Manchester United: Is It Too Late for Sir Alex Ferguson to Change?

Terry CarrollContributor IIIJanuary 2, 2013

Manchester United: Is It Too Late for Sir Alex Ferguson to Change?

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    Sir Alex Ferguson is not just the greatest Manchester United manager ever; he could be the best in the history of the game.

    The Scottish knight has won almost every honour in the game, although he has eschewed national team management except as a brief caretaker manager of Scotland for 10 games in 1985 and '86.

    By many young people's standards Sir Alex is now ancient, having celebrated his 71st birthday on New Year's Eve. And yet there would not be a single United supporter of any age who would object to him going on indefinitely as long as he keeps winning.

    Last season, United won nothing, and that was a shock to Sir Alex as much as any United fan or the public at large.

    We may not know until he publishes his post-United memoirs whether he was going to retire at the end of last season. Losing in the last minute of the season hurt him deeply, far more even than any of his players. Now he has a new challenge: to knock his "noisy neighbours off their perch.

    Some might say that is where he derived an apparent new burst of energy from. But that is to deny the evidence that is right in front of our eyes every match and week in week out.

    This is a man doing what he regards as the best job in the world and which he gets paid handsomely. He loves every day of it. He rises with passion and sleeps with a smile on his face.

    So why would he ever want to give that up?

    But one day he will. As we've indicated previously, that day may be approaching although there should be no doubt that his retirement is entirely in his own hands.

    There are increasing signs that he may step down (or up, into the board room) at the end of this season or next season at the very latest. It may well come down to whether United win the Premier League this season and whether he thinks they can win the Champions League next year at the latest.

    And what would he do if he retired? We have suggested that there will always be a job for him "upstairs," whether replacing Sir Bobby Charlton as the wise head in the board room or simply acting as a mentor when needed for whoever succeeds him.

    Any man big enough to take over the reins from Sir Alex will need to be very much his own man, but big men are never too big to ask for help when they need it.

    That is a sign of that increasingly rare quality in our society: humility. Sir Alex has this quality, despite his apparent arrogance and single-mindness as perceived by some others.

    He has achieved much in a truly great career; and he has made mistakes, some of which he has honestly owned up to or acknowledged. He sold Jaap Stam too early for example.

    He has also shown himself to be inflexible or intransigent at times and there are signs that his judgement isn't always sound.

    Some might think him a dinosaur to still be using the "hairdryer" in a world where the quiet word or the arm round the shoulder seem more appropriate for adults on more than £2 million a year.

    So if he decides to continue indefinitely, how could he change in ways that would benefit Manchester United and leave a lasting legacy of respect even among those for whom football is a dirty word?

    In the slides that follow it is important to note that these thoughts are not meant as direct or implicit criticism. One of the great qualities of "big men" is that they can receive constructive observations openly and reflect. They may disagree, as is their right, but we can all improve somehow.

    Sir Alex is Sir Alex and that's what has made him great.

    Life is a never-ending journey of learning and growing. That is the philosophy that drives players like Ryan Giggs, Ronaldo and Chicharito. It is also a characteristic of Roy Hodgson and Nelson Mandela.

    The latter is arguably one of the greatest and one of the most humble men of all time. If you don't agree, visit his tiny prison cell on Robben Island. 

    One of the greatest footballers of all time, Sir Bobby Charlton, also shares that quality.

    Manchester United would be fortunate indeed if Sir Alex succeeded Sir Bobby in his role with the club. Together with their shared mentor, Sir Matt Busby, they share great human qualities of leadership and generosity, both in kind and in spirit.

Player Management Style

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    Now here were two personalities with the potential for conflict, and we shouldn't forget that Roy Keane had previously been managed by Brian Clough!

    Sir Alex and his captain worked together for a total of 12 years before the relationship finally seemed to be broken irreparably in November 2005 after a particularly outspoken criticism by Keane of his fellow players.

    No doubt in any football dressing room there will be the "meek and mild" as well as the "bold as a lion" characters.

    It has long been suspected that nobody is necessarily immune from Sir Alex's fabled "hairdryer" treatment.

    Recent recruit Alex Buttner may not have done himself any favours by revealing that Sir Alex still lets rip sometimes, and nobody appears to be immune—from the most senior to junior players in the squad.

    Earlier in the season, Wayne Rooney lifted the lid as well. 

    While this aspect of his player-management style may even predate his time at United, Sir Alex himself has acknowledged that he sometimes hates doing it.

    There are at least two reasons to question whether it is appropriate anymore. In any case should he be shouting at a player as professional as Robin van Persie or a youngster trying to make his way in the squad?

