed at being asked to play in a League Cup game. Wayne Rooney’s contract dispute seemed a direct, if momentary, challenge to the manager. Others such as David Beckham had issues with Ferguson and moved on, yet the midfielder frequently voices his enduring admiration.
Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid but his affection for Ferguson remained.
It is the union between dugout and dressing room that makes United so formidable. In reflecting on his greatest season, the Treble epic of 1998-99, Ferguson observed that football was more than tactics and technique; it was a game “played by creatures of flesh and blood and feeling”.
Writing in his acclaimed autobiography, the Scot noted the “constant flow of mutual support amongst the players’’ underpinning United’s charge into the record books. He enthused how “they depend on one another, trust one another”.
Ferguson added: “A manager should engender that sense of unity. He should create a bond amongst his players and between them and him that raises performances to heights that were unimaginable when they started out as disparate individuals.” All for one, and for all.
Those words that leap from the pages of Ferguson’s remarkable book should be a mantra for every manager, should be inscribed on the walls of the Football Association’s new coaching university at St George’s Park.
Those thoughts may explain why Ferguson is so fascinated by horse racing, by the way one man guides a mighty creature through so many obstacles, across so much sapping distance to the winning line. Race after title race.
Victories are not celebrated for long, rarely lasting beyond closing the dressing room door behind him. Defeats stay with Ferguson like unwanted house guests, keeping him up at night. It is this restlessness, this unrequited desire for more glory suffusing the manager that reminds the players of the high standards expected.
Even those players who have encountered Ferguson only briefly instantly appreciate the respect he engenders. While at Peterborough United, the teenaged winger Ryan Semple spent a fortnight on trial at United in 2002, similar to Matthew Etherington and Simon Davies three years earlier.
Semple played in the Milk Cup summer tournament with Kieran Richardson, Chris Eagles and Jonny Evans. He trained at Carrington and was greeted warmly by Ferguson, who asked after Barry Fry and wanted to know how Semple was doing. The trial didn’t work out but Semple, now at Boston United, has never forgotten Ferguson’s impact.
A decade on, Ferguson is being hailed for his finest achievement, for this imminent title. This is hardly his greatest ever squad; it is still developing, and has been stalked by injury all season.
Ferguson has kept United going, ensuring they withstood the loss of Nemanja Vidic and Darren Fletcher, the absence for substantial parts of the season of Rio Ferdinand, Antonio Valencia and Tom Cleverley.
However impressive, Ferguson’s deeds need placing in the proper context of his glorious, trophy-amassing career at Old Trafford.
The thrill of those magical months of 98-99 as winter thawed into spring and the Treble dream warmed into life remain unforgettable, surely the most significant of Ferguson’s reign.
After losing 3-2 to Middlesbrough at Old Trafford on Dec 19, 1998, leaving United third, Ferguson gathered the players at the Cliff, delivered a few home truths about the need to concentrate and they reacted to his words, not experiencing the bitter taste of defeat for the remaining 33 games of the season.
As each game was faced, Ferguson kept everyone calm and concentrated, not talking about the Treble, just rolling along. He got his selections right, his tactics right but above all he got the mood right. Comebacks against Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round and against Bayern in the Champions League final spoke of United’s resolve, of Ferguson’s ability to turn individuals into a band of brothers.