The Evolution of Manchester United Coaching and Training from Busby to Ferguson

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The Evolution of Manchester United Coaching and Training from Busby to Ferguson
Michael Regan/Getty Images
Sir Alex Ferguson after his final game as United manager.

Old Trafford has been Manchester United’s stage for nearly a century, but their training ground is where the real story of the club’s history has unfolded. 

The Cliff and now Carrington have always been the club’s real headquarters. It is here that players’ reputations are made, young talents emerge, teams are picked, tactics are devised and the plotting for success takes place. 

“You only spend 90 to 180 minutes a week performing in public; the bulk of your work is done in private on the training ground,” the former United captain Roy Keane wrote in his book Keane

“This is the work that counts. You find out all you need to know about a player, Monday to Friday in training. Here, form can be lost or found. Confidence lost on Saturday afternoon can be regained on cold weekday mornings. One thing is certain: if training is wrong, the results won’t be right.“ 

The training and coaching regime at United has undergone an enormous transformation in the last sixty eight years. 

When Matt Busby arrived at Old Trafford in October 1945 he introduced the concept of the tracksuit manager. 

Before the Second World War managers had largely been distant figures, more comfortable behind a desk, but Busby donned a tracksuit and joined in with his players in every training session. 

Ben Radford/Getty Images
Sir Matt Busby in later years.

“When I joined United in the 1930s, Scott Duncan, with spats and a red rose in his buttonhole, typified a soccer manager,” the former United captain Johnny Carey has said in the Manchester United Encyclopedia. “But here was the new boss playing with his team in training, showing what he wanted and how to do it. He was ahead of his time.” 

In Busby’s early years a training session at United consisted of running around the edge of the pitch for an hour before finishing with a practice match. 

During pre-season, or when Busby wanted to push his players, they would run through the streets, up and down the terraces at Old Trafford or even clamber over mounds of wild slag near the Cliff. 

The car park behind the Stretford End used to stage the incredible spectacle of practice matches between United’s players. 

Busby was keen for his players to see the ball as much as possible during training sessions. While some of his contemporaries hid the ball hoping it would make them hungrier for it during a game,  Busby made sure each morning’s session ended with a game.  

Matt Busby’s approach to coaching was remarkably simple. He rallied against organised instruction and strived to give his players as much freedom as possible to express themselves. 

“Matt wasn’t a coach as such and he never stopped and told you what to do,” Bobby Charlton wrote in his autobiography My Manchester United Years

“The idea of tactics that are part of the game now, weren’t then. What he did was make sure he got the best players and instilled in them a will to entertain.” 

Busby never wanted to overload his players with tactics and technical information. His coaching tips and team talks were very simple. 

“My first glimpse of Matt was at a Youth Cup tie,” recalls Charlton in his autobiography. “There was a bit of a hush in the dressing room, wondering what he would say. 'Get the ball first' was about the lot but we all sat there and thought, 'Fantastic, what a great man!' He had this aura, a strange kind of ability to inspire you to play above yourself without actually saying much. He was frightened of blinding people with science. He wanted to let ability express itself.” 

In the summer of 1969 Sir Matt Busby stepped aside and was replaced by United’s 31-year-old youth team coach and former player, Wilf McGuinness

McGuinness, who had also served as a coach under Sir Alf Ramsey during the 1966 World Cup, was part of a new breed of coaches and brought fresh ideas to the job. He changed training by introducing shorter and shaper drills, and he talked about the game more and would illustrate his ideas on a blackboard. 

“All of a sudden we’ve got blackboards, team-talks become very complicated, which didn’t happen under Matt,” Denis Law has recalled in his book The King

“We are worried about the opposition, their free-kicks, their throw-ins, their corner-kicks. People started to worry before games. We didn’t flow any more. Fear crept in. Instead of going out to play football as they had been accustomed to doing, players were going out with their minds stuffed with plans and tactics.” 

United relieved McGuinness of his duties after sixteen months, and after Busby had returned as a caretaker, Frank O’Farrell was appointed as the new United manager in the summer of 1971. 

The Irishman was always keen to embrace new ideas. O’Farrell presided over a more organised regime at United. He liked his players to work on functional play during sessions. The laissez faire approach of the Busby era was firmly buried. 

