Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography – just how revealing are the tales from inside Manchester United?

Book review by Scott Hunt

Ryan Giggs is a bit of a comedian.

Perhaps that is not what we expected to learn from Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography but it is certainly a theme running throughout the book.

It seems the Welsh winger is quite quick with the quips and witty repartee in the Manchester United dressing room.

Reflecting on his final game in charge at Old Trafford, Ferguson writes: “David Moyes had already been named as my successor; as we sat in the dressing room after the match, Ryan Giggs teased: ‘David Moyes has just resigned’

When Ferguson writes about how he revealed to the dressing room that he would not be retiring in 2002 we get another insight into the dressing room comedy.

Ferguson writes: “ Ryan Giggs was most skilful in his mockery: ‘Oh no I can’t believe this’, Ryan said. ‘I’ve just signed a new contract.’”

OK, so Giggsy won’t be winning any comedy awards any time soon, but it is a glimpse into the character of a world famous footballer – something which occurs a lot throughout the book.

“It’s about people’s ambitions.”

That is the final line of the book and in many ways it encapsulates the entire autobiography.

It is a book which centres around people – the characters and personalities Ferguson has come across and worked with during more than 26 years in charge of Manchester United.

The difficulty in writing an autobiography as such a high profile figure is that the public know many of the stories you are about to tell.

The art therefore is to tell them in such a way, and include unknown elements and perspectives to make the story brand new to the reader.

This is a book which does that superbly.

It feels as though you are involved in a conversation with arguably the greatest manager in the history of football – a conversation which lasts for 354 pages without a hint of waning interest.

Great credit must go to co-writer Paul Hayward who has managed to master the challenge of autobiography writing.

So many such books feel as though they are simply churning out stories and facts with little connection with the reader.

What Hayward has achieved is a book where it does not feel forced, but rather the book flows from one train of thought to the next – as though Ferguson was sat opposite speaking to you.

That is a rare accomplishment and is something which sets this book apart in terms of style rather than content.

The content of course is what has made the headlines and is naturally the pivotal ingredient to an autobiography.

This was such a highly anticipated book because of who Ferguson is, what he has achieved and all the high-profile stories the public knew he would talk about.

Therefore it was crucial that Ferguson covered every major story in depth and did not give a watered down version of events.

Here he has not disappointed, providing a full account of nearly every major incident across the last 14 years since his previous autobiography in 1999.

The book starts with a reflection of the end of his illustrious United career, running through the thought processes of his retirement and the appointment of his successor David Moyes.

Then it touches of the Glasgow roots of the Govan boy who turned into the most famous football manager on the planet.

From there on Ferguson devotes a chapter to a number of key characters from across his reign at Old Trafford.

Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Roy Keane, Arsene Wenger and many more are given prominence in the chapters which tend to lead on a theme and wander into a variety of sub-branches.

A variety of individuals are reflected upon by Ferguson and we gain some real insights into many famous names.

For instance, Juan Sebastian Veron is a man Ferguson tells us a lot about.

Ferguson writes: “There was talk during his time with us of Veron falling out with other players, but I don’t think he did, partly because he never spoke to anyone.

“He was alone in the dressing room. He didn’t speak the language. He wasn’t antisocial; he just wasn’t a communicator.

“I’d come in for work: ‘Morning, Seba’. ‘Morning Mister’. And that was it. You couldn’t drag anything from him.”

Many characters are reflected upon positively and warmly by Ferguson who talks of so many great memories with the players and staff that were so close to him.

Virtually every player he managed in the last 14 years gets a mention at some point, along with a glimpse into their character or what Ferguson thought about their abilities.

Likewise, many characters feel the sting of the Scot.

Roy Keane is savaged. Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham, Rafa Benitez, Owen Hargreaves, Mark Bosnich and many more face strong criticism.

While we can learn so much about the people who are talked about from this book, it is Ferguson’s character we discover the most about.

This autobiography is as much a self-help guide psychology guide as a sporting account, as Ferguson talks through how he manages people and how he sustained control of his club for such a long period of time.

Ferguson writes: “The authority is what counts.”

Throughout this book the sense of control and power that he possessed over everything at Manchester United is hugely apparent.

What is also apparent is how bigger stock Ferguson places in psychology.

Possibly this is a theme he has deliberately run through the book, inflating his own abilities in terms of mind games and management of people – he even calls a chapter of the book ‘psychology’.

Certainly though this a must-read book for the psychologist and those interested in the workings of the human mind at the top level.

Ferguson talks of how he would criticise his players in such as way as to keep them motivated, keep them working for him and the cause.

“Faced with the need to confront a player who had performed below our expectations, I might have said, ‘That was rubbish that’,” Ferguson writes.

“But then I would follow it up with ‘for a player of your ability’. That was for picking them back up from the initial blow. Criticise but balance it out with encouragement.

“’Why are you doing that? You’re better than that’. Endless praise sounds false. They see through it.”

Ferguson was often credited as a master of mind games though insists he did not intentionally try to get in the mind of the opposition on most occasions.

He also states that his trademark tapping of the watch was not a signal to the referee but more an action designed to strike fear into opponents.

While possibly self-indulgent, the psychology chapter is a brilliant read and is maybe the standout chapter in the book as it provides an insight into the workings of Ferguson’s mind.

There are of course criticisms to be made of the book. There are areas which feel a little short on detail.

The Rock of Gibraltar affair is barely touched upon by Ferguson, even though it played such a huge part in his United career.

There are legal agreements in place barring certain elements of this story being discussed, but it still feels as though the issue has been somewhat glossed over.

Also you can’t help but feel that Ferguson has held back on Rooney.

The Rooney chapter is very lenient on the England striker, being reserved in his criticism of the man who twice asked to leave Old Trafford.

Understandably Ferguson does not want to make life difficult for successor David Moyes over Rooney, but it does feel a little weak over such a key point.

Those criticisms aside, this is a top drawer autobiography.

At the most simplistic level Alex Ferguson was a football manager. In reality, his influence on British and World sport was far greater than that.

This book reflects his influence and is a book of the highest quality in keeping with the standards he set throughout his career.

His autobiography reinforces the aura of the man who has been at the pinnacle of sport for so long.

This is obviously a must read book for Manchester United fans.

However it is a must read book for sport fans, for managers and for psychologists.

It is a brilliantly written account, crafted wonderfully by twice British Press Sports Writer of the Year Paul Hayward.

The book shows us the drive, determination and dedication of a man who has achieved so much.

It is a fresh look at such well known stories, an assessment of people and a historical look the last 14 years at Manchester United.

Simply put, this is a book which has to be read.

Image courtesy of Sky Sports via YouTube, with thanks.

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