Ferguson: Football has changed radically
His place among the game's most successful managers assured, Sir Alex Ferguson is also one of its longest-serving. Indeed, the fiery Scot has spent more than 37 years at the highest level and a quarter of a century at one of most powerful and demanding clubs on planet football, all of which pays testament to his mastery of this most fickle of professions.
The most successful British manager of all time, Ferguson has accumulated a scarcely believable 48 trophies, including two UEFA Champions League crowns, 12 Premier League titles and five FA Cups. In this, the second part of an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the 70-year-old Glaswegian touches on issues including the biggest changes in the game and the most memorable moment of his glittering career.
Click on the link on the right-hand side to read the first part of this interview
FIFA.com: Sir Alex, you’ve been at Manchester United for 25 years now, which makes you the club’s longest-serving manager. What’s been the key to your success?
Sir Alex Ferguson: It has a lot to do with the club. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a more long-term view and change direction towards where I think it should go. I can plan two or three years ahead, which is something that doesn’t happen hardly anywhere else. This is a results industry and if a manager loses four or five games in a row then his job is under threat. But at United that scenario simply isn’t possible. I’m in charge of all footballing matters, including our scouting network and youth teams. In that sense I’m very fortunate, because I can make quick decisions on who to bring in next to strengthen the squad and where to get them from.
A few years ago United’s success was based around players brought through the club’s youth system, whereas nowadays few make that leap. What has changed?
It has to do with a change in the legislation. A few years ago the requirement was brought in that you could only sign young players that lived within an hour-and-a-half radius of the club’s headquarters. It wasn’t like that before, which was how we were able to sign such fantastic young lads. But since it became physically impossible to find six or seven players a year so close by, we decided to change the priorities of our scouting system. As a result, we started to bring in very talented players from abroad and we’ve had success that way. But it’s true, in terms of developing players from within the club, it’s been a long time since we produced a player of David Beckham’s calibre. But the legislation changed again a short while back and it’ll be like it was 15 year ago once more, so I’m very optimistic we’ll be able to get the production line we had in the past going again.
What part do you play in signing players from abroad?
Let me use Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez as an example. Our chief scout had a contact in Mexico who mentioned the lad’s name, which was the first step. He got hold of some videos of Chivas' matches and showed me them. When we watched them we thought, “This lad’s got promise”, but you can’t decide to sign someone just by watching them on a screen. So I sent my chief scout over to Mexico for a month, with a view to seeing what the player was like on and off the pitch. And that’s how we discovered that his father and his grandfather had both played at World Cups and that the lad was on the verge of national-team selection. After all that, it was a pretty easy decision. We carried out all the necessary steps and managed to sign him before South Africa 2010, which was important as his value would have increased afterwards.
How much do you think football has changed over the time you’ve spent in the game?
Enormously. To begin with, when I first started out in management 37 years ago there were no agents. Imagine that! There was no freedom of contract either, so players were totally tied to their clubs. A change in that sense was inevitable, though I think that now the scales tipped completely in the other direction and I’m not sure it’s good for the game. Of course the way the media works has changed too, there’s a lot of pressure on journalists to publish huge news stories – not just about sport but about everything – and that’s had an impact on us, no doubt about it.
And how about the players and what happens out on the pitch?
In that sense, I think the biggest change over the last decade has been the improvement in playing surfaces. They’re fantastic now and, given the technological advances in that area, playing on a poor pitch has become very unusual. And the other big change has been in sports science, which has progressed at an astonishing rate. For example, when I started out at Manchester United my entire coaching staff consisted of just eight people, and that included my assistant coaches, fitness trainers and scouts. Now I’ve got ten sport scientists! It’s a radical change.
Do you think that the pace of the game has become quicker as a result?
That’s inevitable, as progress and increased speed go hand-in-hand. Cars are faster now, trains are faster, everyday life moves faster, and players in other sports are also quicker now. And well, given all that speed, it’s only logical that the pace of the game of football also increases. That’s also meant an equivalent increase in the risk of serious injuries. For example, 30 years ago we’d never see cruciate knee ligament injuries and now they’re very common.
If you could pick just one moment from your long and illustrious career, what would it be?
Winning that Champions League final against Bayern Munich in Barcelona [in 1999], no doubt about it. It was a feat I’d never achieved before personally and the last time the club had done it was in 1968, so it really was long overdue. Nor must we forget, of course, that it was a brilliant game!
Finally, having already changed your mind once about retirement, how long do you see yourself continuing in the game?
My philosophy is that, for as long as I’m enjoying my job and I’m in good health, I’m going to carry on here. I don’t think you can set yourself limits, but nor can you plan too far ahead because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. The time will come [for me to retire], obviously, but right now it’s not something I’m thinking about.