As an Englishman residing in the United States, I have retained an abiding love for the beautiful game – soccer – a game that has yet to reach its true status in the United States. Soccer is a game for extremely fit men (and women) who can stay on the field for a full 90 minutes of fast, highly-skilled movement. Soccer players do not retire to an oxygen tent after 5 minutes on the field as do so many American footballers. I doubt if anyone carrying in excess of 200 pounds has ever played for a premier soccer team. No 450 pound body-armor-protected fatties for the beautiful game. Soccer players do not require continuous radio contact so that the manager can tell them which is left and which is right, and where to move on every play. For the most part, they have sufficiently high IQs that they can think for themselves within a general strategy defined by the team manager.
Throughout my time in Virginia the team that I have supported is Manchester United, the Red Devils, a team that has dominated the English soccer scene for the past 26 years. Throughout that time period, Man U has been managed by Alex Ferguson, now Sir Alex Ferguson, who announced his imminent retirement last week at the age of 71 years, after 1,500 games in charge of what has become one of the world’s richest and most popular sports clubs. Few Britons have been more successful, in any sphere, in recent times.
His longevity as manager is a mark of this success. There are twenty clubs in the Barclay’s Premier League. Over the past year alone, 8 of these clubs have sacked their managers. Many others have faced speculation about their imminent demise. Only Sir Alex, a Glaswegian Scot from the blue-collar shipyards of that famous city, has been entirely secure, so secure indeed that he has been privileged to choose his own successor, and has been elevated to the Man U board of directors following his retirement. Sir Alex has earned job security and widespread respect because he is a winner. Under his leadership, the Red Devils have lifted 38 trophies – Premier League, F.A. Cup and European Championship – a record that no future manager is ever likely to match.
How has he achieved such success? Hard bloody work is one answer. Sir Alex is not some Spanish, Portuguese or Italian playboy management consultant, like Jose Mourinho. He is a rough-hewed, gritty, foul-mouthed Scot, prepared to apply the dreaded ‘hairdryer’ to under-performing stars during the half-time interval, even to kick a soccer boot at the head of one of his most famous stars, David Beckham, when the occasion so deserved. Sir Alex controls everything in his club, from brand-management, to talent-spotting, to the players’ tea. When Wayne Rooney experiences the ‘red mist of rage’ on the soccer pitch, he knows that he will be benched by his manager and that he will experience a much more dreadful red-rage from that fearsome Scot, once he returns to the dressing room.
Economy is another answer. Soccer management is about squeezing out more performance per salary pound than one’s highly competitive rivals. This Sir Alex has done, season after season, spending a lower proportion of the club’s revenues on wages than any other Premier League club. This achievement has attracted the attention of businessmen and political leaders, especially from those within his beloved Labour Party.In particular, Sir Alex and Tony Blair bonded deeply, each recognizing the leadership qualities of the other. Although Gordon Brown is a fellow-Scot, Sir Alex despised his shambolic leadership, though he was never tempted to cross party lines.
Sir Alex may be a committed Labour Party supporter, but that does not mean that he is anti-capitalist. Far from it. He embraced New Labour long before Tony Blair invented the name. English soccer would become the best, during his 26 year reign at Old Trafford, because it pays the most. The average weekly wage in the Premier League rose by 1,500 per cent between 1992 and 2010. Sir Alex accepted his fair share of the rewards. He named his mansion Fairfields, after the dockyard where his father once labored.
Most of all, Sir Alex’s success was based on an enthusiastic embrace of globalization. He inherited a squad that contained two Danes, four Irishmen, and 18 Britons. He leaves a squad with players from a dozen countries, including Serbia, Ecuador, and Japan. In this respect, the politician whom Sir Alex most resembles is not Tony Blair, but rather his Tory nemesis, Margaret Thatcher. Of course, Sir Alex claims to detest the Iron Lady, for her blue rather than his red color. Yet, in truth they are very similar. Both won global success through a combination of simple truths and relentless drive. Both revered aspiration and opportunity. Both made Britain great.
The man that I honor today is no Red Alex but rather he is the Iron Man.
Hat Tip: Bagehot, ‘The socialist international’, The Economist, May 11, 2013