When Alex Ferguson tells you it’s pasta under the sauce, not only should you check under the sauce to make sure, but you should probably check the sauce for poison too. His latest book, purportedly a piece of work aiming to show the essential qualities of leadership, is sunk by his miserable need to settle petty vendettas, and obfuscate the truth whenever it might suit him.
In the past, Alex Ferguson has been described as, ‘useless with money,’ by his old Manchester United chairman, Martin Edwards. There is no reason to give Edwards any special credibility - but you have to wonder why Ferguson feels compelled to release a book on a yearly basis. First came his autobiography post-retirement. In that book came at least 45 errors, which should undermine the worth of all books to follow. Last year came the revised edition of the book, which still contained the vicious attacks on Roy Keane, which further undermines the spirit in which it was written.
Keane responded accurately and presciently, asking, ‘I’m not sure how many books he’s written now - but you have to draw the line at some point,’ and noting that Ferguson told, ‘lies, basic lies’ about Keane in the book. He also pointed out that Ferguson had saved his attacks once he had dispensed with requiring Keane: “He was never critical when we were winning trophies and he was getting his new contracts, getting this and that named after him.” Ferguson appears unable to draw the line.
Now he’s not getting any more contracts, and nobody is naming anything after him, here are the books. Presumably there will be another in 2016, then 2017, then 2018 and 2019 - perhaps a tetralogy about the four world class players he had managed in his time: Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Forget that for all their talent, that Giggs, Scholes and Cantona were not world class, and forget that by those standards, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Peter Schmeichel (two players who actually stood up to Ferguson) deserve to be in that list. Note that he has omitted Keane again. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, however wrong it is, but remember that in 2005, Ferguson said of Keane that, “My best player. When you are talking about Utd 30 or 500 years from now, he will be regarded as one of the greatest.”
It’s all very well not thinking Keane isn’t world class - it’s staggeringly wrong, but there you go - but Ferguson has nakedly altered his public perception, presumably because Keane is the one man in football to have failed to buy into the cult of personality. More than that, he was the man to point out Ferguson’s folly over Rock of Gibraltar. An indulgence which led to the Glazers being welcomed into the club as the horse’s owners sold up their United shares.
We cannot ever know why Ferguson - who notes with contentment that when Wayne Rooney signed a new contract it was decided that no player would ever be paid more than he, the manager, was - decided to give the Glazers his blessing. But we know that he was always happy to praise the owners for not interfering. Interference, such as the 99 Questions from former shareholders asking why players of certain agents tended to be signed by United rather than others, is perhaps distracting to Ferguson.
It’s not just Keane and Coolmore who say that Ferguson had his favoured agents.
In his latest book, Ferguson claims that he and Paul Pogba’s agent, Mino Raiola, were like ‘oil and water.’ That’s one way of putting it. Another way is Red Issue’s account of a meeting between the two to discuss Pogba’s contract:
When negotiations were ongoing over Pogba, Gill arranged a meet with the player, his agent, Gill and Fergie. Fergie was told at the pre-meet brief: just to stick to the fact that he wanted Paul to stay and that he would definitely get a chance very soon. He was also asked not to involve himself under any circumstances with any matters legal or financial. Within less than a minute of the start of the meeting, Fergie was all but clambering over the table towards the agent, seemingly intent on trying to grab his throat, and calling him every name under the sun. It proved to be a very brief meeting, all told.
Pogba is now one of the best young midfielders in football. Pogba reportedly wanted a £1 million signing on fee - United’s midfield spend since Ferguson left is around £60 million including Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera, and £80 million if you include Daley Blind. Still, Wayne Rooney has often found himself called to play the role despite all that. Elsewhere, his nous for a bargain is detailed, when Ferguson, who spent £7 million on Bebe (agent: Jorge Mendes), reveals that he turned down the chance to sign Sergio Aguero before he joined City. £35 million was poor value, apparently.
What a boon it is when Ferguson himself interferes with matters financial, as Raiola hinted this week, saying, “I understood how he chose his players, and it was nothing to do with their qualities. It was down to how much he liked their agents. His ex-players will tell the truth one day. The facts as he tells them are not true.” That last sentence might make for a handy Amazon review or tagline for the paperback version of the book, which will undoubtedly be in shops as soon as is financially optimal. You would expect nothing less from a book written with Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist. Moritz is a partner of Sequoia Capital, which invests in altruistic ventures such as financial services and private healthcare. It is perhaps a sign of a tremendous generosity of spirit that Ferguson, an avowed socialist, can bring himself to work with the Glazers and Moritz.
Perhaps the most confusing section of the book is Ferguson’s account on how he came to appoint David Moyes as his successor, and when the decision to retire was made. It was reported at the time that it was almost a sole choice from Ferguson to force Moyes onto United, despite many at United wanting to at least give Jose Mourinho the chance to be interviewed.
In a Telegraph interview this week, Ferguson claimed, as he had a couple of times, that he decided to retire when his wife’s sister died: ““I saw she [Lady Cathy Ferguson] was watching television one night, and she looked up at the ceiling. I knew she was isolated,” Ferguson says. “Her and Bridget were twins, you know? But when I told her this time I was going to retire she had no objection whatsoever. I knew she wanted me to do it.”
Undoubtedly a noble sentiment, and an entirely honorable decision to have taken when his sister-in-law died in early November 2012.
Ferguson claims in his book that it was Pep Guardiola that he wanted to take over from him, but unfortunately retirement wasn’t in his mind until when he met Guardiola, who announced his decision to join Bayern Munich in January 2013. Let’s stop for one moment.
Ferguson claimed he took the decision to retire in November 2012. He claims he did not take the decision until after meeting Guardiola. We know that Guardiola and Ferguson met in 2012, and it is handy that there are now claims that this meeting took place in September 2012, which would obviously clear the matter up. But what about the other meeting that did take place in December - as more than one journalist seems to believe? He was certainly in the same city at that time. And Paul Hayward, who ghostwrote Ferguson’s autobiography and should therefore have a decent line to someone in the know, claims that Guardiola was offered the job ‘in code’ in the ‘winter of 2012.’ The dates plainly do not match, and someone is not telling the truth, by design or not.
Ferguson had plenty of time to inform Guardiola that he would be retiring when they met in December - and Red Issue wrote in February 2013, “Alex [Ferguson] also said Guardiola was still completely undecided on his future when they dined together, and that he had been “surprised” by the Bayern news when it came.” Ferguson appears to be rewriting history to absolve himself of the Moyes appointment.
Similarly, Ferguson claims that Jose Mourinho had given his word to Roman Abramovich that he would return to Chelsea, and therefore was unavailable. That might well be the case, but accounts of Mourinho’s deep distress of not getting the job, coupled with his unusually magnanimous interviews after beating Ferguson with his Real Madrid job, suggest that his word would not necessarily have binding. A cynic would think that Ferguson had no intention of appointing any manager who could take over his squad and immediately achieve more, especially in Europe.
This book is Ferguson’s book on leadership. It follows speeches at Harvard and an autobiography. Really, it is as much a book on maintaining control on the present discourse of Manchester United. He often talks about his need for ‘control’ and that it is essential when in charge. It is this desire for control that led to rows with Raiola and Keane, and with Van Nistelrooy and other players. It is this desire for control that saw him take on United’s major shareholders, and this desire for control that saw the Glazers - who wouldn’t interfere with his job - arrive at United and cost the club a sum that will likely reach a billion pounds before too long. The problem for Ferguson is that he cannot match his desire for control, his desire to settle scores and rewrite history, with the facts.