But after eighteen months Tommy Docherty replaced O’Farrell at Old Trafford. The United squad soon embraced his training methods, warming to his motivational skills and sense of humour. 

Docherty’s wanted a more energetic and attacking style. “We had the best midfield in the country at getting the ball back,” Lou Macari said in The Quest for Glory. “None of them were fierce tacklers, but they were quick, they'd get in and nick the ball. That was all down to the training. Distance work just makes plodders. Ours was all quick fire stuff.” 

In the summer of 1977, Docherty was sacked not long after winning the FA Cup. Dave Sexton, his replacement, was a traditional coach miscast as a manager. Sexton was happiest on the training pitch. 

One of his first acts had been to buy a video camera and projection screen so United players could analyse previous games. 

The most fulsome eulogy for Sexton surprisingly comes from Ron Atkinson, the man who would replace him after four seasons, in his book Big Ron

“For me he’s the top man, an untouchable coach beyond any other. He was an ideas man, not the airy-fairy type either, but a brass tacks operator with an amazing focus on inventive coaching and not just the functional stuff. In other words he was able to open the eyes of players. He didn’t work them; he trained them to understand the precious secrets of how to really play. Dave’s session was always a morning’s teach-in and never just a practice.” 

David Cannon/Getty Images
Ron Atkinson managed United between 1981 and 1986.

Atkinson succeeded Sexton in the summer of 1981. He wanted his players to have fun in training. “I was never one who didn’t want to hear laughing on the training ground,” he has written in Big Ron. “For me, banter, laughing are signs of a happy squad, good team spirit. Sure you worked hard, but you wanted to have a laugh. And I saw it as part of my job to encourage that.” 

When Sir Alex Ferguson replaced Atkinson in November 1986 he quickly discovered the United squad had possibly been having too much fun. 

“Fitness levels needed to be improved rapidly,” recalled Ferguson in his autobiography Managing My Life. “Two or three of the senior players were in pretty poor shape and fitness grades generally were considerably below what they should have been. The whole place had become a little slack.” 

Ferguson introduced a tougher regime of endurance training each day at the Cliff. While the United squad gradually got fitter, Ferguson also sought to make them better players. 

“Good coaching relies on repetition,” Ferguson has said in Managing My Life.

“Forget all the nonsense about altering training programmes to keep players happy. The argument that they must be stimulated by constant variety may come across as progressive and enlightened but it is a dangerous evasion of priorities.” 

“In any physical activity, effective practice requires repeated execution of the skill involved. You need to concentrate on refining technique to the point where difficult skills became a matter of habit.” 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Sir Alex Ferguson with Wayne Rooney on the training ground at Carrington.

“I believed strongly that being able to pass the ball well was crucial and I don’t think there was a training session that did not incorporate passing. But I was also trying to add imagination to my coaching, emphasizing the need for players to have a picture in their minds, to visualise how they could have a creative impact on the shifting pattern of a game.” 

In January 2000, Manchester United left the Cliff training ground. It was kept for the club’s junior team matches and their Football in the Community scheme, but after 62 years it would no longer be their main training base. 

By the late Nineties, the Cliff had become a wonderful anachronism; multi-millionaire players coming to work in a run-down part of Salford in their Ferraris and Porsches each day. 

The Cliff placed the club at the heart of a community. Fans could watch training and queue for autographs, making the players real and touchable. 

The whole place was infused with an earthy character, full of memories and ghosts of the past, but United had outgrown it. 

United moved in to a new state-of-the-art training ground seven miles west of Old Trafford at Carrington, which is hidden away at the end of a country lane, and sadly, not open to fans. 

Built at a cost of £14.3 million, the site covers 100 acres and boasts 9 full-size pitches and a complex housing weights rooms, a swimming pool, sauna and steam rooms, and several offices.

Ferguson’s staff had toured the best facilities around the world, which had all been brought together in the design of Carrington

A staff of around 35 people including a fitness trainer, a power development coach, a nutritionist, doctors, physiotherapists, sports scientists, and even a peripheral vision expert supported Ferguson.  

It now falls on David Moyes to write a new chapter in this story and impose his own coaching and training beliefs on Manchester United.

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