Saturday 29 March 2014

Fergie, Gilo and the meaning of control

There's a terrific scene in Class Of 92, the documentary about Manchester United's FA Youth Cup winning side of that year, when its six most famous players, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary and Phil Neville, are sitting in a restaurant reminiscing about the ways in which Alex Ferguson would tell them they'd been dropped from the team.

'He came up to me once and said, 'son, you're not playing today, but don't worry about that, there's a game in two weeks that I need you for',' said Gary Neville. 'I thought, 'hang on there's three matches before then...' I couldn't work out whether I'd been dropped or whether he thought I was so important, I had to be saved...'

'He told me it was too hot once...' said Scholes.

'He said to me the pitch was too nice,' recalled Butt. 'He said, 'November's when I'll need you son, when the ground's heavy...'

'I never used to answer my door if we were in the hotel,' said Giggs.

'Yeah, you used to hear that little cough in the corridor, and you knew it was him,' said Gary Neville.

'He wouldn't come if you were playing,' continued Giggs, 'but I used to think, 'if he can't find me, he can't drop me...'

It was all said with affection, and left you thinking that they would still run through walls for Ferguson if he asked them too.

When he reflected on what made him such a successful manager, Ferguson said that the most important element was control. As soon as he felt a player was threatening that control he was ruthlessly dispensed with.

While direct comparisons between football and cricket are specious, it seemed obvious that England's most successful coaches of recent years, Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower, each had a measure of that control - at least until their eras descended into horribly similar kinds of entropy.

Ferguson's notion of control was partly psychological. Being aggressive and dictatorial was only a temporary fix. His real authority came from the ongoing success of his methods, which he was clever enough to adapt to changing circumstance. Often - as with the cough in the corridor - his presence was enough.

Similarly, Duncan Fletcher's legend was neatly coined by the title of his book, Behind The Shades. He understood the value of silence, of being enigmatic. Many England players tell of the strange sensation that would overcome them when they felt his presence behind the net in which they were batting.

Fletcher would say very little to his players, thus everything he did say (and a lot of what he left out) became imbued with significance. His technical knowledge was crucial: his charges realised that he understood deeply what he was talking about. Like Ferguson, he was ruthless in his judgment. He built close relationships with his captains, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, and kept the rest guessing.

Andy Flower's control came from a different place. His record as a player was better than any of the team, and the strength of character he had exhibited in essentially exiling himself by protesting against Robert Mugabe spoke of unimpeachable integrity. Like Fletcher he appeared introverted and steely. In aligning himself with a new kind of technical analysis, he moved the English game forwards. He knew more than the men he coached.

As Ferguson had asserted, once control was gone, so, soon afterwards, was the coach. In part this was simply the natural cycle of events. External forces are often uncontrollable. Yet both Fletcher and Flower brought England momentous and joyous successes that have broadened the horizons of the game here. In his later years, Ferguson sensed that the amount of money in football had made the players too powerful to control with explosions of anger and the use of authority, and while Fletcher retains much of his enigma as he coaches India, his presence feels different and lighter there.

Now that England have been eliminated in Bangladesh, the next major event is the appointment of a new coach. If the unsubstantiated story that Gary Kirsten has turned down the job because he was unable to select Kevin Pietersen is correct, then control is already an issue. Ashley Giles is the favourite, and the idea of a coalition with Graham Thorpe and Paul Collingwood carries much of the same appeal of the rumoured takeover of Manchester United fronted by the Class Of 92. But they lack the natural advantages that Fletcher and Flower had in asserting control, mostly because of their familiarity. In an age of uncertainty, that could be key.