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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
This is a great interview in the Times where he talks about young players like Welbeck and Macheda, Rebuilding the team between 2003-2006 as well as Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez and Berbatov.
Sir Alex Ferguson more interested in United's future | Manchester United - Times Online

Long before yet another Premier League title was clinched at Old Trafford yesterday, there was no option but to recognise Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial career as the most remarkable in the history of British football. And when the cold testimony of the record books is given a pulse by countless personal recollections of the man at work, what strains credibility is not so much the extraordinary heights he has reached as the sustaining of the trajectory. The memory of being in Gothenburg when he gained his first major European honour — the Cup Winners’ Cup Aberdeen won by beating Real Madrid — is vivid enough to make it a jolt to realise that night was 26 years ago.

By 1983 Ferguson was more than halfway through the eight-year reign at Pittodrie that miraculously enabled a provincial and geographically peripheral club (they’ve had to tolerate bad jokes about playing their home matches on an oil rig) to drive Rangers and Celtic off centre-stage in the Scottish game. It was as somebody already confirmed as a big achiever that he was wooed south by Manchester United in 1986 and, once his obsessive competitiveness had overcome inherited problems, he swiftly let English football know that an unsubduable force was on the loose. Now, with the past two decades having brought 11 domestic championships, the FA Cup five times and the League Cup three, the Cup Winners’ Cup again, two

triumphs in the Champions League and a varied collection of ancillary trophies, Ferguson at 67 is preparing United for the attempt in Rome on Wednesday week to prove themselves Europe’s top team for the second year in a row.

The Champions League crown has never been successfully defended and, though the greatest of club tournaments took its present name and shape as recently as 1992, and consecutive wins were not uncommon during its previous incarnations, the added pressures of the modern format would lend an extra distinction to a victory over Barcelona at the Stadio Olimpico. But for the Glaswegian with a history of creating history a more substantial implication of such a result would be the equalling of the record of having captured three continental championships that Bob Paisley established with Liverpool in the European Cup between 1977 and 1981.

Whatever happens in 10 days’ time, however, the sweet monotony of winning that has run through Ferguson’s career since he steered St Mirren to Scotland’s First Division title (and promotion to the Premier Division) in 1977 represents a longevity of effectiveness nobody who has had charge of a football club in Britain over the past century and more can begin to challenge. He resists the gravitational pull towards burnout that is meant to catch up with the highest flyers in his trade. The trajectory refuses to flatten, let alone dip.

So how has Sir Alex Ferguson been able to maintain the potency of his leadership amid the turmoil of revolutionary developments which have transformed the landscape of his professional world in the 35 years since his management principles were first tested by the news at East Stirlingshire, a club he joined when their signed players totalled eight and did not include a goalkeeper, that his transfer budget would be £2,000? How has he continued to be the winners’ winner through all the levels of football and generations of footballers between then and now? How has he kept the edge of his appetite for competition whetted to a keenness that’s almost indecent in a pensioner?

The initial response might have been dismissable as simplistic but for the awareness that enthusiasm for the future is almost a religion with Ferguson. “I like to be around young people,” he said. “I love being with my three sons and my grandchildren. At the club, I enjoy talking to the Welbecks and Machedas rather than the dinosaurs.” There had to be a smile with the latter line, given that the men he was branding prehistoric were Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, and no players on his staff are more respected by the manager than those three active survivors of the distinguished crop produced by the United youth policy in the early 1990s. But the mention of specific younger men was significant.
 

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·
Part 2

He didn’t have to elaborate on the promise of the 17-year-old Federico Macheda, who was coaxed away from Lazio in September 2007. It was memorably flaunted on television at the beginning of April when Macheda was sent on as a substitute against Aston Villa and climaxed an astonishingly precocious first-team debut with a dazzling goal in stoppage time that won the match and restored United’s lead in the championship race.

