Monday, 30 May 2011

Credit Where Credit Is Due

As somebody who is usually one of the first to criticise the poor sportsmanship, bizarre excuses for losing and general lack of good grace amongst today's crop of football managers, I feel the need to offer praise to Sir Alex Ferguson for the good grace and sportsmanship he has shown following Manchester United's defeat by Barcelona in the Champions League final.

Not known for his humble pie eating abilities, Sir Alex displayed an unexpected frankness and honesty following the Wembley game that will give his detractors a lot less ammunition than they may have been hoping for. Sir Alex is not a good loser. That statement is not intended as a criticism. He is a winner, and his usual refusal to accept defeat is a force that has permeated his players through the years and is one of the reasons that Manchester United very rarely do lose.

To be a successful manager of a top team requires an element of arrogant self-belief and a belief in your team. This self-belief can often translate into a perception of a blinkered approach and a refusal to see facts as they really are. A refusal to accept failure can often lead to blaming every other factor or person possible when things go wrong.

Such single-mindedness is not a way to win friends or popularity contests, and Sir Alex probably does not rank highly in popularity contests among the sporting public outside of Manchester. He is not alone in that though. Ignoring the obvious joke that Manchester United are not even the most popular team in Manchester, their fans are often seen as glory hunters and members of the prawn sandwich brigade who do not appreciate real football. While it may be true that many casual followers of the game have jumped on the successful Old Trafford bandwagon, this is true of any successful team. It is certainly not the fault of genuine Manchester United fans nor of Sir Alex Ferguson.

I do not subscribe to the view that in Britain we do not like winners. We do. We love to see individuals and teams scale the sporting heights and achieve success. Our problem is that we don't like too much success. We may like to see teams scaling the heights, but we don't like to see them stay at the top too long. Manchester United have been at the top for far too long for most of our liking.

This attitude makes the excuses and apparent bad grace in the face of failure of our top teams even harder to take. Blaming referees for decisions that go against the team, criticising the opposition for daring to battle for a share of the spoils, failing to see bad tackles made by their own teams and claims of conspiracies against their teams are all excuses that have been offered by the game's top managers. Sir Alex is not the only culprit. Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho are two other managers who have atrtracted a lot of attention for this tactic. In fact, no matter the level of team you manage, post match interviews after most games betray this philosophy as exisiting universally throughout the beautiul game.

Sir Alex is a master of this approach. He can mix it with the best of them when it comes to seeing faults in others and apparently ignoring his own team's limitations or, dare I say it, in his own managerial decision making. His public image is one of not liking criticism and holding grudges towards those who dare to cross him. His refusal to speak to the BBC may well be one of the longest sulks in recorded history.

In post match interviews he often appears incapable of taking the blame - either personally or collectively. He defends his players to the hilt and gives short shrift to anyone who disagrees. I wonder if the same is true in the dressing room or at the training ground however. Despite the fact that it has never been witnessed in public, mention the hairdryer treatment to any football fan and only one name springs to mind. His public persona my be one of defending his players at all cost, but my impression is that not many footballers would dare to cross him. If they did I suspect there would only ever be one winner.

It is also interesting to note that when you look back over Sir Alex's time as manager of Manchester United it is difficult to remember times when mistakes have been repeated. He may not publicly acknowledge mistakes, but he certainly seems to learn from them. He has a ruthless streak that takes no prisoners. Cross him, let him down, or fail to pay attention to his instructions and I suspect your time in a Manchester United shirt may be over. Reputations and image count for nothing against his vision for his club. Not many players have played one too many seasons for his team. Perhaps this is what separates him from other managers. His stubborn streak does not get in the way of success - a lesson that Arsenal fans may wish that Mr Wenger would learn.

None of this changes the fact, however, that it is frustrating for football fans to listen to post match reactions and hear nothing but a blind loyalty to his players and team. It would be so refreshing to hear that it wasn't the referees fault, that it wasn't underhand tactics by the other team and that it wasn't a conspiracy against his team. On Saturday we got that honesty.

Sir Alex's summary of the game at Wembley was that Barcelona battered his team. They were just too good. There is no shame in losing to the best team in the world. Personally, I doubt any team - club or country - could have lived with Barcelona on Saturday. Sometimes you just need to hold your hands up and recognise the brilliance of the opposition.

The worrying thing for the rest of us (who don't support Manchester United) is that the last time Sir Alex publicly recognised that his team just wasn't good enough in 1994 he went on to build a team that dominated domestic and European football. In praising him for his honesty we should also be more than a little worried that he might just do the same again.

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