    There is no doubt that he has been something of a father figure to players like Ronaldo and Anderson.

    Cristiano Ronaldo has readily and frequently paid tribute to the paternal attributes of Sir Alex, even as recently as November last year.

    The first reason to consider change is that you shouldn't have to blast players on such high wages and especially such consummate professionals as Van Persie, Chicharito or Shinji Kagawa, who comes from a different cultural background.

    In fact, it is reasonable to ask whether there is ever any justification to shout at another human being. Anger and loss of self-control are not signs of personal strength or emotional intelligence. Even an apology becomes redundant if the pattern is repeated.

    The other reason is that shouting simply won't motivate some people.

    Sir Alex may well have grown up in a very tough community where things were hard throughout his upbringing. Clydeside was about as tough a working environment as you could find in the post-war years.

    Men shouting at each other may well have been a daily characteristic in times where also defenders sometimes set out to maim opposition players.

    But motivation styles are heavily influenced by culture. 

    We learned as children about our"fight or flight"programming when adrenalin is fired off inside us. None of us may know how we would react to real danger until confronted with it. Some might run like hell, and others stand and fight. It's just how we are individually programmed.

    It's not hard to understand where these patterns may have come from. Britain was in the heart of two world wars in 30 years. Its main genetic origins are among combative tribes from Europe.

    So using fear may work for some Brits, but rewards, praise and success may work better for the rest. And some may look on with justifiable distaste if one human being is being humiliated by another in front of their peers.

    It may be too late to change Sir Alex's innate nature, but United's next manager may be very different in style. And if you're a United player, you shouldn't need much additional motivation anyhow. Even after all the trophies, players like Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic don't do complacency.

Relations with Referees

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    The FA promote a respect campaign for all those involved in the game. One of the key aspects is respect for referees.

    Judging by the media response to Sir Alex's very public haranguing of Mike Dean, and his assistant linesman during the recent Newcastle match, he has done himself and his club no favours.

    The criticism he attracted wasn't limited to the press as Arsene Wenger allowed himself to be drawn into commenting in a later Press Conference.

    This is not the first time Sir Alex has attacked a referee, and he hasn't always gotten away with it, and the FA has even fined and banned him in the past..

    Interestingly, it seems that some of Sir Alex's behaviour is not dissimilar to Jose Mourinho, a man that he admires as a manager, but Sir Bobby Charlton does not appear to approve.

    The one question that needs posing again, however, is whether by attacking or criticising referees Sir Alex is doing his team any favours. Maybe Mike Dean's group of officials were more concerned in the second half of the Newcastle match to not make a wrong decision?

    But will referees be doing United any favours in the near future? They certainly didn't seem to be benefiting in the matches that have followed since.

    So a very public charm offensive towards referees might be on Sir Alex's New Year's resolutions?

Protecting His Team

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    Sir Alex seems to have a pretty transparent tactic for taking the heat off his players when they fail to deliver. Or to divert attention when the media response might not go United's way.

    While his attack on Ashley Williams for kicking the ball at Robin van Persie was understandable, it unfortunately went over the top in its intensity.

    Mind you Williams' response afterwards was hardly plausible, and in any case Sir Alex succeeded in deflecting any criticism of his side's disappointing performance and especially that of Wayne Rooney, who was poor.

    It may have been more than a coincidence that a report emerged soon after about the dangers of heading a ball, but as one wag observed, if being hit in the head was life threatening, players would be under instructions not to form a wall for free kicks.

    On the other hand, Chelsea did him a favour by making a very public complaint about alleged racist remarks by Mark Clattenburg after their clash with United. This completely masked any potential criticism of the way the official refereed the game itself.

    Mourinho learned early on from Sir Alex the value of a pithy comment in taking the press attention away from individual players or his team, even if it means putting yourself in the firing line.

    Taking a bullet for the lads is a valorous thing to do, but if the comments or actions are over the top or excessive, they can backfire on the club as a whole.

Managing the Media

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    Sir Alex hasn't always been patient with the media.

    In 2011 he ended a seven-year ban on post-match interviews given to the BBC after his son was criticised in a BBC documentary.

    To be fair, he has been gracious (though occasionally a little patronising) in the interviews he has given since.

    He has always readily given pre- and post-match interviews to Sky Sports and of course MUTV. However, he doesn't seem to attend the official post-match conferences, presumably organised by the Premier League, that other top managers attend. This is curious.

    Are the press fearful of him? Hardly. There was no escaping their subtext after Sir Alex's episode with Mike Dean, including open surprise that the FA did not censure him, and Dean did not include the matter in his report.

