Long-Term View: Only Fergie did control and freedom

Date published: Wednesday 8th March 2017 9:15

Last week Jonathan Wilson wrote a column, trailed by Mediawatch, which felt like the alpha and omega on the subject of Leicester and Claudio Ranieri; after this, there is nothing more to think. Its concern was the origins of the Foxes’ title-winning season, and it drew a parallel with the success Stefan Kovacs enjoyed at Ajax after the iron hand of Rinus Michels had departed; essentially, for a season or two, with the discipline of his predecessor still instilled, the Ajax team could gambol in the sunshine and European Cups flowed like water.

Then, everything gets a bit too loose, and the era is over. For Rinus Michels read, improbably, Nigel Pearson. You always kind of knew that watertight defence wasn’t something Ranieri could invent; he simply gave players like Riyad Mahrez the freedom to enjoy themselves. Football, more than any other sport, is a place for the magic vignettes of momentum, and Leicester arrived at the beginning of their title-winning season with, as we all remember, a fair amount of pep in their step.

If you scan the Premier League’s history for managers who were able to oversee a culture of freedom of expression without everyone turning into flakey bohemians, you see, as is so often the case with the sharpest edge of elite sport, the names on the list dwindle until in the end, there’s only one left.

So how did Fergie do this thing that seems beyond the reach of so many other managers? Either they can’t find the lasting discipline – Frank Rijkaard, Arsene Wenger, Michael Laudrup – or their obsession with rigid structures over self-expression means that after a season or two the players give off a palpable sense of hating their guts – Roberto Mancini, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho. But if you’re a manager who can a) sell David Beckham as too much trouble and b) be utterly, utterly loved by Cristiano Ronaldo, then you’re clearly making an art form of a balanced approach.

Alex Ferguson’s playing career can be boiled down to an effect that fizzles even on the page – the bitterness of thwarted opportunity. He was habitually dropped before crucial games, he lost the league at Dunfermline to Celtic by a point, he was humiliated both by Rangers (punishment for a mistake in the cup final against Celtic was to be sent to play with the kids) and, more pungently in terms of his future career, by Falkirk, who demoted him from player-coach back to player. Yes, John Prentice: you made the wrong decision.

In one of his first experiences in management, Ferguson – and this is so distant from our present football reality it’s barely visible through a telescope – ran a bar to boost his income from St. Mirren. And here he is, speaking of the rock salt of discipline and self-expression in one breath: “Sometimes I would come back with a split head or black eyes. That was pub life yet I look back and think what a great life it was. The characters, the comedy.”

It is a personal belief, while accepting there are no unbreakable rules of anything in life or indeed football, that those who had satisfying playing careers do not make great managers. Guardiola? He’s seems a great coach, not a great manager, and when he arrives on a scene that does not have an immaculately inculcated playing culture for him to coach within, you can see what happens. The three biggest managerial names of the Premier League era – Ferguson, Wenger, Mourinho – have barely a season of true footballing satisfaction between them. Points to prove are evidently the most valuable points to own.

But Ferguson remains a class apart, simply because on the one hand, he can say things like “as Big Jock said to me about players: never fall in love with them because they’ll two-time you”; and on the other, he can say, as Robin van Persie claimed he did: “Excite me. Try a pass over 40 metres. Try a dribble. I don’t care if it goes wrong. I want to sit on the edge of my chair. Please excite me. And make the game quicker, please.”

Can you ever imagine Mourinho or Van Gaal saying that? Can you imagine them asking you to tear up their blueprints and do something that was beyond their control, simply for the sheer fun of it? Truly, inside Ferguson ran the blood of a genuine football-lover. He was like us.

Interestingly, Van Persie also had this to say, about a different football personality. “What he does, for players young and old, is create an environment where you feel the trust like one big family.” One can’t fail to notice, given how Van Persie eventually treated Wenger and his family, that Fergie was right: never fall in love with them. But Wenger, as has been demonstrated at length, seems unable not to fall in love with his charges and regrettably, the more flawed the object of his affection, the tighter the bond.

You could wonder, then…did Wenger just get lucky, with the most successful part of his career? With arriving at a team who, with their famous grizzled back four, provided the steel and scary looks that he was constitutionally incapable of dishing out? No, would be the answer, to whether he ‘just’ got lucky, that back four had to be convinced by him to let go of some of their less conducive habits.

And more importantly, many levels higher in the atmosphere, the best was yet to come. That was Patrick Vieira, and in making him one of his first signings at the club, Wenger clearly sensed what his managerial style lacked: an enforcer. That he picked one as a fledgling who transpired to be more talented in that position than any other Premier League player ever, is why credit really is due. But the fact that his enforcer left 12 years ago and has never been replaced means that credit is significantly dented.

Only Ferguson truly remains as the disciplinarian who can also mete out precious freedom. Which is why he won title after title after title and could then walk away of his own accord, with the bitterness of thwarted opportunity a distant memory.

Toby Sprigings – follow him on Twitter

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