The Last Great Briton: From Shipyard Socialism to the Pioneer Spirit of the American Dream, the Evolution of Alex Ferguson's Political Thought

By Bew, John | New Statesman (1996), December 13, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Last Great Briton: From Shipyard Socialism to the Pioneer Spirit of the American Dream, the Evolution of Alex Ferguson's Political Thought


Bew, John, New Statesman (1996)


What defines Alex Ferguson? Success. How does one achieve success? Now, there is a question.

It is understandable why we might look to Ferguson for the answer. He has been the dominant figure in the national sport for the past three decades, presiding over arguably the best known and most successful of British cultural and commercial institutions. His name is entwined with the lives of megastars such as Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, both of whom have described him as a "father figure". He steered Aberdeen to improbable domestic and European success in the late 1970s and early 198os. In 1986, he arrived at Manchester United to awaken a slumbering giant. By the time he left the club in May this year, United were not only the most successful team in England but the most popular and valuable sports team in the world. His second book of memoirs, Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography, launched in October, is one of the fastest-selling books in British publishing history.

We are not used to individuals who combine professional dominance with such longevity. Most political careers end in failure. Ferguson was able to step down in triumph at the time of his volition after winning the Premier League, the last of 49 major trophies. Our statesmen are lucky to have ten years at the top--a time span not dissimilar to the career of the average footballer. Managers have an ever-decreasing shelf life. Newcastle United's Alan Pardew is now the second-longest-serving manager in the Premier League, having been in the job for just three years. When the longest-serving manager, Arsene Wenger, first arrived at Arsenal in 1996 as a relative unknown, Ferguson had already spent a decade in charge at Manchester United and had been a manager for a continuous period of= years. There has been no shortage of efforts to clone his creed. At the last count, more than 30 of his former players have followed him into management.

Are there lessons from Ferguson's success that can be transferred to politics or business? Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell liked to seek Ferguson's counsel from time to time but were more interested in the association with success than his views on policy. A couple of years ago, the Economist suggested that Ferguson "could reasonably be described as Britain's Steve Jobs, given his unorthodox, talent-obsessed and sometimes bruising approach to making something beautiful". In the October issue of the Harvard Business Review, Professor Anita Elberse--following a series of interviews with the man--presented "Ferguson's formula" as a case study of successful management. Yet a "lessons learned" approach to Ferguson's career is a largely speculative exercise. As Ed Smith recently noted in these pages, as much as any guiding precepts, Ferguson possesses skills that are innate to the individual--a force of personality that defies categorisation and cannot easily be replicated. Just ask his replacement at Manchester United, David Moyes. At the time of writing, Moyes's team languishes in ninth place in the Premier League table.

Ferguson was always at his desk at United's training ground by 7am. A Stakhanovite ethic of hard work was a crucial commodity but also an obvious one. His view of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: the Story of Success suggests a suspicion of any grand theory. The book "could just have been called Graft," he writes in his new autobiography. "Hard Graft." He continues: "People try to apply to football the usual principles of business. But it's not a lathe, it's not a milling machine, it's a collection of human beings. That's the difference."

In May, when news broke about his retirement, the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, suggested on the Today programme that the man who had managed Manchester United for 27 years could be considered "the greatest living Briton". However, there is another way of looking at Ferguson: not as the greatest living Briton but as the last authentic example of that phenomenon. …

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