Ferguson success built on work-ethic bedrock

Sir Alex Ferguson is a knight of the realm, rich beyond his dreams, revered and respected the world over yet his approach to life and work remain unchanged from when he first rolled up his sleeves in the Clydeside shipyards of the 1960s.

Hard graft, pride in your work, respect for your colleagues and a refusal to back down when you feel you are right were the values Ferguson learned as a boy in the tough streets of post-war Glasgow and which were honed as an apprentice tool-maker in one of the most unforgiving work environments imaginable.

Like many great managers, Ferguson is somewhat frustrated that his playing days are dismissed as an appendix to his career but he was no mean performer. Rangers were happy to pay a then-Scottish record fee of £65,000 pounds to take the scrawny but fearless striker from Dunfermline in 1966.

It should have been the glorious peak of his playing days with the club he supported as a boy but things did not go to plan and, after famously being blamed for a Scottish Cup final defeat, he eventually left, angry and unfulfilled as his playing career drifted to an end at Ayr United in 1974.

The challenge of gelling the competing egos of his current multi-millionaire playing staff might seem a light years from when he set out on his 39-year managerial adventure as part-time boss of minor Scottish club East Stirling but the values he established from the start remain in place now.

Known as a hard taskmaster, few have crossed him and stayed around long to tell the tale, but at the heart of his success is his pure and enduring love of the game.

At 71, with an army of staff at his disposal, Ferguson is still the first to arrive at United's training ground. He may not now have such a hands-on role in terms of coaching but his presence is everywhere.

He displays the same boyish enthusiasm whether watching the latest crop of 16-year-old hopefuls among a scattering of friends and family or overseeing the first team in a Champions League clash watched by hundreds of millions the world over.

Many of those viewers, and United fans whose memories begin with the advent of the Premier League in 1992, will probably never fully understand the depth of the fundamental and surely permanent transformation in the club's fortunes brought about Ferguson.

Today, United bestride the game on and off the pitch, their worldwide brand ensuring a torrent of income that enables an ever-changing playing staff to win trophy after trophy.

TOP TABLE

In a sport where managers, even successful ones, have a mayfly lifespan, Ferguson's reign of more than 26 years is nothing short of astonishing.

He has been knighted and honoured by people and institutions the world over and sits proudly at the top table of the most influential people ever to have had a hand in the sport that dominates every corner of the planet.

Ferguson will walk away from Old Trafford having won 25 major trophies and having established such a level of consistency that United have never finished outside the top three in the Premier League.

Yet when he arrived from Aberdeen to replace Ron Atkinson in November 1986, United were a very different animal.

Not only had they gone 19 years without winning the league, they had barely challenged for it. Only five top-three finishes, and of course the ignominy of relegation in 1974, underlined that decline.

Despite being the best-supported club in the country, and arguably the most famous in the world, they had only a handful of FA Cups to show for their efforts and were just not a powerful force.

Ferguson certainly had pedigree in breaking down the established order, having ended the dominance of Celtic and Rangers in Scottish football with his remarkable transformation of Aberdeen, which culminated in them beating Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1983.

England proved a tougher nut to crack, however, as Liverpool remained top dogs, ably supported by Everton and then Arsenal.

Finishing second in his first full season in charge in 1986/87 proved something of a false dawn as 11th and 13th in subsequent campaigns put him in danger of being sacked for the second time in his career following his dismissal by St Mirren in his fledgling days.

Ferguson was trying to build a base, shipping out some established and popular players in his bid to instil his values and remove the drinking and gambling culture that he knew was undermining the club's prospects, but United's patience was not bottomless.

Few fans will now admit to holding "Fergie Out" banners in those frustrating days, but they were there alright as the club hovered around the lower reaches of the top flight.

NO SENTIMENT

It has become accepted folk history that Mark Robins' winner against Nottingham Forest in a 1990 FA Cup Third Round tie saved his job, and certainly United's triumph in the final, Ferguson's first trophy in four seasons, bought the Scot time.

He showed in that success too that there was no room for sentiment, dropping goalkeeper Jim Leighton, one of the stalwarts of his Aberdeen days who followed him south, for the replay of the final against Crystal Palace.

The Holy Grail of the league championship after a 26-year wait eventually arrived in 1993, buoyed by the signing of Eric Cantona, considered by many to be Ferguson's shrewdest-ever deal and the catalyst for much of the success that followed.

From then on it was a cascade of silverware, culminating in the 1999 treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.

Having finally achieved his stated ambition of knocking Liverpool "off their perch" and making United England's best team, Ferguson then proved adept at rebuilding his sides, unloading key names and bringing in ever-more costly replacements with deft moulding.

Nobody was too big to go, whether for past-their-best footballing reasons or if Ferguson felt they were getting too big for the boots, as the likes of Roy Keane, David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy all discovered.

Ferguson's power extended beyond the dressing room.

The man who used to happily answer the phone at United's training ground to chat to reporters developed a fear and distrust of the press.

The Scot refused to speak to the BBC for seven years because he did not like a programme made about his son, while he routinely banned reporters from news conferences if he took exception to their work.

Those external pressures appeared to have finally ground him down when he announced plans to retire at the end of the 2001/02 season but he opted to continue, reinvigorated and driven by the desire to make United a European Cup heavyweight to line up alongside multiple champions Real, Bayern Munich and AC Milan.

He did manage one further Champions League triumph, via a penalty shootout against Chelsea in the pouring rain of Moscow in 2008, but his tally of two following Matt Busby's first in 1968, when stood alongside his 13 Premier League titles, will remain the one relative blip on his otherwise glittering career.

OPINION Success and succession: FFT.com editor Gary Parkinson on Fergie FEATURE Fergie's 10 best and 10 worst moments at Man United HISTORY Alex Ferguson at Manchester United: A detailed history GALLERY Every trophy Fergie won at Man United PERFECT XI The Alex Ferguson Old Trafford Dream Team GALLERY Fergie Time: A pictorial history of watch-tapping 


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