A lot has and will be said about Fergie’s winning mentality this week. It’s at milestones such as these (and let’s face it, SAF’s had a few) that well worn phrases are paraded about like leathery skinned ex-pros at identikit stadia they never graced. “Never knows he’s beaten”, “obsession with winning” and “addicted to success” are all old favourites. They portray the auld knight as some trembling victory bus junkie, desperately licking at the foil of chocolate coins and manically tapping as his forearm, belt in teeth, preparing for his next three point fix.
There’s obvious truth in parts of that (probably not the bit about chocolate coins… or the belt) but I honestly think it does him a disservice. It kind of aligns itself to the hairdryer narrative of the ferocious competitor dragging his charges mercilessly to victory. The script was the same when Wenger and Fergie were locking horns in the nineties. The former was portrayed as cultured and debonair; the latter as an old school disciplinarian. In reality SAF is the far more rounded of the two with plenty of interests outside of the sport. Arsene was very much the football geek.
If it was all about being ‘driven’ and ‘gay’ for success (I paraphrase) why has Roy Keane’s management career proved such a disappointment? Here was a player very much in his manager’s image, who had plenty time to learn from the best. He is just as uncompromising and committed, and just as scornful of decent efforts and plucky runners up. But Keano’s überferg approach to management didn’t work. Being a toxic leader to those poor souls genuinely unable to achieve in a way he found so routine destroyed rather than made stronger.
But that’s the thing about perfectionism – it’s not always a positive thing. It can be a disease. Having an unquenchable desire to succeed upon success is born from dissatisfaction. A win is a win but when it’s done it’s gone – and it’s never enough. Worse for a pathological perfectionist is if victory never comes. Or stops coming. It can not only ruin a team and harm a club, but also crush the man. If you measure your worth in silver, how do you cope with a bare cabinet?
For me Sir Alex’s greatest managerial achievement has been managing himself. Anger and siege mentality are hardly conducive to longevity. Over his 25 glorious years at United not all have been glorious. He must have experienced desperate lows and private self-doubt in his first few years at the helm. And even once the honours starting to gush forth and multiply, there were significant troughs to punctuate the many peaks. He has never crumbled under the immense weight of his own expectations or succumbed to narcissistic rage or injury. Nor has he simply thrown money at every problem or succumbed to the vanity of playing pretty potless football like some of his contemporaries.
Contrary to the catatonic caricature, Fergie has remained temperate throughout. He has treated success and relative failure with a reserve that would make Kipling proud. Whatever keeps him restful and energetic away from football – be it holidaying in France, the wine, horse-breeding, the wine, learning to play the piano, or indeed the wine – it seems to be working.
Over the last quarter of a century, he’s been extremely patient and shrewd, and always incredibly pragmatic (some would say too pragmatic in recent years, but hey – that’s for any day!). Even his famous outbursts and tirades seem increasingly tactical and calculated, often used to make a point or distract attention away from another story. It’s all about control – of the media, the players and the story. And always himself.
Love him or loathe him, he is an incredible man. Not for his fire or his fury, but for his wit and intelligence. Above all else, he is a very canny Scot. It helps make him the best manager in the history of the game. Sir Matt Busby created the Manchester United we now take for granted – the style, the ethos, the glamour – no one can compete with that. But Fergie has provided all the success and glory Busby must have dreamed of. For that, we and generations to follow must be eternally grateful.
Now if he’d only sort out the midfield…