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Sir Alex Ferguson on Man United, retirement, management and Harvard

NEW YORK -- From his early days with East Stirlingshire to almost 27 years at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson had an unparalleled career as a manager with a single-minded approach to success.

Since retiring in 2013, Ferguson's areas of focus have broadened, as he explained to ESPN FC in an exclusive interview while he visited the United States to promote his new book, "Leading." 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How easy was it to go from being Manchester United manager to retirement?

I looked forward to retiring because most people have to retire at an age, whereas I chose the time to retire, and there's a massive difference. I was able to do that, and I was looking forward to enjoying it. Of course, I keep myself busy -- I think that's the secret; I don't think you want to be sitting in the house with your slippers on all day watching television -- it's absolutely true, that. I have retained my activity in different ways. I am a director at United; I'm an ambassador at United; I'm an ambassador at UNICEF; I've got my ambassador role at UEFA with the coaching seminars, and I've got the faculty at Harvard University, which I enjoy immensely because we're dealing with young people. I like young people, and I love to try and inspire them, so I'm a pretty busy guy.

Were there any moments of sadness, when you looked back and thought, "I'm really going to miss this"?

I was fortunate that there was no need for sadness because of the career I had and the number of successes I had. The interesting thing is, when I managed, I never looked back at my career at all. It's only after I retired that I sometimes look back. I've got an app on my phone about Man United and it has every player, every game, every goal scorer, right through the history. I look back sometimes and I think, 'Oh, how did I pick that team?' So there is some reflection now that I didn't entertain when I was a manager.

Manchester United's Champions League win in 1999 sealed a historic treble for the club.

When you look back, what are the specific moments that you think about?

People continually say to me, 'What was your finest moment?' and it's always Barcelona [when United beat Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final]. There's no need to delve into other situations because that, to me, was the crowning moment in terms of I'd never won the Champions League before. I'd won the Cup Winners' Cup twice, but I had never won the Champions League. That was a great moment, and the way we did it will never be forgotten, 1-0 down with three minutes left in injury time and we win it. So it was an amazing moment, and it reflected also the character of Manchester United; they never gave in. That was the greatest example in the final.

One of the lines you have used is the idea of being "haunted by failure." Are there any specific moments that stand out?

When I became a coach, that was always there with me. The only way you can keep your job is by being successful. It's a results industry, and managers lose their job if they lose two or three games in a row, sometimes only one game. It's an absolute intense industry that you have to be successful. So that was always there with me. You have moments where you have bad spells, but I'm pretty good with dealing with defeat. I usually get better. With United, five times we were second [in the Premier League], and the next year we won the league. Now that is not all down to Alex Ferguson, but, in developing a team with United, you have to develop the character of the dressing room, you have to have people in whom I sometimes like to see myself, and that's the reason we were able [to win titles]; we had that character in the club that would just not accept defeat.

United's Premier League win in 2012-13 was Sir Alex Ferguson's 13th and final top-flight title as Old Trafford manager.

You have said that you found yourself to be better after a setback. How did you transmit that to your players? For example, in 2011-12, you lost the league title to Manchester City on the last day of the season.

We were champions for 30 seconds. You've got to understand that these are human beings and they are hurting as much as anyone, as much as I am. In terms of leading them and bringing our personality into the room, in terms of dealing with it, they have got to represent themselves and the club properly. So I said to them in the dressing room that night: 'There's nothing to be ashamed of; you were fantastic. Walk out that door and tell everyone you're going to win the league next year. That's your job'. All the directors were there, and it was a devastating moment; it was incredible. You have to say we did throw the league away. Hands up, we all know we're responsible for throwing the league away but, nonetheless, we lost it, and you have to deal with that and the players' attitude was good. They walked out that dressing room with their blazer and flannels on; they represented the club in the proper way, and I think everyone would be proud of them because they acted that way.

How else did you deal with adversity? A season when United didn't win a trophy was a disaster, for example.

It's important to listen to your staff. In 2005, that period we didn't win anything, just before that I had an attempted retirement, and I think that affected everyone. It was a mistake, and my wife and my three sons changed my attitude towards it and I started to think. The biggest mistake I made was announcing it at the start of the [2001-02] season, and I think a lot of them had put their tools away; they thought, 'Oh, the manager's leaving,' but when I changed my mind in January, I started thinking about United again and how we could get back on top. After that is when [Wayne] Rooney and [Cristiano] Ronaldo came to the club and we had to regenerate everyone. The youth side of it, the scouts; we'd gone to sleep. Strangely enough, the period from there on has been glorious; it's been fantastic with the numbers of league titles we won. The moments you don't win anything register very strongly with Manchester United.

In 1995, we lost the league because we suspended [Eric] Cantona. That's a fact. We lost the league on the last day at West Ham, and we lost the FA Cup final to Everton. The decision to take was based primarily on the youth coming through. If you don't acknowledge and give them their opportunity, there's a danger they stagnate or they get despondent and they want to move. There's no way I could allow [Nicky] Butt and [Paul] Scholes to leave because they, to me, were going to be my midfield of the future, and that's why I let Paul [Ince] go. We had a great offer for him from Inter Milan -- 8 million, a big offer -- and we decided to let him go. But that gave an opportunity for the young kids to come through, and they were fantastic.

