Alex Ferguson’s exit comes at a crucial moment for Manchester United. They are losing the two most important figures in the engine room at the same time because David Gill the CEO is also off. The closest relationship Ferguson had at the club was with Gill and, although they had their battles, Ferguson respected him and they were a powerful combination.
Both are cleverly electing to go while at the top of their game and while the going is good. For Man United, like Tesco two years back when Terry Leahy stepped down, the only way from here, as they swap bosses, may well be down. Although a serious money-maker Manchester United is run along disciplined financial lines as a proper business and lacks the ludicrous resources of Chelsea or Manchester City. One can only fear that if enough money is hosed over those rival operations for long enough then something good will result in terms of trophies.
So who will it be to replace him? Following a character like Ferguson is a nigh on impossible task and the new incumbent would be foolish to attempt to emulate anything about the Scot except his ability to win games. The new manager must fight for acceptance and results under his own terms. So: no gum, no half-time hair-driers and definitely no zip up pullover.
I met and interviewed Ferguson, along with Gill, for MT a few years back. We produced a cover with the pair of them – the Boss and his Boss (pictured). Which was which? I’d been strongly advised to take an offering of a bottle of fairly expensive claret to offer Ferguson as a thank you for his precious time and his eyes lighted on it as soon as he entered the room. Things went OK.
'Management is all about control. Success gives you control and control gives you longevity as a manager,' he said. 'In football, very few managers achieve a position of complete control over their teams.'
I then wrote: This leads to a weirdly intense relationship, quite unlike that to be found between management and employee anywhere else. Fergie said, 'I love my players, I do. I love them. But that doesn't mean you neglect your paternal job of saying: 'I expect better than that of you, come on!' The players reflect me when they are on the pitch, and that's what I want. I want them to be me.'
He later followed that up with a Harvard Business School talk during which he commented, 'And if anyone steps out of my control, that’s them dead.' Not something that one would recommend putting into General Management 101. Or a General Manual of Parenting, for that matter.
What amazed me was the fall-out after an off-the-cuff remark that he made when I asked him about his succession plans. 'I can see Roy Keane as manager here. He's intelligent and decisive. What's the most important thing you need as a manager? To be willing to make a decision.' It appeared on the back page of The Sun as an 'Exclusive'. Well that was eight years ago. Fergie has only just gone and I, for one, wouldn’t be putting large sums on Keane succeeding him. Fergie was an old fox who produced the results and enjoyed keeping us all guessing. It was a control thing.
Read MT's business lessons from Alex Ferguson