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).
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.
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.