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Russell Berrisford

Russell Berrisford

Russell’s support of Derby County eventually led him to leave the country. He has lived in Canada since 2007 and currently writes about soccer for The Vancouver Sun.


What Makes Sir Alex Ferguson a Great Manager?

Written by on March 22, 2011 | 12 Comments »
Posted in Manchester United

In a recent interview Sir Alex Ferguson lamented that he still doubted his tactical acumen (although he later added that these doubts were part of his strength as a manager) yet ironically he is not the only one who doubts his ability as a great thinker about the game.

When he sent out seven defenders in the recent cup tie against Arsenal eyebrows were raised. For many people this seemed to fit nicely into the meme that says that the Manchester United manager may be a great motivator of men but he is not a great tactician of teams.

His detractors are quick to point out that although has won two European titles in his time at Old Trafford they have been rather fortunate affairs; one that required two freakishly late goals and another that relied on a penalty shootout.

Add to this the equally pervasive theory that he only really prospers when he has an effective assistant in tow and the case is considered made.

All nonsense of course. Ferguson would never have lasted so long at such a big club as United if he knew so little about the intricacies of the game but, in a way, it is easy to see where this line of thought comes from. For, almost uniquely amongst great managers it is virtually impossible to pin down a “Ferguson style of play”.

His early teams at United relied on the pace of Sharpe, Giggs and Kanchelskis, which gave way to a team built around the mercurial talent of Eric Cantona up front, which was superseded by a side built around Roy Keane’s dynamism in midfield.

Throw in the recent three up front formation of Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo and the current incarnation that seems to switch styles from match to match and you would be hard pressed to say that any of these played like a “typical Ferguson team”. So what is it about Ferguson that causes so much variation?

I want to argue that his great strength as a manager is that he is prepared to trust his players more than any of his contemporaries. Of course he will get rid of people that he feels are detrimental to the squad, but if a player performs on the field then Ferguson will support him 100%.

Even more than that though is the remarkable fact that, for one perceived as being intransigent in his dealings with people, he is fully prepared to mould the team around a player (or players) if he believes in them enough.

Cantona is the classic example. In theory the two men are polar opposites who should have fallen out within weeks, but Ferguson was willing to forgive Eric his “eccentricities” because of what he brought to the team out on the field, but once Cantona had gone he didn’t try to find a replacement as many would have done, he simply took a look at his playing staff and changed the system again giving Dwight Yorks and Andy Cole free rein up front.

After achieving success with the three up front system he didn’t try to keep the style by replacing Ronaldo and Tevez with similar players he just allowed Rooney to play as a lone striker and got the best season of his career out of him.

This season with Rooney out form he has allowed first Berbatov and latterly Hernandez to lead the line. Two completely different type of players that would probably cause confusion if they were interchanged at other clubs.

Maybe the victory in that cup game against Arsenal wasn’t down to tactical genius, maybe it was solely down to his faith in his players. He trusted the Da Silva twins to play out wide in a way that I doubt any other manager would. If they had failed he would have shrugged and put it down to experience, but it didn’t fail and he now has yet another option to fall back on.

Maybe the stubborn Scot is actually the most open-minded manager in the business and maybe his biggest motivational factor isn’t his “hairdryer treatment” or throwing shoes across the changing room; maybe the biggest motivation is that the players want to repay the faith that he so undoubtedly has in them.

12 responses to “What Makes Sir Alex Ferguson a Great Manager?”

  1. redfan says:

    For one thing he has never been under much pressure in his job since his first successes. Not wondering about when the P45 is going to arrive is a weight of any manager’s mind imho.
    Couple that with the time he has had in the job, which is not quite the same things as not fearing the sack, and you have a basis for building success and successful is what SAF is as a football manager.

    I still rate what Sir Bob did, in 9 years as manager, as a better achievement, but SAF and Sir Bob are undoubtedly the two best British managers in history thus far.

  2. redfan says:

    For the record: In nine years as manager between 1974 and 1983, Bob Paisley took Liverpool to 6 League Titles, 3 European Cups, 1 UEFA Cup, I UEFA Super Cup, 3 League Cups and 5 (Charity) Community Shields.
    Bob is the only manager in football history to win three European Cups though plenty have done it twice and it will not be long before someone equals this record. My bet is that Jose Mourinho will be the next one to achieve it.

