Speaking with the Harvard Business Review, Sir Alex Ferguson has reflected on his career at United, starting from the very beginning.
“From the moment I got to Manchester United, I thought of only one thing: building a football club,” he said. “I wanted to build right from the bottom. That was in order to create fluency and a continuity of supply to the first team. With this approach, the players all grow up together, producing a bond that, in turn, creates a spirit.”
Ferguson’s first task was addressing the issue of developing young players and following in the footsteps of Sir Matt Busby.
“When I arrived, only one player on the first team was under 24,” he continued. “Can you imagine that, for a club like Manchester United? I knew that a focus on youth would fit the club’s history, and my earlier coaching experience told me that winning with young players could be done and that I was good at working with them. So I had the confidence and conviction that if United was going to mean anything again, rebuilding the youth structure was crucial. You could say it was brave, but fortune favours the brave. The first thought of 99% of newly appointed managers is to make sure they win—to survive. So they bring experienced players in. That’s simply because we’re in a results-driven industry. At some clubs, you need only to lose three games in a row, and you’re fired. In today’s football world, with a new breed of directors and owners, I am not sure any club would have the patience to wait for a manager to build a team over a four-year period. Winning a game is only a short-term gain—you can lose the next game. Building a club brings stability and consistency. You don’t ever want to take your eyes off the first team, but our youth development efforts ended up leading to our many successes in the 1990s and early 2000s. The young players really became the spirit of the club.”
Ferguson has brought through plenty of young players in his time at the club, but many of them going on to play hundreds of games for United, whilst others went on to have successful careers in the Premier League with other clubs.
“I always take great pride in seeing younger players develop,” he added. “The job of a manager, like that of a teacher, is to inspire people to be better. Give them better technical skills, make them winners, make them better people, and they can go anywhere in life. When you give young people a chance, you not only create a longer life span for the team, you also create loyalty. They will always remember that you were the manager who gave them their first opportunity. Once they know you are batting for them, they will accept your way. You’re really fostering a sense of family. If you give young people your attention and an opportunity to succeed, it is amazing how much they will surprise you.”