THE incomparable Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1,500-game reign at Manchester United, a landmark that will be reached when he leads out his team for the final time this Sunday after a 10-day public farewell, is even more remarkable when one reflects on the state of world politics in 1986, the year that he joined the Old Trafford sleeping giant.
Margaret Thatcher was still at the peak of her powers and preparing for a third election victory that would come the following spring; Ronald Reagan was President of the United States; the Cold War thaw was only just beginning; Pope John Paul II was in his pomp and Nelson Mandela was still a political prisoner in South Africa.
Yet, as Alexander Chapman Ferguson calls time on a 27-year career in the Man United dugout, a period in which his teams have won 38 trophies as he made the impossible dream happen and enabled the Red Devils to return to the superiority once enjoyed under Sir Matt Busby, today’s political leaders may have more chance of becoming winners if they followed aspects of his management style.
First, Sir Alex had roots – and he stayed true to them. A Govan shipbuilder’s son, he was an apprentice toolmaker and pub landlord. He had a strong work ethic instilled into him; he was prepared to toil for long hours; he appreciated the value of money and he understood what sport means to the masses.
In short, his philosophy was one of no regrets and this permeated every corner of Aberdeen, where he came to managerial prominence, and then Old Trafford. Every staff member, from the tea lady to millionaire player, had to buy into Sir Alex’s philosophy. He once said that the mood of a training session could be determined by whether his players were happy when they sat down for breakfast – hence why he knew every member of his club’s canteen staff by their first name, and their birthdays.
Contrast this with domestic politics. Can David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband honestly say that every member of their respective team is pulling in the same direction? No they cannot. Why not? Because their leadership – and coalition government is no excuse – often lacks authority, respect and firm convictions of their own. Politics is now rudderless, both in Downing Street and at Labour’s HQ. When Ministers do speak out, whether it is on Europe or the economy, they invariably create more dissent within their ranks while, at the same time, being ignored by their target audience because Joe Public is sick and tired of posturing politicians and their increasingly lame excuses.
Forget political spin, they should again look at 71-year-old Sir Alex’s public persona off the football pitch rather than dismiss him and his Old Labour values. He adeptly used the media to his advantage to advance one cause – Manchester United. Conversely, he did not believe that it was his duty to speak to journalists and broadcasters every day, another lesson for politicians.
Furthermore, disciplinary matters were largely kept in-house. The majestic midfielder Paul Scholes, who also retires this weekend, once feared the sack for refusing to travel with the team to a low-key cup game. Yet Ferguson handled this with such aplomb that it never became an issue. The reason? No player, however talented, was ever allowed to become bigger than any of his teams – as Wayne Rooney is now discovering to the cost of his reputation. A Cabinet minister showing disloyalty is now accommodated, to the detriment of the PM’s authority, as Cameron is discovering to his cost after Michael Gove and Philip Hammond made pre-emptive calls for Britain to leave the EU.
How ironic that Sir Alex’s emotional final home game last Sunday coincided with the Prime Minister’s only black working class adviser, one Shaun Bailey, claiming that he had been pushed out of Downing Street because he had become marginalised by David Cameron’s clique of Old Etonian aides.
This would never have been tolerated under Ferguson. He expected loyalty from his football scouts, and he relished debate, but you never heard of the indomitable Scot appointing more advisers ahead of a particularly tricky clash. Why? He had the confidence of his convictions and he handled such matters behind closed doors.
And, while there was once a famous falling out with Roy Keane, so long Man Utd’s midfield general, the retired player – who is no longer on the best of terms with Sir Alex – did concede: “We never wanted to let him down.” If only the same was true for today’s Conservative Party.
Three other factors explain Ferguson’s longevity at a time when other football clubs – and political parties – appear to be in a perpetual state of flux. First, he was given time to rebuild Manchester United Football Club – it took six years to win the first of 13 Premier League trophies – and a successful youth policy underpinned Ferguson’s vision as youngsters like Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and the aforementioned Scholes prospered. In other words, the long-term vision trumped the short-term doom merchants.
Second, Ferguson’s vision – and methods – were such that he could take more time off in his latter years and leave the training to his coaches and his support staff. He was prepared to delegate while David Cameron resembles a one-man government on too many occasions. Is it insecurity, or does the PM not have sufficient confidence in the abilities of those colleagues that he promoted to their current roles?
Finally, Sir Alex has a life outside football – whether it is with his family or pursuing his horse racing interests. A regular visitor to York and Doncaster, there is an unwritten code that football is only discussed if he brings up the subject in conversation. Peter Easterby, Ryedale’s record-breaking Champion Hurdle-winning trainer, was among those to congratulate Ferguson on his football achievements last weekend at Haydock Park – but probably on the pretence of trying to sell a horse.
The outgoing Man Utd manager remains a great man of humility, going out of his way to help the wider footballing community. He was the first to offer support to his great rival Kenny Dalglish after the Hillsborough tragedy, but he never courted the media over his charitable endeavours – another contrast with the soap opera world of contemporary politics.
As for the future, I do not believe that Sir Alex will accept a peerage for this reason – he will not have sufficient time to participate in House of Lords debates and, more critically, to the high standards that he expects of himself. He would also become exasperated by Westminster’s painfully slow policy-making process.
Yet building a successful football dynasty is emblematic of constructing an effective government which delivers for the people – hard work, loyalty and backing one’s convictions in tough times. Sir Alex Ferguson never deviated from these traits – it is why he is football’s greatest ever manager. Nor should David Cameron. But here is the rub. Apart from reducing the deficit, does the PM know what he stands for?