Why has life after Alex Ferguson been so difficult at Old Trafford? A reflection on his Leadership skills and talent development will help explain why.

“A leader is a dealer in hope”

Napoleon Bonaparte

During his legacy Alex Ferguson has been arguably the most successful manager in 21st century sport. Over the last 30 years few managers in any field have proven to be as persistently successful as Ferguson has been at Manchester United. He transformed the club from perennial underachievers living in the shadow of Matt Busby’s famous 1968 team into the most remarkably consistent football team that has was ever established on British soil.


Ferguson’s rise to prominence and the evolution that he master minded at Old Trafford has not been without difficulty. His birth into the managerial job at Manchester United was severely problematic at first, clearing up the mess he discovered and resurrecting the football club to all their former glories. By star player Mark Hughes’s admission Ferguson had reason to worry when he confirmed that, “the majority of the senior first team squad were very upset and angry” at his predecessor Ron Atkinson’s dismissal.


Ferguson’s initial nervousness was clearly evident, “No question at all, I was nervous. . . .I didn’t know anything about this club, really. Didn’t have a clue what the team was going to be. Didn’t even know the make up of the side that got Ron Atkinson the sack 48 hours earlier”. Ferguson’s team for his first game showed no great change to Atkinson’s line up’s. However, only one of the 12 players used that day survived Ferguson’s surgery over the next four years. The conflict and rebellion that followed ultimately revamped that original team into the extraordinary outfit destined for success.


Almost immediately Ferguson implemented group principles that formed the foundation for the development of the team over the late eighties and early nineties. Ferguson introduced radical new training methods where the emphasis was placed on mental toughness and discipline. He insisted that no team should ever be fitter than united. The playing squad was also informed to arrive to training at 9.30 a.m. rather than 10.30 a.m. to ensure players would have to sit through the morning traffic like every other employee at the club.  Day’s off were suspended. Players had to look respectable, clean shaven. The squad were supplied with new blazers that had to be worn on match day to create a unique identity. A strict rota was initiated for players to entertain corporate guests at home games. Players were told to run, not walk, off the pitch, and even steaks were banned to incorporate lighter meals on match days. These were all instances of the authoritarian approach that Ferguson used in the early years to lay the foundation for future success.


Predictably these new principles were met with some anguish by certain players. Discipline and the high standard Ferguson set for the team became a problem for certain players who were used to the leisurely pace of Ron Atkinson’s regime. Social loafers were no longer accommodated.Inevitably the conflict that ensued lead to the termination of many players careers at Old Trafford. Star players Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside were known to be at the heart of a drinking Culture that had a remarkable resemblance to the Steiner Effect.



Ferguson eventually got rid of both players during the storming stage of his reign at Old Trafford. He later admitted that he should have sold these men quicker as the delay meant it took much longer to rebuild the team. Ultimately, he believed getting rid of these players was an important matter of principle in shedding United’s image as a drinking club.


In these early years Ferguson immersed himself in club histories and personally got to know every member of the 172 staff that was working at United. His objective was to understand what made Manchester United tick and primarily to give each individual responsibility in there roles in establishing the club as the major force in English football.


Ferguson’s will to succeed was almost pathological. In the summer of 1988 he declared, ‘I am not kidding. This isn’t just a job to me. It’s a mission. I am deadly serious about it – some people would reckon too serious . . . We will get there. Believe me. And when it happens life will change for Liverpool and everybody else – dramatically’. Although not apparent at the time Ferguson pulled every individual at the club from the laundry ladies to the chief scout into his vision of future success being accomplished.


The culmination of Ferguson’s initial work came to the fore during the norming stage of the team’s development circa 1990/1991 which brought the F.A. Cup and European Cup Winners Cup back to Old Trafford. In the penultimate stage of the latter competition Ferguson developed a togetherness that instigated the beginnings of group cohesion that would eventually bring them league success in 1993. In preparation for the final Ferguson arranged for the team to take over an entire hotel on the outskirts of Rotterdam and also ensured that a large lounge was transformed into a games room where pool tables, darts, quiz games and a large TV screen were brought. Ferguson obviously shared the views of top psychologists Carron and Dennis (2001) that, “being in close contact and having the opportunity for interaction hastens group development”.


It was clear to a passionate footballing nation that Alex Ferguson was leading Manchester United to the forefront of domestic football. However, only an astute footballing critic with a trained eye could identify with the revolution that was implemented behind the scenes at Old Trafford. Ferguson always did have a love for the development of youth which he initially emphasised with success at St.Mirren and Aberdeen. But it was at Manchester United where the leadership style he adopted for youth development had a lasting effect on world football.