    Sir Alex may have passed a watermark in his relations with the press with that incident. One of the most respected sports editors, Patrick Collins, was openly critical of him. Also, while Arsene Wenger was good-natured in his comments, it says a lot when a fellow manager implicitly criticises you.

    Sir Alex is the greatest manager whoever lived. Whether he retires this season or whenever, we United supporters will always remember him warmly, but it would be great if he didn't tarnish that reputation with neutrals.

    So a charm offensive with the media would not go amiss.

Relations with Other Managers

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    As Sir Alex says, the profile of Manchester United is huge. Which means that the media will hang on his every word.

    There can be no doubt whatsoever that he has gone out of his way to help, advise, mentor or otherwise assist fellow managers throughout his career at United.

    We may never find out how much help he has given, but we do know from his own lips that he will always take calls from other managers.

    While Alan Pardew may have been ill-judged in criticising Sir Alex, especially after he had previously been banned and fined for pushing a linesman, the Manchester United manager's public response was ungracious and might have been better kept quiet.

    It is sincerely to be hoped that Sir Alex doesn't become cantankerous like some older people sometimes do, because he is held in much love and respect by us United supporters. 

    When he retires, we want to remember him fondly for the massive achievements he has delivered and not for one ill-judged public outburst.

    While some managers will have been disappointed by Pardew's response or even Wenger's straight answer to a straight question, others might wish that Sir Alex had kept his counsel and moved on.

Relations with the FA

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    Is Sir Alex now beyond reproach by the FA?

    He certainly hasn't been untouchable in the past. In March 2011 the FA said he had "undermined the FA's Respect Campaign" in criticising Martin Atkinson.

    This touchline ban was in addition to at least four such bans previously. 

    Once again, it is reasonable to ask whether this in any way damages the reputation of Manchester United, and if it does, whether he might consider softening his approach.

    Is it reasonable to believe that professional referees, open to criticism every time they set foot on a football pitch and who appear to be paragons of professional behaviour, would be influenced in favour of United by attacks by Sir Alex?

    Hardly. In fact one might reasonably conclude the opposite.

    Maybe the FA is foreseeing the day when Sir Alex will retire and turning a blind eye for the time being?

    And just maybe the last week or so has been a watershed for Sir Alex in his relations with others and his perception by the wider public.

    He may not care—and that is all well and good where Manchester United's image is not damaged—but we care deeply that he should be remembered for what he has done and his many fine qualities, not as a grumpy old man.

Team Selection

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    This was arguably United's best Youth Team since "Fergie's Fledglings."

    Pogba, Morrison and Fryers have gone, mainly for opportunities elsewhere. Paul Pogba is now a regular fixture in the Juventus first team.

    Many of these players are still at Old Trafford.

    Sir Alex has often preached the gospel of developing young talent, but during United's injury problems last season and this, younger players have hardly got a look in. With the usual exception of Cup matches.

    And a growing number of supporters have found it hard to understand why the likes of Powell, Tunnicliffe and Petrucci have been overlooked. Instead United's "elder citizens" like Giggs and Scholes have been favoured, even when the evidence suggests that their presence slows down United's pace of play and increases pressure on the defence.

    So please, Sir Alex, when United are playing Wigan or leading 3-0 can we see some younger prospects as substitutes?

Being the Very Best

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    It bears repeating.

    Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest manager who ever lived and that will remain so for the rest of our lives.

    Nobody will ever match or exceed what he has achieved. For all the resentment that seethes from other supporters, Manchester United have been blessed with his presence and leadership for far longer than we might have ever dreamed.

    And that is the way that we would like to remember him.

    There isn't space here to list all his personal qualities, and it is sad that his great humour, kindness, humility, passion and coaching skill are sometimes overshadowed by a response to a Press question or a referee's decision.

    We want to see him leaping into Mike Phelan's arms with delight, not spitting his gum out in anger. We want to hear his witty responses to interviews and media questions, not his angry tirades.

    And we want him to go on managing United as long as he wants and as long as we are winning things.

    Great men know when to bow out gracefully. Quit at the top, not after people have said you should step down.

    All the signs are that Sir Alex retains the same passion for the game he loves, his players, the fans and the greatest football club in the world. 

    His response to being pipped for last season's title was little short of astonishing. He came back even more fired up, and his team and the fans have responded.

    Journalists still occasionally refer to the present team as one of the worst United teams in a long time. That is even more testimony to this grand knight who has them sitting proudly atop the table, already seven points clear of the "noisy neighbours."

    Writing an article like this may not be universally popular, but the motives are honest. Nobody is ever too old to change, and if our beloved Manchester United are the beneficiaries that can only be good.