A few years ago, Alex Ferguson came to speak to a packed lecture hall in UCD and for the hundreds of students who sat enthralled, regardless of their footballing allegiances, they were united in respect and admiration.
Even then, the Scot was regarded as one of the all-time great managers. He’d overseen the rise of Manchester United to arguably the biggest football club in the world. The Red Devils’ success resulted in an explosion of support on this side of the Irish Sea and United came to dominate the Premier League.
Despite his stature within the game, Ferguson was nothing but friendly and humble before his young audience. He spoke of his upbringing, the son of a shipyard worker in Govan, and throughout his talk in the Arts block at Belfield, he extolled the virtues of hard work. Everything he had achieved in the game, from his playing days to astronomical triumphs in management, came from putting in the graft.That was his key message, one that could be applied to whatever profession his attentive listeners went on to pursue.
In a study by Harvard Business School entitled ‘Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United,’ the 71-year-old emphasised this philosophy.
“I tell players that hard work is a talent, too. They need to work harder than anyone else. And if they can no longer bring the discipline that we ask for here at United, they are out. I am only interested in players who really want to play for United, and who, like me, are bad losers.”
A relaxed Ferguson also spoke with genuine appreciation for the countless, though doubtless fewer now, young boys who’d come over from Ireland with dreams of one day making the breakthrough at the Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford. He respected the upheaval involved, of leaving behind family, friends, and the sacrifices to be made in terms of education.
He also spoke of his admiration for the temperament and attitude of young Irish players. He echoed those sentiments when referring to Denis Irwin, often dubbed ‘Mr. Consistency’ at United, and at one time considered by the manager as the best pound for pound signing he’d ever made.
Fergie admired the work ethic of Irish players but he wasn’t afraid to subject them to the the infamous hairdryer. It’s well documented how he sought to weed out the drinking culture that prevailed upon his arrival at Old Trafford, and that meant the exit door for Paul McGrath.
However, in time, Ferguson would go on to describe the Black Pearl as follows:
“He was an exceptionally skilful and stylish defender, with marvellous innate athleticism, a man whose abilities stood comparison with any central defender in the game.”
Bryan Robson took the view that the injuries to McGrath and Norman Whiteside also played a major role in his decision to offload the fan favourites:
“What the manager proved by selling Norman and Big Paul, however, was that he would take the tough decisions, no matter how big or popular the player”
Those words would come to be echoed when Roy Keane left United, in famously acrimonious circumstances. It hadn’t always been so. Keane idolised Ferguson and his approach to the game, the winner’s mentality. During the seismic events of Saipan, Keane sough the counsel of his club boss. In the middle of Ireland’s World Cup catastrophe, the Republic captain’s references to the manager were meant for Ferguson, and not Mick McCarthy.
Keane had exposed the shambolic nature of his time with Ireland, dating back to his early days in youth teams. Ferguson would have been privy to the Corkman’s disgust and so his view of the Irish national set-up would have mirrored those of his skipper. Sir Alex vociferously defended the stance taken by his midfield general.
McAteer memorably goaded his former international skipper miming “Put it in your book” while Quinn had taken the cringeworthy move of pre-arranging a handshake. When Keane was subsequently sent off, Quinn ran to the touch-line to try to play out the gesture in public and Ferguson told him where to go. He was protective of his players at all costs.
Keane’s subsequent falling out with his mentor has been a sad end to their relationship but for Ferguson, it was merely another chapter in his rewriting of British football history. He went on to build further championship-winning teams at Old Trafford. He consistently reinvented the team but his philosophy of painstaking hard-work and a winning mentality will endure long after he leaves the dugout for the final time as United manager. Just as those same ideas remained with his impressionable young audience in Dublin.