Offside, 27 February
It is to Fergie's credit that we still don't know the truth about The Boot.
Dressing room bust-ups are nothing new. Hurling teacups at players is a tried and tested motivational technique in football management. So why all the fuss about Sir Alex Ferguson splitting David Beckham’s eyebrow open with a flying boot?
Inevitably the spat between Britain’s top manager and the most idolised footballer on the planet was never going to remain just a back-page story. Over the past few days the world and his wife have voiced an opinion on Boot-gate (or should that be Grazed Eyebrow-gate?). United-haters, giddy with schadenfraude, have seized on the incident as conclusive proof that Fergie’s authority is crumbling. No doubt Japanese teenagers have already started sporting Becks-style Alice-bands and sticking plasters on their eyebrows.
The reaction to the incident is significant because of what it tells us about shifting attitudes to leadership and authority in our society. Fergie has been widely pilloried as a bully whose authoritarian managerial style is ineffectual and outdated. ‘Slowly but surely, the ingrained habits of English (and Scottish) football are giving way to an approach more in keeping with the way lives are lived in the new century’, wrote Richard Williams in the Guardian. ‘Just as corporal punishment disappeared from schools, so fear is no longer the weapon with which to persuade young footballers to give their best.’ (1)
This sentiment was echoed by the Daily Mail‘s Simon Heffer, that unlikely champion of touchy-feely management techniques. ‘Resorting to physical violence – although unintentional – is not the way British management ought to solve problems’, said Heffer. ‘It is precisely why, after the Revolution of 1917, so many Russian soldiers shot the officers who for years had treated them with brutality.’ (2) (If only the officers had gone in for group hugs – they might have averted the revolution altogether.)
While Ferguson’s credentials as a tactician might be open to question, it is his trademark ‘hairdryer’ that his detractors in the press pack find most objectionable. This, of course, is largely because many of the same journalists have been on the receiving end of a withering blast from the hairdryer themselves.
In May 2002, the BBC’s John Motson famously incurred Ferguson’s wrath when he asked if Roy Keane would be punished after his third red card in 14 games. Ferguson responded by savaging the hapless Motty. ‘You’ve no right to ask that question John – you’re out of order… you know fine well my ruling on that. Right, that’s the interview finished.… I’m going to cancel that interview, the whole fucking lot of it. Cancel it, right? Fucking make sure that does not go out, John.’ Arguably there is no other figure in British public life more feared by the press than Sir Alex Ferguson.
There is a theory that teacup chucking no longer works with players because today’s millionaire superstars have become far more powerful than their managers. But the fact that we still really don’t know what really happened in the United dressing room is testimony to Ferguson’s enduring authority. ‘Whatever happens in the dressing room is sacrosanct’ is Fergie’s First Commandment, and his players aren’t prepared to spill the beans.
Although they must have felt the full force of his fury on many occasions, it is remarkable that none of Fergie’s star players has ever demanded a transfer or publicly criticised him. Why? Because while Ferguson may scold his players ferociously behind closed doors, he steadfastly refuses to criticise them in public. ‘There’s no way I would betray the trust of the players and take anything out of the dressing-room’, he insisted. Ferguson’s policy of maintaining a clear boundary between public and private might appear anachronistic, but his players evidently still respect him for that.
If a verbal rocket from the gaffer is less effective these days, this is not necessarily because players have grown too powerful. Perhaps, as Southampton manager Gordon Strachan suggests, it is because contemporary footballers are too soft. ‘I would say that the character of young people in Britain is not as strong as it was’, says Strachan. ‘Hence the fact that, when a manager lets rip at a player, the danger of his “losing” him – of the player allowing it to have an adverse effect on his performances – is probably more pronounced than ever.’ (3)
Never mind Fergie’s hairdryer, the last thing we need is a new generation of football wimps who can’t withstand a good, honest bollocking from the boss.
(1) Beckham’s brow brings a smirk to Wenger’s lips, Guardian, 19 February 2003
(2) Daily Mail, 20 February 2003
(3) Rollickings aren’t what they used to be with today’s softer players, Observer, 2 February 2003
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