As a teacher I see a large part of my job as dispelling the myths so easily taken on as fact by the naive. ‘Islam is for terrorists,’ ‘Germany started World War One’ and ‘Homosexuality is a disease’ are three examples. It seems though that unceasing belief in baseless myths extends readily to football – and many of us United fans are as guilty as any.
To illustrate my point I invite you to consider the incident that dominated the world’s news in the early part of this week – the actions of one seemingly insane man who shocked millions. Mario Balotelli was through on goal and decided to try a bit of an improvised trick shot. Whatever remarkable feat Super Mario was intending to demonstrate it all ended up a bit David Dunn. The result was his withdrawal from the pitch which descended into a public volatile exchange with his coach.
Twitter basically erupted with some tweeters like myself supporting Balotelli’s right to try the extravagant in a friendly and others supporting Mancini. The response that prompted this blog however was the large number of United fans boasting along the line of ‘if that were Fergie, he’d be gone.’ This is the myth I take issue with – the widespread belief that Ferguson’s rule is absolute and all players tow the line or are shipped out unceremoniously.
Firstly I understand why this idea has gained credence. Depending on your interpretation the departures of Ince, Stam, Beckham, van Nistelrooy and Keane can all be interpreted as Ferguson expunging elements who challenged his authority. You might look further back and highlight the breaking up of the talented yet booze loving squad he inherited from Ron Atkinson in the eighties.
The reality however is that when context is applied it becomes clear that Ferguson’s approach to man-management is entirely subjective. If as is claimed he operates a zero tolerance policy towards those who do not tow the line then the Old Trafford careers of many of the most successful players of the modern era would have been short-lived. Cantona for the red cards and crowd surfing, Keane and Robson for alcohol abuse, Ronaldo and Rooney for disrespecting the club, in fact maybe young Ryan Giggs would have been cast asunder for his love of the Manchester party scene.
In fact it is the treatment of Giggs that sums up Ferguson’s approach. The fallacy that Giggs was led astray by Lee Sharpe may have suited the narrative but by all accounts young Giggs needed no encouragement to take risks in his private life – a characteristic which has returned to haunt him in recent months. Ferguson demonstrated his tolerance was limited by flogging Sharpe yet Giggs was retained because he was the greater talent for the future. Similarly the decision to retain Ronaldo over van Nistelrooy far from being motivated by moral judgment was a cold decision to stand by the club’s future over a player deemed to have already provided his best days at the club.
The starkest example of all is the fall out from the iconic moment that our French talisman took umbrage with the vocab selection of Matthew Symonds and responded studs first. Although even at the time many felt sympathy – and even admiration – for Eric’s actions the predominant response was rightly one of outrage. The response of the manager was to pursue Cantona as he fled to Paris and do all he could to persuade his star to return.
It is one of the quirks of football that such a high-profile figure continues to be misunderstood. It was notable that when the Sky journalist enquired as to the ‘level of hairdryer’ used at halftime when trailing at Upton Park, the bemused response from Giggs was that the fearsome Fergie had praised their performance and encouraged them to enjoy the game and have faith. To claim Ferguson is an all-powerful dictator is to misunderstand the true gift that has enabled him to achieve such unprecedented success – he is the greatest living exponent of man-management and long may he continue.
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