“Nobody has to be told about Kiko’s ability,” said Ferguson. “And he’s a hard *******. Strikers need a bit of that.” The sentiment wasn’t likely to surprise anyone who remembered the speaker’s playing prime, mainly with St Johnstone, Dunfermline and Rangers, when his often impressive goalscoring (45 in 51 matches during one Dunfermline season) owed more to bristling combativeness and good finishing than to refined touches.

Ferguson credits the 18-year-old, Manchester-born Welbeck with the full range of a top-class attacker’s attributes: “Danny’s a certainty to make it at the highest level. I’ve told Fabio Capello the boy will be in his World Cup squad next year. Wide left or right or through the middle, he has the intelligence, guts, athleticism and talent to do the job.” The suggestion that Welbeck has shown too much coltish awkwardness to look close to international standard in his outings with the United first team — there have been a dozen since September, though only two, as a substitute, in the Premier League — doesn’t impinge on Ferguson’s conviction: “He’s going to be a big lad. His height is about 6ft 1in now but the prediction is he’ll be 6ft 3in. He’s yet to get the conformation in his thighs, so he is still gangly, but he’s brave enough to carry that. When he completes his growing, he’ll really be something. Danny’s a terrific, down-to-earth boy and I’d like to have given him more chances by now but at this stage of the season all our results are vital.”

On the day we talked for several hours in his large, bright office overlooking the practice pitches at United’s Carrington training complex on the southwestern outskirts of Manchester, the only result that concerned Ferguson was the one he was awaiting from an operating theatre at Alder Hey children’s hospital in Liverpool. There, his 10-year-old grandson Charlie was undergoing six hours of surgery necessitated by the injuries the boy suffered in a head-on car crash that also left his mother, Nadine, the ex-wife of Darren Ferguson, the Peterborough manager, severely hurt. In contrast with Charlie, Nadine’s son from a previous relationship, his six-year-old sister, Grace, escaped with minor injuries and was at Sir Alex’s home in the care of his wife, Cathy.

Sir Alex, for whom the threat to Charlie intensified the sense of how central to his life his 10 grandchildren are, had decided the worries besieging him as he waited for word of when he should drive to Alder Hey could best be handled by immersing himself in the activities of his workplace and by 8am he was in a red top, black shorts, white socks and trainers. An excursion to Chester races had been organised for a group of the players, and a hurdler he owns in partnership was about to win in his colours at Newton Abbot, but his mind wasn’t much on the Turf. He did, however, find amusement in the thought of the trouble some of the footballers from abroad would have in coping with the mysteries of the racetrack.

“Only Scholesy and John O’Shea will have any idea what they’re doing and the others could make the mistake of asking them for tips,” he said. The widespread indifference in the ranks to the Chester trip, which would once have stirred excited anticipation among squads largely drawn from British working-class backgrounds, reflects changes in dressing-room culture that are even more marked in relation to alcohol.

Having been obliged to eradicate an embedded drinking culture when he arrived at Old Trafford, Ferguson isn’t complaining. “Players from other parts of the world tend to have more natural discipline about how they address football, the training and their social life. They bring a more regulated approach than has been traditional in this country. There is, without doubt, a massive change in the game’s association with alcohol right across the board, though there are still remnants of the old attitudes to socialising among British players, in that if they go out with their wives or girlfriends on a Saturday night, then having a drink will be part of it. In the same circumstances, many of the Europeans and South Americans wouldn’t dream of having a drink, even if it was an anniversary or a birthday.

