Alex Ferguson came to town on the evening of 21 September but in the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank in London, where he was launching his latest book, it felt like a home fixture. Most of the audience might have been dressed in business attire but they were in good, raucous voice. Fergie, in a grey suit and tie and wearing spectacles, was greeted on stage as if he had just made his way to the dugout at Old Trafford. There were chants of: “Who are you? Who are you?” Those sitting around me were drinking beer from plastic cups, but when the conversation began they listened respectfully.
Since retiring in 2013, the storied former Manchester United manager has reinvented himself as something of a guru of leadership. He is a visiting lecturer at Harvard University, has worked with the Harvard Business Review, and his latest book, Leading, is a collaboration with the venture capitalist Michael Moritz, who was asked to write a book about Apple by Steve Jobs. Moritz, who was born in Wales but has been a long-time resident of Silicon Valley, joined Fergie on stage. The chief conductor of proceedings was Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, who in turn was introduced by an executive from LinkedIn. The big players turn out for Fergie, on and off the pitch.
The conversation roamed freely and widely as the three men discussed company “turnarounds” and creating shareholder value – United Inc is now valued at £2.5bn (it was £10m when Fergie arrived from Aberdeen in 1986) – to talent-spotting and the narcissism of Cristiano Ronaldo. Both Fergie and Moritz emphasised the importance of finding young talent and investing in it. “If you give young people an opportunity, they can surprise you, and do surprise you,” Fergie said.
Reflecting on his troubled early seasons at United, when he came close to being sacked, Fergie regretted that he’d been too “headstrong”. He said: “I confronted them [the players] and told them that they had to change because I wouldn’t. There was resistance. People reject a newcomer.”
For Fergie, football management was an obsession that consumed him absolutely. Moritz said that Jobs was the most obsessive person he had met. “He was the only man I knew who started the same company twice. For Steve and Alex, nothing is impossible.”
I was told a nice story by a publisher who worked on a book project with Dave Brailsford, the British Olympic cycling coach and general manager of Team Sky. Brailsford was based at the Manchester Velodrome and once, in conversation with Fergie, he asked for tips on management success. Without so much as a blink, Fergie fired back: “Get rid of all the c*nts.”
The “C-word” was not uttered on stage but an entertaining evening left you in no doubt about Fergie’s determination and strength of character – at one point, his eyes narrowed coldly when Barber referred to a player receiving the “hairdryer” treatment – and, indeed, his intelligence.
“Leading” is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£25)
This article appears in the 23 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left