Not a bad title, eh? I mean, it has got it all. Football, a touch of “The Da Vinci Code” and the promise of secret knowledge.
Football always gets a bit of a kicking on the Raccoon Blog (do you see what I did there?). But this week Sir Alex Ferguson retired after 26 years in charge of my club, Manchester United. By any standards it is an extraordinary achievement. 26 years at the helm of what, back in 1986, was a Miss Havisham of a club, trading on past glories, and is now a global “brand”, and a multibillion business.
I met Sir Alex once, when he was plain old Alex Ferguson, in about 1989. It was at one of those so called “sportsmen’s dinners” at which men who don’t play sport pay to have a roast dinner with men who used to play sport and to hear them tell jokey anecdotes. It was a small scale affair, not more than 70 people, at an old Victorian Hotel in the North West. All proceeds for charity, so it had a purpose. There were a couple of “celebs” in the form of actors from Coronation Street, and the now Sir Alex was there too, and about on a par with them in terms of celebrity. As in, he had been on the telly, and that is about it. I spoke briefly to him, but I cannot truthfully say what about. I do, however, recall going home afterwards and being asked what he was like. I have never forgotten my reply. “Ah well,” I said “he was very nice. Much too nice to succeed at United.”
36 trophies, including 13 Premier League and 2 Champions League titles later, he stands as a living statue to my error of judgment.
Ferguson is worthy of discussion and debate on this most august of blogs because, if for no other reason, the psychology of someone who achieves that level of achievement, and for so long is worth considering. As is well known, Ferguson is the latest in a cadre of super managers who come not just from Glasgow but from an extremely narrow area of Glasgow. Busby, Shankly, Paisley and others all hail from the coal mining and ship building working classes of Glasgow. All had a fierce work ethic, and I have to wonder if that is a product of Presbyterian fierceness or a Darwinian effect, in that only the most determined, the most driven to escape the dark mines and the shop floor would make it. There have been many tributes to Ferguson’s personal warmth and kindness this week, and as my own meeting illustrates, he undoubtedly had that side to him. But I think it would be impossible to deny that he had a darker streak, a ruthless and even malevolent side that players, press, and referees have all felt.
Ferguson was never, in my book, a master tactician. His teams were built on will power, desire, and drive more than managerial brilliance, although he has had many brilliant players under his command. At the European level he was often found out tactically, and his successes were won be sheer perseverance and grit. But perhaps the measure of Ferguson’s achievement can be thrown into perspective by yesterday’s dramatic FA Cup Final win by Wigan Athletic against a lacklustre Manchester City side. Ferguson creates a mentality within his players which has often been described as “us against the world”. Whatever name you put upon it, they are elite, highly paid professionals with a common cause. To take an analogy, they are like the Foreign Legion. They may all be from different backgrounds and with different issues, and fighting in the cause of a foreign country, but they are a cohesive whole with an independent esprit de corps and collective do or die ethic, who will go into battle for their general. Manchester City is a club comprised of elite, highly paid professionals who are mercenaries. It is subtly different.
Whilst one can ponder the psychology of Ferguson, it is also the case that his reign has provided the background or “soundtrack”, as it were, to my professional life, and his resignation has provoked me to look back and reflect. There were many memories in which there was a coincidence of a football event and a personal moment of significance. Some seem inconsequential. Watching a night game in my local with a quiet pint of Robinsons ale in a local pub as United played in their, then ground breaking, sinister all black kit was a moment of peace and gentle happiness I shall not forget. Then there was being with a woman I loved beyond words on the night of the Champions League final in 1999 and her feminine incomprehension as I danced and yelled at the dramatic last minute dénouement. And, more poignantly, shortly afterwards selling my beautiful house because of the travelling commitments seeing her incurred. On the night United paraded their treble of trophies through Manchester, I walked around the emptied house in which I had been so happy, and wept. Deep in my heart I know this was wrong, and the sale – just before house prices surged – was to have a disastrous effect on my financial fortunes.
And so the departure of Sir Alex has prompted me to reflect on what lessons I have learned over those 26 years. Many, but these are some.
First, that there are wicked people in the world, and they need to be dealt with very firmly, albeit not cruelly.
Second, that you must be very careful what you allow yourself to think about, dwell upon and speak about, because these things tend to be drawn into physical existence.
Next, trust your instincts.
There are in fact many things I have learned. I have learned that it is wise not to trust noisy, showy people. I have learned that it is wise to have a budget and stick to it and to have a nice tie and nice shoes. But above all, I think I have learned this. I have also learned how to make a fine casserole, and that is important. But more importantly, I am compelled by some inner instinct (see above) to write these words.
Your goal in life is to find peace. Your purpose in life is to express compassion. I nearly wrote “love” but the British in particular have a problem with that word, which seems a bit “gooey”. But if you bear both these matters in mind, and express true compassion in your work and in your life, things will be OK.
Here endeth the lesson.
Gildas the Monk