The Old Trafford legend allowed professors from Harvard Business School to carry out a case study on his methods during his last season and explains what made him a winner
The Scot permitted professors from Harvard Business School to observe and study his methods during his final season at Old Trafford as part of a case study, upon which he has since expanded to students in visits to the institution after his retirement.
In a wide-ranging interview published in full in the Harvard Business Review, Sir Alex explained that his first move upon joining the Red Devils was to establish his famed focus on youth.
|FEAR AND PRAISE
|"No-one likes to be criticised. Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. So I tried to give encouragement when I could. For a player - for any human being - there is nothing better than hearing: 'Well done.' Those are the two best words ever invented. You don't need to use superlatives.
"At the same time, in the dressing room, you need to point out mistakes when players don't meet expectations. That is when reprimands are important. I would do it right after the game. I wouldn't wait until Monday. I'd do it and it was finished. I was on to the next match. There is no point in criticising a player forever.
"I would tell them that having a work ethic is very important. It seemed to enhance their pride. I would remind them that it is trust in one another, not letting their mates down, that helps build the character of a team.
"In our training sessions, we tried to build a football team with superb athletes who were smart tactically. If you are too soft in your approach, you won't be able to achieve that. Fear has to come into it but you can be too hard; if players are fearful all the time, they won't perform well either. As I've got older, I've come to see that showing your anger all the time doesn't work. You have to pick your moments. As a manager, you play different roles at different times. Sometimes you have to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a father."
"I knew that a focus on youth would fit the club's history and my earlier coaching experience told me that winning with young players could be done and that I was good at working with them. So I had the confidence and conviction that, if United was going to mean anything again, rebuilding the youth structure was crucial. You could say it was brave but fortune favours the brave.
"At some clubs, you need only to lose three games in a row and you're fired. In today's football world, with a new breed of directors and owners, I am not sure any club would have the patience to wait for a manager to build a team over a four-year period.
"Winning a game is only a short-term gain - you can lose the next game. Building a club brings stability and consistency.
"Although I was always trying to disprove it, I believe that the cycle of a successful team lasts maybe four years and then some change is needed. So we tried to visualise the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly.
"Because I was at United for such a long time, I could afford to plan ahead - no one expected me to go anywhere. I was very fortunate in that respect.
"Everything we did was about maintaining the standards we had set as a football club - this applied to all my team building and all my team preparation, motivational talks, and tactical talks.
"I had to lift players' expectations. They should never give in. I said that to them all the time: 'If you give in once, you'll give in twice.' And the work ethic and energy I had seemed to spread throughout the club.
"Superstars with egos are not the problem some people may think. They need to be winners because that massages their egos, so they will do what it takes to win. I used to see [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [David] Beckham, [Ryan] Giggs, [Paul] Scholes and others out there practicing for hours.
"If the day came that the manager of Manchester United was controlled by the players - in other words, if the players decided how the training should be, what days they should have off, what the discipline should be and what the tactics should be - then Manchester United would not be the Manchester United we know.
"Before I came to United, I told myself I wasn't going to allow anyone to be stronger than I was. Your personality has to be bigger than theirs. That is vital.
|WINNING AND LATE GOALS
|"Winning is in my nature. I've set my standards over such a long period of time that there is no other option for me - I have to win. I expected to win every time we went out there. Even if five of the most important players were injured, I expected to win.
"I am a gambler, a risk-taker, and you can see that in how we played in the late stages of matches. If we were down at half-time, the message was simple: 'Don't panic'. Just concentrate on getting the task done. If we were still down - say, 2-1 - with 15 minutes to go, I was ready to take more risks. I was perfectly happy to lose 3-1 if it meant we'd given ourselves a good chance to draw or to win. So, in those last 15 minutes, we'd go for it. We'd put in an extra attacking player and worry less about defence. We knew that if we ended up winning 3–2, it would be a fantastic feeling and, if we lost 3-1, we'd been losing anyway.
"Being positive and adventurous and taking risks, that was our style. We were there to win the game. Our supporters understood that and they got behind it. It was a wonderful feeling to see us go for it in those last 15 minutes. A bombardment in the box, bodies everywhere, players putting up a real fight. Of course, you can lose on the counterattack but the joy of winning when you thought you were beaten is fantastic."
"There is absolutely no other way. It doesn't matter if the person is the best player in the world. The long-term view of the club is more important than any individual and the manager has to be the most important one in the club.
"Some English clubs have changed managers so many times that it creates power for the players in the dressing room. That is very dangerous. If the coach has no control, he will not last. You have to achieve a position of comprehensive control.
"Players must recognise that as the manager, you have the status to control events. You can complicate your life in many ways by asking: 'Oh, I wonder if the players like me?' If I did my job well, the players would respect me and that's all you need.
"I tended to act quickly when I saw a player become a negative influence. Some might say I acted impulsively but I think it was critical that I made up my mind quickly. Why should I have gone to bed with doubts? I would wake up the next day and take the necessary steps to maintain discipline.
"Observation is the final part of my management structure. When I started as a coach, I relied on several basics: that I could play the game well, that I understood the technical skills needed to succeed at the highest level, that I could coach players and that I had the ability to make decisions.
"Seeing a change in a player's habits or a sudden dip in his enthusiasm allowed me to go further with him: Is it family problems? Is he struggling financially? Is he tired? What kind of mood is he in? Sometimes I could even tell that a player was injured when he thought he was fine.
"I don't think many people fully understand the value of observing. I came to see observation as a critical part of my management skills. The ability to see things is key - or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don't expect to see.
"When I started, there were no agents and, although games were televised, the media did not elevate players to the level of film stars and constantly look for new stories about them. Stadiums have improved, pitches are in perfect condition now and sports science has a strong influence on how we prepare for the season.
|MANCHESTER UNITED LATEST
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"One of the things I've done well over the years is manage change. I believe that you control change by accepting it. That also means having confidence in the people you hire. The minute staff members are employed, you have to trust that they are doing their jobs. If you micromanage and tell people what to do, there is no point in hiring them.
"The most important thing is to not stagnate. I said to David Gill a few years ago: 'The only way we can keep players at Manchester United is if we have the best training ground in Europe.' That is when we kickstarted the medical centre. We can't sit still.
"Most people with my kind of track record don't look to change but I always felt I couldn't afford not to change. We had to be successful - there was no other option for me - and I would explore any means of improving. I continued to work hard. I treated every success as my first. My job was to give us the best possible chance of winning. That is what drove me."