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Fergie – A man for all seasons


I have often joked with friends who support Manchester United: “Juju is not confined to blacks – even the white man uses it”, referring to the countless times the team has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat right at the death, in the last few seconds.

Echoes by Conway Tutani

Sir Alex “Fergie” Ferguson quit as Manchester United Football Club coach this week, somewhat abruptly, but not in a huff, after 27 highly successful years in which he made Man U the dominant force in England and a respected giant in world football. This, after winning all there is to win. Fergie was able to adapt to change; that is why he built so many excellent teams over nearly three decades. New blood was always infused with experience in a steady supply. That is why players never aged at the same time. Ferguson, now 71 years old, dealt with players young enough to be his grandsons. That how effectively cross-generational he was. There is a lesson in human resource planning that employers can learn.

Fergie had his own off-field battles. He took on the BBC in 2004 over a documentary titled Father and Son, which portrayed his football agent son, Jason, as somebody who xploited his father’s influence and position to his own advantage in the transfer market. Ferguson Jnr was never found guilty of any wrongdoing, and Sir Alex said he would never speak to the BBC again, a promise he kept until 2011. “I think the BBC is the kind of company that never apologise and they will never apologise. They are arrogant beyond belief . . .

They did a story about my son that was a whole lot of nonsense. It’s all made-up stuff and ‘brown paper bags’ and all that kind of carry-on. It was a horrible attack on my son’s honour and he should never have been accused of that.” ]

Media freedom, yes. Licentious behaviour, no. For every for media right there is an obligation – an obligation to tell the truth. It’s not one-way. All people – including butchers, bakers and candlestick makers – have their rights.

But then what was really behind these “miraculous” achievements was encapsulated when Fergie was quoted last year at Harvard University in the United States that he has his “players rehearse situations in which they are trailing with 10 minutes, five minutes and a minute remaining. Which might explain why they have gone behind in matches so often this season: they know too well what to do when they are losing”. Said Fergie: “I tell them hard work is a talent too.” That most prestigious of universities, Harvard, saw something highly effective in his management style and invited him to share his secrets with them about “the business of winning”. “For a player – and for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘well done’. Those are the two best words ever invented in sport.”

One could not help, but be impressed by the thoughtfulness and depth behind his carefully chosen words. There is a lesson in compassion, motivation and recognition that employers can learn. Often employees get all the criticism and none of the praise – unfairly so. But Fergie has been publicly defensive of his players. Like an excellent boss, he criticised in private and praised in public.

But Fergie, by nature, does not back out of a fight. This can be traced to his high sense of justice, fairness and loyalty.

If I may quote him extensively, Fergie says: “I grew up in a very working-class area of Glasgow (Scotland) and I was always very conscious of the sense of community, people and families supporting each other . . . There was another thing that politicised me even more as an adult, and that was when my mother was dying in November 1986, just a couple of weeks after I took over at (Manchester) United. She was (in a government hospital in Glasgow), and it was absolutely dreadful, cladding hanging off the pipes, doctors and nurses overworked, and so little dignity attached to it. All my life I’ve seen Labour as the party working to get better health care for ordinary people, and the Tories really only caring about the people at the top.”

Yes, people should not be mere bystanders when things fall apart. They must demand basic services like affordable and adequate health and education, not hearing that such-and-such top official has gone to China or some such faraway place to get medical treatment.

And Fergie never erased his background. Asked if it was possible to have that much wealth and still hold those political views, Fergie said: “Of course, it is. I still keep in touch with friends from those days, and I always will. It’s true I’ve earned a lot of money. But I’ve worked hard, pay my taxes and put a lot back in different ways.” Zimbabwe’s Treasury is not getting much revenue inflow. Is this new parasitic fabulously rich breed of people paying tax or they are salting money outside the country in money-laundering schemes?

Stepping down, Fergie said: “It was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so.”

Can the ruling class here honestly say the country is in the strongest possible shape?

These observations I have made from Fergie – a man for all seasons.

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