Visiting Harvard Business School (HBS) in November 2011 to collaborate with Stephen Greyser (co-author of the book ‘the Business of Sports’), I briefly met Anita Elberse and was told that she was working on a case study on Manchester United. Her research work within a sporting context is quite interesting. Now, the case study has been published and Manchester United’s manager Alex Ferguson even came to HBS to give students insight into his management of one of football’s biggest clubs – an awesome live experience for the students to be able to engage with Ferguson and to discuss ‘best practices’ of football management.
As an introduction to the case study, Alex Ferguson is quoted: “For a player—and for any human being—there is nothing better than hearing ‘well done.’ Those are the two best words ever invented in sports. You don’t need to use superlatives.” (Elberse & Dye, 2012, p. 1). Clearly, Ferguson’s words reflect his management style, which is characterized by a well-developed ability to relate to people ranging from wealthy super star players to the administrative staff in United’s corporate offices and to workers taking care of the pitch at Old Trafford. He has managed the club since 1986 but is still highly engaged and eager to win football games and titles – fundamental drivers of his management success along with the passionate engagement, which he brings to all his interactions.
The case study goes from telling the story of Britain’s most successful football manager to touch on the business of football and Manchester United’s rivalries with other top clubs. Most importantly, Ferguson’s training and management philosophies are described and discussed. In that regard, Ferguson mentions the vitality of establishing a structure for a football club and refers to his own role in re-establishing the club’s youth structure. Seeing young players from the club’s own talent development system make it to the first team is a pleasure for Ferguson. Though, the right mix between young and experienced players is a constant focus for Ferguson. That is also portrayed in the current squad where Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes add experiences, which the young players can lean on. In the case study, Ferguson recognized three layers of players: 1) players from 30 and above, 2) players from roughly 23 to 30, and 3) the younger ones coming in. His management philosophy entails that younger players are matured and see progress in relation to the standards that the older stars have set before. Concerning the progress of the team, cutting players is an unavoidable factor and Ferguson states that “the hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy. But all the evidence is on the football field. If you see the change, the deterioration, you have to start asking yourself what it is going to be like two years ahead.” (Elberse & Dye, 2012, p. 11). There is a great fit between Ferguson and a top club like Manchester United. The willingness to win pervades both Ferguson and the club and although Ferguson admits that he wants to win all the time, he has become calmer whereas his younger management days were influenced by a more aggressive leadership style. Although he has worked with some of the biggest stars in football, Ferguson underscores the value of team commitment and no matter how big of a star the player is one thing must shine through: the willingness to win and the pride to play for Manchester United and to represent the club’s and hence Ferguson’s values (the case study can be interpreted in the way that Ferguson’s and United’s values is a fusion).
Profile of the most decorated football manager in modern time, Alex Ferguson:
Club: Manchester United
Champions League Trophies: 2
Other European Cups: 2
Domestic League Titles: 15
Domestic Cups: 9*
Elberse, A. & Dye, T. (2012). Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United. Harvard Business School. Published on September 20, 2012.