A riveting image of Sir Alex Ferguson, published at the introduction to a book which applied intellectual theories to his management techniques, depicts him in shirt-sleeves in a Harvard lecture room, in front of a flow chart of his methods on a blackboard.
His meticulously neat workings include arrows, curly brackets, exclamation marks and two ominous words chalked up, which clearly relate to his players: SELECT AND FIRE.
Harvard and the world of business had a great time extemporising, with Ferguson’s help, on what his success was built on, after his retirement — 10 years ago next spring — and perhaps it was that intellectualisation which kept something as prosaic and visceral as ‘fear’ out of the narrative.
But just when we might think that such in emotion belongs to a different, more brutal age — Graham Potter has a masters degree in ‘leadership and emotional intelligence’ — the latest addition to the literature of Manchester United illustrates just what a place fear played. Fear of failure. Fear of falling short in team-mates’ eyes. Fear of Roy Keane.
Matt Dickinson’s beautifully written history of the 1998-99 Treble-winning season, 1999, does more than it says on the cover. It is an insight into why United succeeded for so long in the way that they did. What strikes you most is how those players lived on the edge, desperate to be at the level, informed in no uncertain terms when they were not. Sometimes, just ever so slightly afraid.
Some of the Keane stuff was madness. The book’s tale of the feud between him and Teddy Sheringham is extraordinary for anyone not acquainted with the club at that time. The two nearly came to blows on a team night out in 1998 and didn’t speak to each other again for three and a half years in the same team. Even after Sheringham’s huge contribution to the miracle of the Nou Camp in ’99.
Gary Neville and Paul Scholes both admit that this process was not always fun. ‘To be honest, you could say that they weren’t the nicest people to play with at times,’ Neville says of his team-mates. Yet Ferguson moderated and regulated that climate.
The book relays his surprisingly light touch. He had doubts about the decision to select Jesper Blomqvist for the Nou Camp final — justifiable doubts, as things worked out — but stuck with him because he had promised him his place.
He felt Ryan Giggs was underperforming before the legendary FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal but went around the houses to say so.
All things in perspective. Wayne Rooney had a telling response when asked, in an interview published yesterday, whether Ferguson encouraged debate. ‘Depends what it was,’ he replied, smiling.
The mix of characters is something which Ferguson cannot have planned. The book brings to light Dwight Yorke’s effervescent, joyous part in it all. He was the one who ferried messages between Sheringham and Andy Cole, who also didn’t speak to each other. His shining light radiates through the pages.
And by the end of it all, you understand why United won the Treble; why Neville instinctively ran 50 yards to take a throw-in on the left wing at the Nou Camp which won the corner from which Sheringham ultimately scored. And why failing to clear the first man from that corner was the last thing Beckham would have done. These actions were innate and instinctive, borne of brotherhood and of years spent fearing the consequences.
Neville says that culture belongs in the past. ‘I don’t think you can have that spirit of the ’80s, ’90s in a modern working environment.’ But for once, he might not be quite right.
United are showing the first flickerings of renewal because of the burning intent of players such as Lisandro Martinez and Tyrell Malacia, who is already displaying hallmarks of Patrice Evra’s intense resolve.
At Leicester a few weeks back, we saw evidence of Martinez’s impact on Diogo Dalot, as the two fist-pumped and chest-bumped after tackles and blocks. To observe Erik ten Hag on the touchli