So Sir Alex Ferguson is in trouble again for an on-field, verbal clash with a Premier League referee (http://bit.ly/To2Zjv). And after a few days of media commentary, and some criticism from two of his fellow Premier League managers in particular, he’s now taking a swing at the lot of them – the media, his colleagues, and anyone else who dares question the behavior of one of the longest serving, and most successful managers, in English football history. There is no doubt that Manchester United were completely transformed by the arrival of Ferguson, from Aberdeen, as a relatively unknown manager in 1986. Since then, the trophy cabinet has been filled with silverware, Manchester United have become the most consistently successful club in England, and a world powerhouse in the game, and Ferguson has won just about every award there is to win as manager. On just about any indicator, his tenure has been wildly successful, and outrageously prosperous, for the city, the club, his players, and the shareholders. But there is one indicator on which the veteran Scot, for me, fails the most crucial test of all – the leadership one! Let me explain, drawing on the biblical tradition, which informs and shapes my worldview, and did for the vast majority of the followers of English football too, right up until just a few decades ago.
One of the costliest statements in the New Testament, in regards to leadership, is that of St Paul’s directive, to the Corinthians, “be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 11.1). The apostle, in this sentence, in these four words, offers himself - his character, his words, and actions - as the exemplar of the qualities and character to which they should aspire in their own lives. The direct implication, and consequence, of holding one’s self up as worthy of emulation, is of course, that one must then be worthy of emulation. Christian leaders know this, and enter the ordained ministry, God and (arch)bishop willing, knowing that they will be held accountable for their conduct by the church authorities, by the recipients of their ministry, and most solemnly, ultimately by God. Football managers are not accountable to bishops and parishioners, and possibly not to God; but they are accountable to the boardroom, the fans, and, crucially, to the viewing public. Football managers, and players, do not have the same calling and the same responsibility as Christian ministers, but, like it or not, children all over the world, not just in Britain, but from Santiago to Singapore, and from Seoul to the Sudan, watch, idolize, and emulate, the practitioners of the greatest game of all, and aspire to one day walk out of the players tunnel and onto the “theatre of dreams” in Manchester, wearing the iconic red shirt. Manchester United, the club, its manager, and its players, are looked up to by millions, around the world, many of whom, especially the impressionable young, desire most of all to emulate their heroes in red. What do the viewers, of all ages and backgrounds, from every corner of the globe, witness then in the conduct of their heroes? Too often, from the manager, who is the face of the club in the public spotlight, it’s a face wrinkled in anger, delivering yet another verbal tirade directed at the hapless referee or other officials, who have earned his displeasure, whether the decision is wrong, correct, or inconclusive. In Fergie’s world, it seems, watching him over many years and listening to his post game interviews (now that the Football Association has forced him to do them again after years of refusing), every decision that goes against United is a poor one, and any United loss is invariably unduly influenced by refereeing decisions, not by the superior ability or play of the opposing team. And if proven to be wrong, out of line, or unduly petulant – forget about an apology - it's a media beat up more likely. On the field, his team are a direct reflection of their manager. Petulant, outraged at any decision that might go against them, even to the point of physically jostling the referee, refusing to shake hands with opponents over long held grudges…. The list goes on, the examples far too abundant to document here. Anyone who has watched the game for any length of time, as I have, can call to mind any number of examples, stretching back over many years, of boorish, unsportsmanlike, and intimidating behaviour. All of this is in spite of the well known propensity for Manchester United to be awarded penalties, and other favorable decisions, especially when playing at home; for referees to award the outrageous antics of players like Ashley Young whom it seems a puff of wind would blow over when in the penalty box; and to ignore much more blatant offences committed by United players in their own penalty box; and to remarkably extend games well beyond their usual end point to give United the extra minutes it might need to get a result or at least push for one (the fabled ‘Fergie time’). Yet still, viewed from Old Trafford, the FA, the officials, the media, nay the entire world, are stacked against Manchester United! And an outraged, intimidating, loud, and aggressive response, is completely, and fully justified,
I admire success, but not without honour. Manchester United’s success, under Sir Alex Ferguson, has all too frequently been ugly, confrontational, at times unsportsmanlike, and, most of all, lacking in the most important quality of all, that of worthiness to emulate. The trophy cabinet may be full, and if winning was all there was, that would be good enough. But true champions are worthy of emulation, and real leaders can say with conviction, to their followers, “be imitators of me” - do as I say, and act as I act. No one could, or should, say this of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.