Bridling Brilliance: Triumph of the Red Shirts

Book Review: Alex Ferguson’s brilliant account of team management documents Manchester United’s journey to the top of their game, worldwide, while he managed scores, if not hundreds of players over a 26-year period. Although Ferguson’s My Autobiography does not directly lay out strategy or tactics per se—indeed he seems to focus much more on the individuals, their skills and behavior—there is no requirement to be a soccer “expert” in order to follow his book. Since Ferguson discusses many personalities, including key players, staff and competitors in varying levels of detail it is useful to have some a priori knowledge on most characters in order to fully enjoy his work.

As he is not, by vocation, a writer I assume Ferguson had a ghostwriter do some of the heavy lifting in the manuscript; however, it is hard to tell and his “meat-and-two-veg” esthetic seems entirely appropriate and is undoubtedly reflective of his no-nonsense management style. For example, had Stephen Fry assisted with the prose we might expect to find mythological descriptions of Ronaldo akin to the sensitive Apollo, the younger Rooney as violent Ares, all under the custodianship of Sir Alex Zeus Ferguson. But that is not the case and Ferguson’s chapters read easily, flow well and can be consumed in any order, which is useful if you have a particular interest in some players over others.

While I am an ardent fan of captivating competitive football, I make no claim to expertise in game strategy or tactics; however, I was struck by some relatable comparisons stemming from Ferguson’s work to the business world. In particular, I thought of Jim Collins, who spent over fifteen years conducting extensive research culminating in several books on corporate performance. His books include Built to Last (1994), Good to Great (2001), How the Mighty Fall (2009), and Great by Choice (2011). Each of these volumes can be considered incrementally in describing Collins’ general approach to 1) identify successful companies, 2) assess traits leading to their success, and then 3) ascertaining and categorizing leadership qualities exhibited within those companies.

Successful companies are relatively easy to pinpoint, as are successful football teams. Instead of winning most games and collecting silverware, businesses significantly outperform their competitors over a protracted period of time leading to over-performance in the stock market. One of the directly analogous traits is the team; as Collins’ puts it, get the right team on the bus and the wrong folks off the bus. Undeniably, great soccer is the result of great teamwork. The regular long-distance Fergie bus service offered only two planned stops—mid-journey for transfers and the terminus. However, there were some unplanned breaks along the way to drop off unruly passengers (e.g., Roy Keane). A connecting stop for transfers to another service is inevitable as no manager can prevent the truly gifted from leaving (e.g., Ronaldo and Beckham), while the most loyal remain seated all the way to the destination (e.g., Scholes and Giggs).


Getting The Right Team on the Bus (photo courtesy of Rahul@forevrutd)

Which brings me to the subject and substance of loyalty. Ferguson wrote extensively about player talent, skills, experience and loyalty. While he did not prioritize, one was left feeling that he valued allegiance and faithfulness above all else and his shining examples were Giggs and Scholes. Those who left did so for the next personal challenge and presumably for financial recognition of their contributions to success, while those who stayed were loyal. In business, loyalty is an admirable yet elusive attribute. Skeptics will say that there is no such thing as loyalty, where in practice it does exist—though seldom. Employer loyalty programs for the most part simultaneously reward and penalize. By providing continuance incentives, employers tend to make it difficult and impractical for employees to quit at their convenience (e.g., end of year bonus, retirement benefit vesting and matching dates, and so on). This also applies to our partaking of ubiquitous travel rewards programs—continue with our spending allegiance and reap the benefits, or commit treason and lose them all. While Giggs’ and Scholes’ loyalty is warmly commendable, some of us are curious as to their potential ultimate achievements had they gotten off the bus earlier.

Like any autobiography this one starts in the early years of the subject’s life including where he grew up, and it goes on to say various nice things about his wife, but the hard-core football fan can skip all that fluff. Overall, a highly recommended book not just for Man U supporters but also for fans of top class soccer players and those seeking a privileged insight into the nitty-gritty wheelings and dealings of club transfers and acquisitions.

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Autobiographies Provide Little Latitude for Imagery

For those interested in further critical unbiased analysis of the English Premier League, you are advised to take a Hackney taxicab from London’s Liverpool St. Station. After, “so where you from, guvnor?” and “you ‘ere just for ‘oliday or bizniss guv?” tell the driver, in a heavy touristy accent, that you are in town for the Chelsea game. The ostensibly easy-going charioteer will then go on to provide a complete rundown on the main London clubs, both Manchester clubs, and quite possibly, Crystal Palace. You will then be systematically tested on your detailed football knowledge, faulted and mocked accordingly.


