Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson prepares to speak after a presentation commemorating his 25 years in charge of the club before the team's English Premier League game against Sunderland at Old Trafford Stadium on Saturday.
True, some men have coached the same soccer team for longer. Guy Roux managed France's Auxerre for 44 years until his 2005 retirement, but the club was an amateur team for the first 13 of those seasons and only reached the top flight in 1980. And in any case, you can't compare a small provincial team with Manchester United, one of the two biggest in the English game.
Willie Maley had a 43-year tenure as manager of Celtic Glasgow, which may be comparable to United in terms of stature. But he toiled in a different era. Maley, who stepped down in 1940, was also a manager in a different sense: he did not work with the players in training and did not speak to them on match days.
Usually only U.S. college sports supplies the rare coach with similar longevity (with apologies to Bobby Cox and Jerry Sloan). Yet even the careers of Bobby Bowden (34 years at Florida State) or Mike Krzyzewski (31 and counting at Duke) aren't really comparable. They don't work with professionals, they enjoy much longer offseasons and their employers tend to be far less trigger-happy.
The reality is that the 31 other managers in the Champions League have, on average, been in charge for just over two seasons. Just two Champions League bosses other than Ferguson have been with their club for more than four years. Ferguson is in Season 26.
It should not come as a surprise then that Ferguson has been studied and analyzed from every angle. There are at least 18 books about him, some hagiographic, some critical, all trying to crack the code of what makes him different. Everybody has a Fergie theory. The most popular ones portray him as a cross between the God of the Old Testament – omnipotent and unquestionable – and some kind of drill sergeant motivational guru, capable of squeezing that last ounce of effort out of his men.
But perhaps part of what motivates Ferguson, who turns 70 on New Year's Eve, to continue to show up at Manchester United's training complex by quarter past seven most mornings is simply that his job continues to evolve, both in terms of the challenge ahead of him and the way he chooses to deal with it.
There is little question that the job has changed and continues to change. When he took over at Old Trafford, English clubs were banned from European competition, following the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster. It was very difficult to catch a game on TV, not just abroad, but in Britain as well. Today, the sport is globalized, commercialized and televised like never before and the Champions League and the Premier League (both of which were created in 1992) are the driving forces.
Back then, you could count the foreign players in the English league on both hands. Today, they number more than 50%. Back then, there was no free agency and virtually no specialized agents representing players. Ferguson's first salary was less than $100,000 a year; today he makes more than 10 times as much. Most English clubs played some variation of the "kick-and-rush" game: a basic 4-4-2 tactic with long balls bypassing the midfield and wingers smacking crosses into the box. Today, while individual leagues retain some national characteristics, the game is much more heterogeneous, with a variety of styles, tactics and philosophies on display.
Throughout this, despite his old-school image, Sir Alex has actually counted among the most progressive managers around. He has built and torn down successful teams, rebuilding them without missing a beat, often going against conventional wisdom. He's been decidedly unsentimental about dumping his biggest stars at the peak of their careers, whether it was Jaap Stam in 2001, David Beckham in 2003 or Ruud Van Nistelrooy in 2006. And, in fact, in the summer of 1995, he ditched three of his best players (Andrei Kanchelskis, Mark Hughes and Paul Ince) in one fell swoop.
He didn't always get it right – some of his highest-profile castoffs went on to excel for many years elsewhere – but he always showed a willingness to think differently. He displayed such an off-angle approach in the summer of 2001, when he broke the English transfer record at the time to acquire Argentine midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron for $45 million. United had just won its third straight Premier League title and was two years removed from winning the Champions League. The club boasted a stellar midfield quartet (Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs) who had played together for years. It seemed crazy to mess with something that worked. On that occasion, he got it badly wrong. Ferguson had to disassemble his lineup to find space for Veron, who struggled on the pitch and was eventually sold at a huge loss in 2003.
Still, Ferguson had the courage to change. And he still does: Witness the fact that Wayne Rooney, his star striker, has been deployed in midfield over the past three games. Or the fact that in the last decade he has embraced squad rotation more than any other manager of a major club.
While it doesn't always fit his public persona, Ferguson's curiosity, hunger for knowledge and desire to innovate always have been a part of his game. As a 20-year-old semi-professional he worked in a tool-making company and got himself picked as the workers' union representative. Why? As he said many years later, it was partly to understand as much of the business as possible.
Three years later, while playing professionally, he became a fully licensed coach. How come? Again, he wanted to understand the game from both sides.
Early in his managerial career, he got into the hospitality businesses as a hedge against hard times and owned several pubs. He soon decided to take a cooking class. Huh? Well, he needed to know exactly how certain dishes were made so that he could figure out what the ingredients were and what the measurements were so that he could ensure that nothing went to waste and his chefs were as thrifty as possible.
Perhaps – beyond the 37 major trophies, the longevity or the outsized personality – what most sets Ferguson apart is his ability to think independently, his drive to figure out which ideas are worth pursuing and his courage to follow through. If you can do all that, you can more than just weather all the radical changes that have hit the game over the past quarter century, but also thrive along the way. And – as happened on Saturday – get Manchester United to name the longest stretch of the Old Trafford grandstand after you.
Gabriele Marcotti is the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a regular broadcaster for the BBC. His column appears on Sundays.
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