“But the general picture is totally different from what it used to be. Gone are the days when even great players might think nothing of overdoing it with alcohol. Football today, especially at the Premier League level, is such an energetic game, makes such demands on speed and power, that it’s hardly imaginable anybody could drink a lot and get away with it on the park. The system of preparation is so rigorous now, with sports science, guidance on nutrition, fitness coaches. There are urine tests every morning that would reveal dehydration and expose boozers.” Asked the obvious supplementary question, he said: “We’ve never had the slightest sign that drug-taking is a problem. We had a 16-year-old kid who was caught at it twice. We released him.”
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Part 3

A call from Steve Bruce, who was inquiring about Charlie, didn’t so much interrupt our conversation as steer it towards an appreciative survey of outstanding players who have served the Scot across 22 years with United. Bruce and his defensive ally from the team that ended a 25-season title drought in 1993, Gary Pallister, were instantly included in that category by Ferguson (“Quality at centre-back is fundamental and I’ve had some tremendous fellas there”) along with a bunch of other heroes of the breakthrough.

But none of them drew a more heartfelt eulogy than somebody whose restricted participation in the campaign barely qualified him for a championship medal. “I think the unluckiest man I’ve had here was Bryan Robson. He was one of the best players ever — what a combination of talent and commitment and drive — but he was nearly 30 when I came and his fearlessness had contributed to an awful toll taken on his body by injuries, and our early struggle to be successful lasted too long for him to have a chance of getting the rewards he deserved. If he were in this present team, say at 31, he would be phenomenal.”

The same firmly rooted football man’s values that cause Ferguson to look beyond the superficiality of the statistics to the true worth of Robson manifest themselves less predictably when he talks about Frank Lampard. Those who automatically assume the master of Old Trafford is bound to resemble someone chewing on a quince if he feels the need to compliment a footballer of another club, particularly an influential performer for a major rival, fail to realise that, whatever his penchant for the provocatively loaded utterance and one-eyed interpretation of events, his overriding prejudice when it comes to the basics of the game is in favour of excellence. Chelsea supporters would have been taken aback to hear him praise Lampard with a warmth that seemed to invest approval with affection.

“He is an exceptional player, a huge asset to his team. Every time he plays he goes from box to box and he hardly misses a game. You pay attention to players who can get goals from midfield and he’s been averaging 20 a season. You don’t see him getting into stupid tackles or making a habit of becoming involved in silly rows. When he was sent off against Liverpool two or three months back he walked from the pitch straight away, without fuss. He stayed restrained in the middle of all that bother after Chelsea were knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona and made a point of swapping shirts with Iniesta. As I say, Frank Lampard is exceptional.”

However, neither all that admiration nor Ferguson’s respect for Chelsea as a “very powerful team, a very experienced team” dissuades him from the view that Barcelona will be more menacing to United in Rome than the might of Stamford Bridge would have been. “Chelsea would have presented the more straightforward challenge, one we’ve learnt how to deal with over the past year or two.

“The way Barcelona operate their midfield makes it very difficult to get the ball off them. I don’t think Iniesta and Xavi have ever given it away in their lives. They get you on that carousel and they can leave you dizzy. Your concentration levels can’t be allowed to falter for a second. But, with the right tactics, their game is containable.”

His confidence that he currently has a squad capable of beating any opposition in football is, he acknowledges, traceable to the rebuilding process forced upon United by three seasons of Premier League inadequacy: 2003-04, when Arsenal were invincible, and 2004-05 and 2005-06, when Chelsea had runaway successes under Jose Mourinho. “We did what we always do, examined the structure of the team, identified the strengthening required and relied on our philosophy of bringing in young players but only those we’re convinced will turn out to be really special. To produce the right revitalising effect there must be an emphasis on exciting, attacking players, the kind who can have a big influence on matches.”

Two prodigies perfectly fitting those criteria were recruited early in the barren time, Cristiano Ronaldo in August 2003 and Wayne Rooney a year later. Then there was a reciprocal flow of substantial money out and formidable manpower in: 2005 brought Ji-Sung Park; 2006 Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick; 2007 Anderson, Nani, Carlos Tevez and Owen Hargreaves (whose Old Trafford experience has been blighted by long-term injury); 2008 Dimitar Berbatov and the Da Silva twins, Rafael and Fabio. Nearly all of the men on that list have made important contributions to the resurgence crowned yesterday with a third successive championship triumph. But the tone of the adventurous revival was set by the arrival of Ronaldo and Rooney, and the story of their acquisition still animates Ferguson.

