Sir Alex Ferguson: 20 years at the top
For a man who confessed earlier this year that he was still driven by a fear of failure, the only statistics worth noting today are those that show Manchester United three points clear of Chelsea at the top of the English Premiership after recording a fifth straight win on Saturday.
For the rest of British football, however, the 20th anniversary of Sir Alex Ferguson's arrival at Old Trafford is an achievement to reflect on with admiration and awe. "I hope everybody realises what it means to remain coach at the same club for 20 years," Eric Cantona told FIFA.com. "And it's not a normal club, it's 'Man United' where everybody expects a lot from you every year."
Ferguson has been carrying the weight of expectation ever since he replaced Ron Atkinson as United manager on 6 November 1986. Having broken the Celtic-Rangers stranglehold on Scottish football with Aberdeen, his brief was to end United's long, 19-year wait for the league championship. It took time but since capturing the first of eight Premiership titles in 1993, United have gone on to become one of the world's leading clubs. After 20 years and 24 trophies, the 64-year-old's drive remains undiminished. He still gets up at 7am each morning eager to tackle the new day and when asked the secret of his success, it is his work ethic that he points to first.
A winter's tale
Andy Roxburgh, UEFA's technical director and a FIFA technical and development committee member, has known his fellow Glaswegian since the 1960s. Citing Ferguson's passion for football, Roxburgh recalls a winter's night at St Mirren, the club Ferguson managed from 1974-78. "It was pouring with rain, the floodlights were on in the stadium and he was out on the pitch working away with 30 14-year-olds," he told FIFA.com. "I was taken aback. I said, 'Wow he is the manager of the first team and he is out doing that work to develop the players of the future'. And he has never ever lost that - either the ability or the enthusiasm to do that."
Ferguson took his first coaching course at 23 and Roxburgh, who partnered him in the Falkirk forward line at the start of the 1970s, remembers him "always talking about the game". He added: "Alex scored a lot of goals because of his ability to read situations and to anticipate things. When I look back I recognise he was a really good reader of the game, he had leadership qualities and was tough both psychologically and physically - he could take a knock and bounce back again. Clearly the qualities were there."
It was during an eight-year spell at Aberdeen that Ferguson made his name, winning three Scottish championships and four Scottish Cups together with the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. Gordon Strachan, who played under him both there and at United, said: "His success is all down to a drive to be the best. To be in his team you had to be mentally strong - that has always been the common denominator." However, as well as wanting to win, Ferguson sought success with style - and once criticised his Aberdeen players' performance after they had beaten Rangers to win the Scottish Cup.
Attack, attack, attack
Ferguson's love of attacking football has never altered. "The way we have done it has been good," he said this week, reflecting on his success at United. "Sometimes we get carried away with our attacking instincts but you may as well die in a glorious way than not." Roxburgh describes it as "an aggressive attacking style", explaining: "His style of play has always been to use wingers and overlapping full-backs. He has a very positive approach and has always been the same."
If Ferguson is in many ways a manager of the old school, he has also been an innovator. His first task as United manager was to change the drinking culture at the club. In the mid-1990s he altered his training regime inspired by Eric Cantona's extra work at the end of sessions. He was an early advocate of 'eye training', bringing in specialists to improve his players' peripheral vision. This craving for constant improvement - "there is no such thing as the last piece of the jigsaw," he says - has led to some bold decisions at Old Trafford. Only last summer he was ushering Ruud van Nistelrooy, United's record scorer in Europe, towards the exit door. The consequence? United's goal total has risen.
A hard task-master, Ferguson also has "great human qualities", according to Roxburgh. "If a manager is only a tough guy and cannot relate to his players then at some point he will lose them but Alex has got this ability to relate to people and a sense of humour," he said. Two of his longest-serving players concur. Citing Ferguson's loyalty, Paul Scholes said: "He sticks up for us to the hilt, it makes us feel wanted." Ryan Giggs, meanwhile, who signed for Ferguson as a 14-year-old, recalled how the Scot knew the names of the parents of every young hopeful at United. "Little things like that made you want to play for him."
In the modern era of millionaire players and billionaire foreign owners, of high-earning agents and high-profile chief executives, it is tempting to ask whether we will see Ferguson's kind again in British football. Much has changed in the two decades since the Scot travelled south to Manchester, not least the influx of top foreign coaches. Although Arsene Wenger has cleverly shaped Arsenal's identity and Jose Mourinho stamped his mark on Chelsea, it is impossible to imagine either matching Ferguson for longevity. And it certainly seems unlikely a future United manager would be allowed seven years to win the title.
The current incumbent is not finished yet and is confident that his latest United side, spearheaded by Wayne Rooney (who was one year and 13 days old when Ferguson became manager) and Cristiano Ronaldo, can bring further glories. Cantona, his original catalyst, certainly thinks so. "He's a winner like nobody else I've ever known," he told FIFA.com. "But the most impressive thing for me is that he never put pressure on either himself or his players. I remember he always ended his pre-match talks by saying: 'And now guys, enjoy yourself!' That's him."
Twenty years of success - Ferguson's roll of honour: 1 UEFA Champions League, 1 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, 1 UEFA Super Cup, 1 Toyota Cup, 8 Premiership titles, 5 FA Cups, 2 League Cups, 5 Charity Shields.