Fry’s Bookish Delight

Book Review: An acclaimed Fellow of the Royal Institute of Intelligentsia and the mentor of many, Stephen Fry is nothing less than a writer’s writer. The man is a genuine genius; he rocks like Jan Hammer on the keyboard and his elegant, loquacious, vocabulous speeches are riveting, albeit way too long for the most part. Not that his speeches are boring; nay, they are fascinating. But they are long. Since Moses, mankind has adapted well to reading long manuscripts or texts and when information begins to overload the cerebrum we simply dog-ear the page, put the book down for a little bit, and make another pot of Earl Grey. But speeches for the most part require real-time comprehension and don’t take well to interruption. When they are excessively long it can be too much of a good thing, like, for example, a Neil Peart drum solo in the middle of your favorite Rush song making you forget what it was his uncle had on the farm.

As a teenager I remember listening to Margaret Thatcher’s speeches where the simple visual was a motionless hairstyle, an upscale mannequin’s jacket and some large white beads, and the aural comprised a waveform modulated moaningly in phase, frequency and amplitude. She arguably pioneered the concept of drone warfare as she dunked each sentence of never-ending dialogues in a syrupy cadence. Now Stephen Fry is not at all like that, but I am making the point that it can be easier to lose a listener than to relinquish a reader. Thatcher’s manifestos actually read quite well.

To conclude this theme and move on with our lives I invite you to listen to one of Fry’s highly entertaining talks. Please comment on this blog if you managed to pay attention all the way through.

The Fry Chronicles is one in an apparent series of fact-based books Fry has written about himself. Although it is a few hundred additional pages of details on his life, again, it is still a delightful read as his vocabularian wealth and humorously well-connected stories just draw you in. There must have been 20 engaging pages on British candies (sweets) in that book as I sat there studiously reading about long-forgotten Curly Wurlies and Walnut Whips. I am also a sucker for self-deprecation, which Fry delivers continuously. Most people will leave this earth with no autobiographical testament, whereas a few select folks merit the business case for a solitary volume. For example, Alex Ferguson’s superb autobiography taking Manchester United from nowhere to number one in the world probably doesn’t have a market for a sequel (Chapter 6. My Favorite Slippers). But Fry could write a series on Danish dental practices and I would probably read it.

Or poetry. Yes he wrote a book on poetry titled An Ode Less Travelled. And it is brilliant! Poetry you think. Why? I can’t remember his motivation for this book, other than he just likes to write, but again it was a great read. In fact, although Fry famously eschews popular music I could not but help think of parallels to songwriting as he described the meter of poetry; how the prose is punctiliously paced. This particular book has a glossary of terms to help as you progress through the complexities of fine rhythmic development, and not that you necessarily need to have a dictionary on hand, but I wouldn’t want to be in a scrabble contest with him and Boris Johnson.

Since I am almost as big a Fry fan as he is, I also tackled one of his novels, entitled The Hippopotamus. I am not really a fiction aficionado as previously noted as I find it hard to invest the time learning imaginary stuff and also I start to get guilt twinges knowing that I could be practicing Spanish verbs. Apparently the hippo book, although a novel, ghosts well-known real-life UK politicians and celebrities. But, alas I gave up on the book before I made any of these connections. His character portrayals were evocative though, such as the man who had the physique of a bin liner full of yoghurt. I still picture that.

Now Fry may have a way with words, but apparently not with numbers. According to The Economist, in one of his rambling speeches Fry said, “English certainly has the largest vocabulary … by a long, long, long long, way. Rather as China is to the rest of the world in population, English is in the population of its words.” The magazine acknowledged that, “English is a rich and beautiful language, not least because England has been conquered by Vikings, Normans and Andy Murray, and has happily been open to foreign influence through its history,” and then it went on to shoot Fry down unceremoniously for shorting the rest of the world’s tongues. I inserted Andy Murray into the quote to see if anyone was paying attention.

Finally, I bought a copy of Stephen Fry in America, which was also apparently a TV series that I did not see (probably for the UK market I suppose). However, once I realized it was one of those accounts of a British personality who makes a transatlantic road trip to dank, out of the way Louisiana crawfish bars in west New Orleans, I lost interest. I didn’t get much past the copyright and publisher’s address as too many Brits do these types of Brit-out-of-water only-in-America shows. I would like to see a show where Fry appears with his camera crew at some hole in the wall bar in Lubbock, Texas, and discovers both Michael Palin and Robbie Coltrane already doing travel programs in there with their crews. And then, the door opens again with Russell Brand and his crew joining in. In the parking lot there are the guys from Top Gear choosing from the patrons’ beat up pickup trucks and Gordon Ramsey setting up a barbeque grill…

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