As Ferguson himself declared, “I have always considered that the player you produce is better than the player you buy”. Ferguson obtained maps of the Manchester and Greater Manchester area and on them he delegated certain scouts to be responsible for certain areas. He tackled a deficiency in only five working scouts in the club and declared his priorities to each one, ‘I am not interested in the best boy in your street’ he told them, ‘I want the best boy in your area’. Significantly he appointed 1968 European Cup hero, Brian Kidd as the head of the main school of excellence. Ferguson would regularly watch youth games. Youth coach Eric Harrison later acknowledged that without Ferguson’s involvement Manchester United ‘would definitely not have signed all our superb youngsters’.


Ferguson’s transactional leadership style was exemplified in his dealings with a young welsh winger called Ryan Giggs whose longevity as a top class footballer may never be surpassed at Manchester United. From the moment Giggs set foot on the Cliff training ground and his talent became obvious, Ferguson, ‘protected Giggs like the treasure he was’ and was a frequent visitor to the family home. The United manager infuriated journalists by refusing all requests to interview the player. “I bolted the Old Trafford door and made certain Ryan was safe inside”. He even prevented Giggs from signing a boot deal worth £250,000, and other youth players were informed to expect similar restrictions! Ferguson was much more than a transactional leader who focused on the physiological, safety and belonging needs of the youth; he was a transformational leader who provided vision, built trust and ultimately inspired young players at United to prosper.


The seeds Ferguson sowed in youth development culminated in arguably the greatest youth team ever assembled in any club or any era. Of the fourteen players who participated in winning the FA Youth Cup in 1992 only three never appeared on the United first team. Eight would go on to represent their country at international level including, Gary Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Robbie Savage and Keith Gillespie. Perhaps the greatest attribute Ferguson had as a manager was the leadership style which nurtured these talented players in reaching their true potential.


Meanwhile the first team’s development was progressing rapidly with the signing of a certain French catalyst, Eric Cantona in November, 1992. With the help of Cantona’s inspiration United began performing to a level that Ferguson had strived for during the previous six years he was manager of the club. Members were now directing all there energies collectively towards winning the coveted title that had bewildered the club for 26 years. Faulty processes had been weeded out and Ferguson began to trust individuals to get the job done. He began his pre match talk at 1.30-2.00 p.m. and then he let players get on with it; “I think if I am continually around them before the game, talking to them or reminding them of this or that, I am suggesting a lack of trust in them . . . . You must show confidence that they can handle the job”.


The delegating style Ferguson used to such an effect with the youth team was now being echoed with the first team. His management methods were evolving. “For years I did the coaching, the organising of the training programmes, the pre-season schedules, the warm ups, the lot. But now I realised that, as my sense of the job’s priorities developed, the art of observation had to play a bigger part”. Consequently Ferguson let Brian Kidd and other senior figures at Old Trafford to take on more responsibility in preparations.


This evolution culminated in collecting the league title in 1993. A symbolic day for Ferguson, “the day I truly became manager of Manchester United . . . there was a sudden, overwhelming realisation that now I was master of my own destiny”. Interestingly Ferguson declared that he had learned more in those six years at United than he did in the previous forty five.


Yet more success was still to come. The team Ferguson built at Old Trafford reached its pinnacle the following year whilst clinching a remarkable league and cup double. Breaking numerous records in the process including, a record amount of league points and new club records for games won (41), successive games undefeated (34), consecutive away wins (7) and undefeated home games (36). Eric Cantona collected the PFA Player of the year award and Alex Ferguson was Manager of the Year for the second season running. People were now starting to compare Ferguson to his illustrious predecessor Sir Matt Busby.


Unfortunately for United, in the eighteen months after the double, that great team was slowly broken up. Like many great teams, there evolution was cyclical and eventually terminated following the unique achievements of 1994. Many instances during the following season led pundits to believe that Manchester united would never produce such a team again. Faulty processes started to creep back into the team. Indiscipline was symbolised by Eric Cantona’s infamous Kung Fu kick on a Crystal Palace supporter in January, Andrei Kanchelskis’s transfer request which was overlaid with frightening aspects of corruption and threats of violence, and Paul Ince’s refusal to carry out the managers instructions during games. As Ferguson himself explained, “I felt like the Dutch boy trying to plug holes in the dyke with my fingers”.


