When Sir Alex Ferguson leaves the dugout for the final time this weekend, football will lose not only its greatest ever manager, but also the role of ‘manager’ itself. For many years now Sir Alex has stood as the sole commander-figure in the profession of football management, surrounded instead by the common practice of first-team coach, or what players like to refer to as “gaffer” – a role profoundly different to that which Ferguson maintained during his 26 years at Manchester United. Sir Alex has not simply been a figurehead for his squad, who plays power-point presentations and attends press-conferences while his players moan behind his back. Ferguson has ruled Manchester United from top to bottom, and commanded every bit of power and respect available to him during his time at the club – in the way that a ‘manager’ should do. Unfortunately, with the ghastly wealth of most modern-day footballers, it has become easy for players to overestimate themselves and lose respect for their managers; however is has been Sir Alex, and only Sir Alex, who has succeeded in overcoming this plague, for he has maintained the imperative hierarchy within his club, whereby the manager holds all the power, and not the players.
Sir Alex is the only manager in the world who we can say has been more valuable to his club than any one player during his tenure – as demonstrated through his dismissals of Jaap Stam, David Beckham and Roy Keane, all of whom were first-team regulars when forced to leave following break-downs in relations with Ferguson. Following United’s elimination from the FA Cup in 2003, Ferguson launched a football boot in anger which struck Beckham (at the time one of the world’s most commercially valuable footballers) in the face, causing a cut which required stitching. Knowing that the two could no longer continue to work together, the United board were forced to act, and elected to sell Beckham the following summer to Real Madrid for over £30 million. It was reported that through shirt-sales alone, Madrid were able to re-coup the money spent on the England captain, therefore demonstrating how valuable an asset Beckham was to United before the incident. As the old saying goes “no player is bigger than the club”, however in this particular case, “no player is bigger than Sir Alex” seems more fitting, for Ferguson remained at the club, as the board understood just how important their manager was to any success the club would have.
Were a “gaffer” like André Villas-Boas to inflict injury upon, say, Gareth Bale for example, I would be inclined to think that Daniel Levy would rather dismiss his manager than lose one of the world’s best players in Bale, thus highlighting exactly why Ferguson’s retirement will annul the role of ‘manager’ (i.e. someone who manages and has control over every one of his playing staff). Villas-Boas is replaceable, his influence upon Tottenham Hotspur’s success is no greater than that of his players, whereas Ferguson’s ability is greater than any one of the players he manages. Many believe that a squad like Chelsea’s for example would be able to run itself, for the power possessed by the players is so great, that together, the likes of Lampard, Terry and Cole would have more influence over their team-mates than any manager could ever dream of having. Manchester United on the other hand has been run by solely one individual ‘manager’ for the past 26 years, who just so happens to now be considered the greatest of all time – unsurprisingly due to the manner in which he alone ran the club during his tenure.
This season, the power at Manchester United has resided solely within Ferguson, while at every other club, power is held by other important individuals. Take the four Champions League semi-finalists for example: Lionel Messi is undoubtedly more important to Barcelona than Tito Vilanova, while Götze has been able to force through a move away from Dortmund in recent weeks. Mourinho has fallen out with reportedly all but three of his players, and consequentially is set to leave his club at the end of the season, as is Jupp Heynckes, yet his players will remain at Bayern. Furthermore, Arsène Wenger – the Premier League’s second longest serving manager – has been held to ransom by a number of his key players nearing the ends of their contracts in recent years and left in the kind of predicament that Ferguson would never allow to happen. If a player requested a transfer at Manchester United, but Ferguson wanted to keep him, ten times out of ten it would be Ferguson who got his way. He succeeded in maintaining Ronaldo’s service for a year longer after Ronaldo expressed his desire to move to Madrid, while in 2010 Wayne Rooney was prevented from leaving the club, and has since contributed to two more Premier League titles for Manchester United. By forcing his players to play for him so long as they are in his plans, rather than allowing them to decide their own futures, Ferguson ensures that his players understand their inferiority to the manager. It comes as no surprise therefore when a player like Valencia drops back into the right-back position without any fuss if asked to by his manager, for Ferguson has earned such respect from his squad that he can rely on all of his players to put in a decent performance wherever he commands them to play on the pitch.
Too many managers nowadays fall fowl of so called ‘player power’. Even the ‘Special One’ has struggled this season to gain control over the Madrid legends within his squad – most notably Iker Casillas – and has consequentially lost respect from many of his players. A side-effect of the wealth of European football is the ridiculous wages paid out to players, and the over-inflated egos of many modern footballers as a result of their monstrous bank balances. In signing-on fees alone, many of the QPR squad would have earned more than Mark Hughes’ annual salary, therefore it is no surprise that he was unable to gain the respect and obedience of his squad prior to his sacking. Sir Alex’s speech on Sunday spoke volumes about his despotic style of management, reminding his players “you know how good you are, you know the jersey you’re wearing.” Ferguson could have a squad of the 25 greatest players ever, yet still would be able to ensure they respected the jersey they wear, and the manager whose job it is to run the club, not theirs – regardless of how important they think they are.
Note: I’m not suggesting that André Villas-Boas is a bad manager, or that his players moan behind his back. He is simply one of the new types of managers who thus far has not succeeded in gaining ultimate respect from his squad. There are two sides to management: Tactics (mind games and player recruitment come under this category), and Squad Management. So far AVB is good at the former, but must improve on the latter if he is to emulate the success of Sir Alex.
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