“We couldn’t not buy Rooney,” he said. “We knew about him when he was 14 but he wouldn’t come then, and he wouldn’t come when we tried again at 16. But when he became a professional and started thinking about winning things we knew there would be a change in his attitude, if not necessarily in Everton’s. So we bought him for £26m or whatever it was. You knew what you were getting with Rooney. He gets all your emotions going, drags you in with the physical, emotional way he plays. When he starts to compete and show that great desire and intensity, you say to yourself, ‘F****** hell, what is he made of, the boy?’

“You’re starting to think, ‘I’ll maybe rest Rooney this week’. It was definitely an option to consider in the run-up to the second leg of the Champions League semi-final with Arsenal, which was to be played on the Tuesday following what was liable to be a tough league game at Middlesbrough. Then he comes up to you at training and says, ‘I hope I’m playing on Saturday. If I don’t play against Middlesbrough I won’t play well against Arsenal. I’m hopeless if I’m rested’. He’s something else.

“As for Ronaldo, as a teenager he was never likely to be heading anywhere else but here. We had an arrangement with Sporting Lisbon that he would stay with them for two years to mature. The boy was aware of it. Then in the summer of 2003 we went to Lisbon and faced Sporting in a friendly and he tore us apart. I got word up to Peter Kenyon in the directors’ box that he had to come down immediately because we weren’t leaving that ground until we had secured Ronaldo. We got the boy, his mother and his agent together to sort it out. Later we sent a private plane over and the deal was done.


“Along with a great player, of course, we got a lot of cultural baggage. There was the criticism about diving. Latin players tend to react to a tackle more than our players. His own teammates have given him plenty of stick. But he and Lionel Messi must be the most tackled players in the world. He can’t always be diving and he can’t always be right in his protests. The point too often missed is that when he’s running at the speed he does, the slightest touch puts him off balance. We crave players with the courage to go and attack defenders but when they are abused the defenders frequently get off with it. Ronaldo is passing the ball more these days, maybe because he got fed up being kicked. But the thing is he wants to be a terrific player and that ambition won’t be crushed.”


Nor, however, will the speculation about whether the Fifa World Player of the Year may soon persuade himself, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that his aspirations can find a more desirable context than United, a better ally than Ferguson. The talk, as always, is of a move to Real Madrid but if United beat Barcelona on May 27, Ronaldo will have reason to wonder how he could be advancing the development of his career by defecting to a team who were, a couple of weeks ago, slaughtered on their own ground by their old rivals from Catalonia. “After Barça battered Real Madrid 6-2,” Ferguson reported, “our players were telling Cristiano that if he goes to the Bernabeu he’ll have to play centre-half.”


He certainly would have to expect a comedown from the kind of opportunities to demonstrate greatness that he is being afforded at United. Ferguson believes such considerations will count with Ronaldo. “The indications I’m getting from the dressing room are that the other players don’t feel he’s behaving as if he’s discontented. He seems to be happy in his game and to know that he is at the right club. Obviously you can’t stop people pressing him with offers but we have handled that the best way we can. His contract with us runs until 2012 and we are in the driving seat.”
 

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Part 4

No contractual arrangements in English football have been fraught with more complexity and controversy than those of Carlos Tevez.

Formalising a future for him at Old Trafford was never going to be easy, given that the rights to the player’s services are in private ownership rather than lodged with a club, and the task became too tough to permit optimism when the proposals first put to United included some daunting figures (a £32m fee and a salary of £5.5m). Ferguson shares the fans’ eagerness to see the little Argentinian kept at United — and the case for giving him a deal was conspicuously strengthened when the introduction of Tevez dramatically swung two matches late in the march to the championship, against Tottenham and Wigan — but the manager insists the economics must be rational.