Luckily for United Ferguson’s experience had thought him how to plug holes in the dyke. He acknowledged the debilitating effects that ‘the law of the bad apple’ can have on any team. Consequently, despite the interests of the board and the fans, Ferguson immediately eliminated these ‘bad apples’ from playing any part in the future of Manchester United.


Interestingly Ferguson exemplified the multidimensional model of leadership when he took exception to Cantona’s case, even though it was the most dramatic incidence of indiscipline ever seen at the club. Whilst Cantona was contemplating moving to Inter Milan following his frustration with the English F.A., Ferguson flew to Paris to negotiate a deal that would keep Cantona at Old Trafford for the following four years. Ultimately Ferguson had the foresight to realise that despite his indiscipline Cantona would be the perfect catalyst to inspire the group of youngsters that would now become household names at Old Trafford for the next decade.


What happened next was the realisation of a dream that Ferguson had been waiting to implement for a number of years, “I have seven or eight kids waiting patiently for the opportunity, young footballers on the threshold of the big time . . . I don’t think it is possible to manoeuvre eleven through the ranks together, but in slow stages, I believe it is the dream that can be realised”. With the introduction of the Neville brothers, Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Giggs and the retention of their charismatic leader Cantona, Manchester United began a period of dominance in the domestic game that has aptly been described as a dynasty. In the four years that followed 1995, Manchester United had surpassed all previous expectations and won four Premier League Championships, two F.A. Cup’s, and emulated the wonderful success of Sir Matt Busby’s 1968 team in winning the Champions League in 1999.


Approaching two decades since that famous day in the Nou Camp. Alex Ferguson’s is no longer leading Manchester United. The principles, structures and leadership style that Ferguson implemented since 1986 served him well. Difficulties have been constant at Old Trafford since. The passing of time since his departure has illuminated his influence and has put Ferguson in his rightful place in history as one of the greatest leaders that has ever graced any sports field, in any era.


Theory Buster


Social Loafers: social loafing is the inclination to reduce effort when working towards a common goal with others. Researchers have proved significantly that individuals who thought they can get ‘lost in the crowd’ did not try as hard as they would if they thought they could be identified as individuals. Minimizing social loafing in team sports is obviously crucial, making individuals accountable for a personal performance standard is one way of eliminating the detrimental effects social loafing can have on team performance.


The Steiner Effect: Psychologist Ivan Steiner developed a model which showed that a group’s actual productivity is the result of its potential productivity minus losses due to faulty group processes. The model suggests that the coaches role is to increase available resources ( through training, instruction etc) while also reducing process losses (by enhancing cohesion and the individuals contributions to the team.)


Storming: From the linear perspective of team development which assumes that groups move progressively through four crucial stages. The second stage of team formation, storming is characterized by resistance to the leader, resistance to control by the group and interpersonal conflict.


Roles: A role consists of the set of behaviours required or expected of  the person occupying a certain position in a group


Norming: From the linear perspective of team development which assumes that groups move progressively through four crucial stages. The third stage norming occurs where hostility is replaced by solidarity and cooperation. Conflicts are resolved and a sense of unity forms.


Group Cohesion: is exemplified when a teams members are united in a common purpose. Cohesion is often a holy grail for coaches and managers, it is difficult to find but almost magical in its effects, transforming an aggregation of individuals into a collective unit. Many teams who possess outstanding individual athletes often underachieve, while teams of average players exceed all expectations. The difference usually is that the latter team is cohesive, each individual selflessly working towards the aims of the team rather than their own personal ambitions.


Transactional Leadership: is more closely associated with management which involves a leader – worker exchange relationship in which punishment is withheld or rewards are provided , in return for performance.


Transformational Leadership: by contrast influences others by their ability to inspire, empower and stimulate others to achieve beyond expectations towards the achievement of goals.


Catalyst: A catalyst is a player who makes things happen. A catalyst has great vision and can inspire a team to take their performance to another level.


Cyclical: The life cycle model of teams have in common the assumption that groups develop similar to individuals – experiencing birth, growth and death.


The law of the bad apple: This is often exemplified by players with bad attitudes. Players with personal ego’s. Players who always put their own needs and wants ahead of the groups.


Multidimensional model of leadership: explains that leadership effectiveness in sport will vary depending on the characteristics of the athletes and constraints of the situation.


Dynasty: A sports dynasty is a team that dominates their sport or league for multiple seasons or years.

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