Talking of young players, are there still the opportunities now for them that there were 20 years ago?

That would apply to almost every club apart from Manchester United because, to be honest with you, in the history of Manchester United from Matt Busby's days to my time, that has to really be a foundation of the club; it has to be the strongest point. And that's what I honestly believe the supporters want to see. Man United supporters want to see the young players coming through. So I think in other circumstances you are correct, but for Manchester United, there will always be a strength in bringing young players through.

How has captaincy changed over the years? In recent years, rotation has been more prevalent, and sometimes a captain has to be left out.

To understand the realities of the competitions now, when the Champions League came into it, way back, it used to just be the [league] winners. But then when the group stage came in and the League Cup at the same time, there was no way you could play the same team all the time, and that's when squads got bigger. At the start of the season in the Champions League you have to nominate 25 players. So the squads got bigger, and your thinking had to change in terms of alternating selections.

Sometimes, and Gary Neville spoke about this recently, I would say to him, 'You're not playing the next three games, but you're playing against Liverpool' because, given the time I'd been at the club, that longevity allowed me to plan like that because I knew the players and trusted them. I trusted every player as a squad member, and there's no point of them being in my squad if they can't go and play in the biggest games. I trusted that, and I trusted my judgment about when I would rest players. Obviously if there were games against the middle of the league teams or teams towards the bottom, particularly at home, I would make a lot of changes knowing that, maybe on the Wednesday we had a European game or the next Saturday we were playing Liverpool or Arsenal. So it was about using the right time to rest players and the right type of opponents.

Did Wayne Rooney always strike you as having the qualities to be a captain?

Wayne was a typical English player, determined when he came to United, so it's not a surprise that he is the captain. Plus, there's the longevity he's been there, over 10 years, so that all works into the way United work. If my captains were injured, it was always the case that the most senior players became captain.

Is it as hard now to be a manager as it has ever been?

Yeah, I think so. I think in different ways because, if you go back to when I came to England, it was all English owners. Today, you have them from all over the world. There are different types of owners today that make it more difficult because I don't think we understand exactly why they have got involved in football. Maybe they want to be winners and, if they want to be winners, maybe that brings about more intense situations for the coaches.

Did Louis van Gaal always strike you as someone who could take over at United one day?

He's got the personality and the experience. He was at Barcelona twice and Bayern Munich and Ajax -- he won the European Cup with Ajax. He's a strong personality and, without question, he has got all the material.

In your book, you said someone once told you about the importance of building "an Alex Ferguson team." With Louis van Gaal having signed only a three-year contract at Old Trafford, is it possible for him to build his own team in such a short space of time?

He's certainly made a lot of changes, and he's bought [six] new players this year and, I think, five or six new players the year before. That takes time and it's not easy. Coming to Manchester United, you do need time. In my time, there was maybe Dwight Yorke who gave an immediate response -- he was fantastic from day one. They are not always like that; he was an exception. It normally takes some time, particularly if they come from abroad, to settle in. David De Gea came as a young, skinny boy who didn't speak English and couldn't drive a car in England; he was just a kid. It takes time to develop and integrate into a different culture.

Do you think United have what it takes to win the league this season?

It's that kind of league; anyone can win it now. Leicester are the most consistent -- they've only lost one game. If we get to New Year up near the top, we'll have a good chance.


Sir Alex Ferguson's new book is "Leading: Learning from Life and My Time at Manchester United" (Hachette Books), co-written with author and venture capitalist Sir Michael Moritz.

In the book, Ferguson reveals the the tools, tactics and pivotal decisions he applied throughout his record-breaking career.

Why did you decide to take on the challenge of teaching at Harvard?

They approached my son Jason to do a case study. The professor is Anita Elberse, from Holland. Jason put it to me and my instant reaction was: 'Is that not a bit vain?' And Jason said: 'How vain can you be at 70?' That really settled it for me. I was apprehensive in the first class, because you're sitting there, and they are looking at your case study, and you're listening to all that, and then you have look out and discuss you career and the points that had been raised by Anita. That was more comfortable for me because I understood the subjects.

What have you learned from the experience?

What I have learned most is how well-known I am. All these students, even the American ones -- if you go back 10 years, the relationship to soccer [in the USA] was, what, 1/10? So that was very interesting, and I was quite impressed by that. I'm not saying it blew my ego up or anything like that, but I was impressed that at least they knew who I was, and I wasn't going into a classroom where 25 of them didn't know who I was! That would have been difficult.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I think that you have to be who you are; don't change your conviction and be consistent. Also, prepare yourself for your job. I did my badges at 22 years of age, and I went to coaching classes every year in the summer. I prepared for my job. People in different industries can go to university; they have different route from what I did. But some coaches don't take that route. There's no way that a guy with no formal education could walk into the banking industry and be a manager; he has to get there by preparing himself and doing the right course. My job was similar to the prime minister in England. You don't need any qualifications to be prime minister and, from my point of view, there are guys with no qualifications who are managers. It's wrong that you can get a manager's job in England without a preparation. You need to do our apprenticeship because it's a difficult results industry, and the best way of surviving is to be qualified. It's a difficult industry today.


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