“Carlos has done well for us. He has a tireless enthusiasm that makes things happen, he has good skills and he’s as brave as a lion. But the demands originally put to us were unrealistic. Like other clubs, we have to be aware of the consequences of the credit crunch. It’s no time to be careless about money. As far as Tevez is concerned, everybody would be best served by a willingness to compromise.”


The only aspect of the United supporters’ backing for Tevez that jars with Ferguson is its tendency to be expressed in disapproval of Dimitar Berbatov. Unhurried application of sophisticated technique, a reliance on subtle thought and graceful execution have always been the essence of the Bulgarian’s way of playing but his sternest critics among the Old Trafford faithful complain they’ve seen too many days when the languor he exhibited wouldn’t have been more pronounced if he had worn a smoking jacket and waved a cigarette holder. Ferguson rebuffs the accusations. “Berbatov’s style of running is languid but the stats tell us he does plenty of it, that his work rate is good. He doesn’t have the speed response of a Ronaldo or a Rooney but his pace is all right. And his touch, control, composure and quality of passing are all excellent. He has made and scored a lot of important goals for us. I’m pleased with how he’s doing.”


Ferguson’s scrutiny of performance, whether in matches or at training, has always been detailed and unrelenting, and gradual adjustments to his method of operating allow him to devote more time to concentrated observation. He leaves the organising and supervising of the players’ work sessions at Carrington to his assistant manager, Mike Phelan, and his first-team coach, Rene Meulensteen, relishing the freedom a measure of detachment grants him to assess the progress being made. He values the input of Phelan and Meulensteen to discussions of team selection and tactics but, naturally, his judgment is decisive. And it’s the Govan voice that delivers the team talks.


“I’m not interested in how Mike and Rene plan the training,” he said. “I’m interested in what I see. I want to see quality, intensity, what players are bringing to it. What they do on the training ground comes out on the pitch and I want to see if there is improvement in them. The players know my eyes are on them. I had to be away for a couple of days, doing something elsewhere, and when I turned up again Rio Ferdinand said, ‘Where have you been? It’s not the same when you’re not here’.”


Footballers were never likely to have the luxury of taking Ferguson’s presence lightly, whatever his age, but he does claim that his propensity for rage, for inflicting the so-called hairdryer treatment, has diminished. He knows better than to suggest there has been wholesale mellowing. “I lose my temper in different ways now. It’s probably more measured, more calculating, more cold.” It was the other side of his nature that showed on the morning of our meeting when the first instruction he issued was that he should be told the moment Darren Fletcher was on the premises. He was anxious to comfort the young Scottish midfielder, whose cruel reward for being in the form of his life was to be unjustly ordered off late in the thrashing of Arsenal and thus denied a chance to play in the Champions League final. Solicitude was no surprise. His focus on winning the fight has never lessened his concern for the casualties.


Talking with Alex Ferguson invariably underlines a few certainties about why his career as a manager is the most successful British football has known. Prominent in the explanation would have to be the supernatural energy that expands the hours in a day, the profound instinct for what works and what doesn’t on the field, the readiness to gnaw at a problem until the bones of a solution are exposed and, of course, the fierce will that tells him the bell should be answered, regardless of the odds in the round ahead. But that affinity with youth he mentioned is important, too. He’s always happy to let it tow him into the future.
 

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Discussion Starter · #5 ·
I did not realise that MUFC and Sporting had an agreement a few years before we actually bought Ronaldo. Wayne Rooney is such an awesome player. He wants to play everytime. I hope the Tevez situation works out. Great to hear SAF thoughts on Welbeck and Macheda.
 

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Great read, thanks very much for that, really insightful. I'm particularly pleased with his words for Welbeck. I had been concerned with his dangly legs and lack of acceloration, but the explanation of his muscles having not fully developed make perfect sense.

Interesting also to hear that Phelan and Mulenstein do most of the training.
 
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