Sir Alex Ferguson
Scott Mlyn | CNBC
What was it about Liverpool? Why were ‘geese’ and ‘shipyards’ in his team talks? And why did he keep Gary Neville on for so many years? Sir Alex Ferguson explains his management secrets…
You used to always mention ‘shipyards’ in your team talks. Why was being grounded so important?
The players I had to deal with then were probably not from the working class that I was from. So I had to try and instil that part in them – that working hard is a real talent.
I referred to shipyard workers, to miners, to steel workers, and I think that you may not have been the working class but your fathers or grandfathers were. I really put great importance on everybody working hard – even your best player, although he might be the most talented player – he has to show that he’s prepared to work as hard as every other player. I think we got that.
I was lucky that the players bought into the very fact that working hard is a talent.
How did you get United to keep doing it again and again?
It’s a sacrifice. When I became a manager, I’d been a decent player, I became a manager at 32, I thought this would be easy. I was thinking about other managers I’d worked for. I lost my first away game 5-2, I went home in the car that night and I was saying to myself ‘I didn’t expect this’. I realised then that if I didn’t get a working mentality, a mental strength in my players, I had no chance.
After one league triumph, the first team talk I had the next year was about the geese. I bet the players were sat there thinking ‘what’s this guy talking about?’ But it’s a great story. A friend of mine – his cousin had a farm in Canada. He was telling me this story about geese in Canada flying 4,000 miles for a bit of heat. I said to the players, ‘all I’m asking you to do is play 38 games to win the league’.
I’d be lying in my bed at night thinking about ways to motivate players because if you’re at a club like United for 27 years, you don’t want players to feel ‘here we go again’.
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You don’t believe in psychology, you believe in management. What do you mean by that?
Psychology, I’ve never considered part of my job. The management thing is based on communication, loyalty and trust. When I went to Aberdeen, you have to give your trust to the players and you hope in time you get it back. I did exactly the same at United.
My communication was really important to me, recognising and valuing my staff. I would never let anyone pass me in the corridor or in the dining room without saying ‘good morning’. If you think back to when we won the league or the cup or whatever, I had all the staff in the dining room on the Monday. It was their cup. If you value them and give your consideration to the job they’re doing, they’ll pay you back.
You kept me on for three or four years at the end when I wasn’t doing great. Why did you keep players who weren’t necessarily performing for you, or weren’t the most talented? How did you make them win?
Through Eric Harrison (former United youth coach), and myself, we brought players where we developed a good mental strength, a toughness that they could play in front of 75,000. We used to say to the parents, I said it to your mother and father, ‘I hope Gary and Phil play in front of 75,000, that’s the aim’. They don’t all make it but the amazing thing is a lot of those players are still playing today for different clubs so the preparation and education they got as they were built up at United is really important.
Alex Ferguson celebrates with the Premier League trophy
Matthew Peters | Man Utd | Getty Images
On the subject of great players and hard-working players, this is something I thought an awful lot about players like Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce and yourself. They had something inside them that drove them to be as good as Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. There’s something inside them that drives them on, forces them to bring out everything they can put into a game. I was fortunate to see that develop.
Darren Fletcher is a great example, Steve Bruce, yourself. You started as a centre-half and we realised quickly that you weren’t going to be a centre-half in our first-team, so you developed yourself into a right-back. That was through your self-determination and having the fire inside you – that made the likes of Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Steve Bruce all competitive players. The players who are so talented, like Cantona, Ronaldo, Giggs, Scholes, Michael Carrick, they have to show that they are prepared to be as hard-working as you are. That’s what gets the blend.
In most cases, the teams we built had these ingredients. They didn’t like losing. They were developed in that way. I like to see myself in the players. Of course, when I lost a game you know how I reacted. You know why? Because my expectation was bigger than theirs. I wanted to win all the cups, all the games, that was my attitude every morning.
The other word I always refer to with you is ‘risk’…
You’re down 1-0, what’s the point in sitting with your back four, your regular midfield, and two strikers? The risk is shove people in the box, because the other team reacts to that. You shove three or four in the box, get the ball in there, that’s the risk because you could lose on the breakaway quite easily.
We lost games that way, I remember Ole Gunnar Solskjaer getting sent off at Newcastle and they played it down the last kick of the ball. But the value is you score in the last minute of injury time, remember the dressing room? It was electric, absolutely electric. The fans go home and can’t wait to get to the pub to talk about it, to get home and tell their wife or kids what it was like at Old Trafford to score in the last minute. That’s the value.
If you’re playing for our club – that risk should always be there. There’s no point in faffing about in the midfield with a few passes and not taking the risk and getting the ball in the box, because you’re not going to score from 40 yards. I can’t remember many players trying to score from 40 yards.
It felt like you were offended by the club being beaten by Liverpool at any level, and it made you angry. Was it a dislike, the rivalry? What made you feel that way?
It’s my respect to Liverpool. When I was the manager of St Mirren I went to Liverpool’s training for a week. I saw the intensity of their training, the consistency they had. When I came to United and they’d been winning all the titles, I made that point.
When I was at Aberdeen – there are only two clubs you need to beat to win everything, Rangers and Celtic. At the time I came to United there was only one team you needed to beat to win the league – that’s Liverpool.
That was my intention, that was what I put everything into producing a team that could beat them. Not necessarily beat them every game, but winning the leagues. I always said to the players, when we played Liverpool, if you don’t turn up we’re going to be beaten. We’d go there with our best team – Keane, Scholes, Giggs and David Beckham, the back four was right, the front players – and sometimes if we were off just a little bit, we lost. But we had a great record there, in terms of any other club. I knew if you beat Liverpool you’re on the right path.
You used to stand outside the dressing room door, and the captain couldn’t go out past you until you were there. What was the reason? Was it for your own team or the opposition?
For my own team. There was one occasion, we were down 3-0 at Tottenham, I never said a word in the dressing room. I sat on the radiator, and it was burning hot too, and I said ‘next goal is the winner’.
I went to the door and Teddy Sheringham, who had played with us of course, was their captain, he came out and looked at me, turned to his players and said ‘don’t let them score early’. We scored in the first minute. I thought that killed them. I looked at them, and they looked at me, I just said, ‘come on we can win this’.
It’s a funny game.
‘Sir Alex Ferguson: Never Give In’ is in cinemas from 27 May and available on Amazon Prime Video from 29 May