  3. IMO Shankly and Busby still rank above Paisley and Ferguson – without these two there would have been nothing to build on. They took clubs that in one case was in division 2 and the other one that had no history and no stadium.

  4. Bryan says:

    You have to put Cloughie up there with that four!

  5. redfan says:

    Bobby, that is a very fair comment, but I guess we all tend to look at the trophy cabinet and miss the foundations that these cabinets are built on.
    SAF has been successful but has had an extraordinary amount of time and space to achieve it. I can’t think of any manager who has had the degree of favour that SAF has had, for I am sure that some of the great managers could have achieved as much had they been given the same sort of time and space.

    At LFC, Shanks gets the plaudits for what he established and it is not forgotten.

  6. Boris says:

    I do not see myself as an expert, but I do think that Ferguson is a great manager.
    Apparently VDV was upset at being subbed against West Ham. There are plenty of quality players on that bench who would love to be in his shoes. Does he not remember Madrid?
    He’s not fully fit. He ran out of gas and that’s why he got subbed. He needs to chill and when the coach says, “You are off”, you are off. He needs to look at Modric. The guy is clearly the star player on the team. He has been subbed before but you never see him complain about anything.

  7. Soccerlogical says:

    Is it me or does Hillary Clinton look like Deborah Harry from Blondie?

    Is the next piece going to be on what makes Messi a great player?


  8. SL – ok, over to you – what makes Messi a great player?

  9. Theo van Nasarshavregas says:

    Boris – There you go looking through your “Croatian glasses” again. I’m not Croatian, but I do admit Modric is an excellent player. Still, I’d place both Bale and VdV as better players than Modric.

    SL – Hillary Clinton resembling Deborah Harry??? You must be experiencing vertigo up there in your black helicopter.

    What was the piece about? Oh, that’s right, Fergie. Yeah, I guess with a record like his he has to be considered a great manager. Too bad he didn’t get the sack early in his ManU career when things weren’t going so rosy under his guidance. Boy, how things might be so much different had that happened.

  10. Boris says:


    If I were looking through “Croatian glasses”, you would see me write that Corluka is better than Ramos. Obviously that is not the case.
    I am simply commenting on what I see. It has got nothing to do with Modric being Croatian. I personally believe he’s the best player on that team. He makes everyone around him better. That includes Bale and VDV. Trust me, I am not the only who believes this. However, I have to respect your opinion. If that’s what you believe, then that is what you believe. Now, it is true that Modric is my favorite player. I will not deny that.

  11. Mary Gillmeister says:

    Good piece. I especially liked the comment about how SAF will support a player 100% if he performs on the field – so true in the case of that club, and it must make for a very tight dressing-room. I always say that their incredible ability to grind out the positive (and often so very late!) result is down to a very strong mentality, that they know they can score, so they do.

    I also think he has been very good at spotting and nurturing what I call ‘luxury’ players – those guys who will only play 1 game in 4 or 5, but be ready, willing and able to do the job when asked. Ji-Sung Park is for me the best example of this. With their resources, they can afford such players, and there must be something in the water that makes them happy to stay even with limited playing time!

    As he approaches 70, it’s going to be most interesting to see how long he holds on for – I do believe the next manager is going to have a mammoth task to keep the club at the exalted level it currently occupies.

  12. Ian says:

    It seems to me that the fact that Fergie has been in charge so long is argument for his greatness not a way to explain it away. One of the reasons Busby is considered a great manager is that he rebuilt a great team after Munich to lift the European Cup only 10 years later. Ferguson has reinvented United into championship teams no less than 5 times in his career. I don’t mean to put that on the same footing as Busby having to almost start from scratch but his ability to continuously win with such different squads over the course of so many years must put him at least in the running for one of the greatest of all time. And you cannot forget what he did with St. Mirren and Aberdeen in particular. Beating Rangers and Celtic to the SPL title three times has to add points to his tally.

    I guess I can’t really fault anyone who chooses Busby or Shankly (as much as the later pains me) over Ferguson but I do think that he has earned the right to at least be in that three man discussion. So if not the greatest of all time (yet), he is at least the greatest of the last 35 years. As for Paisley, I think Alex has passed him in the pantheon. Sorry RedFan but conceding to Shankly is all I can swallow…..

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