Friday, 10 May 2013

That's Enough Fergie Time

The decision to announce Alex Ferguson's retirement as manager of Manchester United was presumably timed to allow for a mass love-in at this Saturday's home game against Swansea, the following and final game being away at The Hawthorns. Surely it would have been more in keeping with the tenor of his career, and the Premier League's willingness to routinely oblige MUFC, to add an additional home game at the end of the season. The ultimate in Fergie Time. I'm sure Spurs would have volunteered to be the opposition.

I wouldn't normally quote Simon Jenkins as an expert on football (or much else, come to that), but he made a perceptive point today in noting the parallel of Fergie's career with the era of "vanity capitalism". That Harvard Business School should consider Ferguson an apt subject for a study in leadership is telling, though I suspect this was more an exercise in corporate PR than genuine academic enquiry. There is no doubt that he was a great manager, but we should not lose sight of the underpinning that United's wealth provided during the era of TV money (which started in 1988, two years after Ferguson joined United, ahead of the formation of the EPL in 1992). The challenge for Moyes is that finishing less than first in the league will now be seen as relative failure, but more because of the available resources than the unflattering comparison with Ferguson.

The quantitative comparison of Ferguson's record with previous "giants of the game" is pointless. You might as well claim that Walter Smith (10 league titles) was a better manager than Herbert Chapman (just the 4). Temporal differences are just as great as spatial ones. Even a qualitative comparison is slippery. Where is the common scale to judge Fergie's contribution to United's achievements with Clough's revolution at Nottingham Forest? Ferguson's good fortune was not only to be in charge of the richest club when money became the key factor in football success, but to be able to make his position unassailable in 1999 with the famous last minute victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, which put him on the same pedestal as Matt Busby. This allowed him a full quarter of a century to build up a haul of silverware that is unlikely to be matched by anyone in the foreseeable future. With the possible exception of Arsene Wenger (and few believe he will stay at Arsenal for another decade), who else would be given so much time?

Like all dictators, Ferguson the public persona was a mixture of authoritarian theatre (the banning of journalists and exiling of players who challenged him) and gross sentimentality (the harping-on about humble origins and the "no one is bigger than the club" cliches). He is on record as characterising his management style as a balance between fear and love - the classic psychosis of the paterfamilias. Susceptibility to the cult of the leader is obviously found as much on the left as on the right, hence the willingness to take Ferguson's "socialist sympathies" at face value and even hold him up as an epitome of collectivist culture. Ferguson the political emblem has followed a New Labour trajectory: from leading a strike by shipyard apprentices in his youth to a knighthood, racehorses and counting Alastair Campbell as a mate.

Ferguson is less the product of a collectivist ethic and more the product of autocratic managerialism turbo-charged by a huge influx of money. As a Scot who took the road South and made his fortune, he had more in common with Fred Goodwin than Bill Shankly.

No comments:

Post a Comment