May 24, 2011

Winning Ways: Observations on Football Management

Times have changed, but the route to the top is the same as it has ever been. Hard work, determination, indefatigability, and self-belief. Repeat 10,000 times.

I’ve been looking over the managerial record of Sir Matt Busby, legendary manager of Manchester United. What a man he was. His single-mindedness was already evident before the Munich disaster, but his resoluteness in creating a team from the ruins of his Babes is still one of the most extraordinary turnarounds in the history of sport. I saw Busby once, just before he died. Children who had heard his name breathed with reverence by fathers and grandfathers lined up to hang onto his coat and beg him for his signature. Sometimes, greatness just is, and everyone implicitly understands it. But Busby was no conjurer. He simply had a vision, put into effect through hard work and discipline, repeated over 25 years.

Busby’s mantel is now worn by another. I’ve never been much of an admirer of Sir Alex Ferguson’s public persona, but Alex Ferguson the manager has my infinite respect. There is only one level at which a player plays for Alex Ferguson. Anything less than 100% will surely result in packed bags and a summer transfer. No player’s reputation is bigger than the club, and no media event is more important than what happens on the pitch. These are principles carried, no doubt, by just about every manager in the league. So it must be something about the man that allows them to be put into effect. He must be a man of immense character to pull it off.

There are several other things that endear me to the nature of his successes. He has consistently believed in youth, in nurturing talent as well as buying it. He absolutely understands that there are traditions and rituals to do with Manchester United that are far more important than his tenure with the team. Indeed, his tenure has been about preserving those things. He is unfailingly loyal – a self-styled servant of the club. In these things he represents what has otherwise been lost from the modern game.

What Busby and Ferguson also have in common, beyond their winning ways, is the faith shown in them by their employers. These days, football seems to be all about winning, or else the manager loses his job. There’s no faith shown in a manager’s ability; no adherence to the development of players, systems, strategies; no long-term planning. Ancelotti won the double at Chelsea, but nothing this year, and now he’s on his bike. What nonsense. Ferguson was appointed in 1986, first winning the league in 1992-3. Busby was appointed in 1945, not winning the league until 1952. Winning did not come by the touch of a magic wand, but through perseverance, experience and practice. It is bewildering to me that, regardless of the continuing presence and example of the finest ever football manager, in the shape of Alex Ferguson, the rest of Football Inc. attempts to emulate his success by following a diametrically opposite strategy. The way to win, despite the times we live in, is the same as it has ever been. 


  1. Amazing how sports management, both on and off the field, is pretty much the same were ever you go. I enjoyed your comment on my humble site. Very insightful. All false modesty aside,I wish I was half the wordsmith you are.

  2. That is too kind of you James. I have found that winning with words is no different to winning at sports. One simply has to practice every day. Sometimes I feel like I am getting somewhere; other days I wish I could adequately express the angst I associate with a blank page. Onwards!

  3. Look at you going all fitba' lowbrow!
    I'm listening to Kid Rock and drinking bourbon right now - sometimes low brow is where it's at.
    Oh have you been to Pergamon yet? It's utterly incredible.

  4. Ha, Tabitha, you tell it like it is. Sometimes you gotta slum it. But the cricket starts tomorrow, and I've spent the evening drinking champagne and talking literature, so I didn't sully myself for too long.

    Pergamon, yeah, pretty amazing.

    Thanks for following along. I'm honoured.


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