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Ferguson, however, could not challenge Liverpool until he had reformed his team. And he had a problem: as BBC political journalist Michael Crick wrote in his biography of United's manager, "While the links between drinking and football are close at the best of times, at Manchester United in the 1980s stars seemed to take sponsorship by the drinks industry to extremes." Ferguson laid down the law: he got rid of the worst offenders, and the long march toward pre-eminence began.
Control, Change, Observe
But here's one of the extraordinary things about Ferguson. The squad that he knocked into shape back in the 1980s was drawn exclusively from Britain and Ireland. The one that he will take to the Champions League final also includes players from France, Brazil, the Netherlands, Ecuador, Mexico, South Korea, Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland and Portugal. (He's had Americans on the team too.) How has someone who grew up steeped in the working-class traditions of Scottish football been able to lead a collection of stars drawn from all over the world?
Part of the answer is that, like all great sports managers, Ferguson respects talent wherever he sees it and whoever has it. And part of it is that he is a good man manager, engendering intense loyalty among those around him and tailoring his style to the very different individuals, from very different backgrounds, that he has to work with. "He finds different ways of getting the best out of people," says Crick, which means that he will sometimes bend his own rules: not every United player since 1986 has been teetotal.
But the key to Ferguson's success in a changing environment, as money has flooded into football and the game has gone global, is quite simple: like all great managers in any industry and in any society, he thinks about what he is doing. In a 2009 interview with Campbell for the New Statesman, Ferguson said that the three most important qualities for leadership were "control, managing change and observation." Pressed to flesh out the last attribute, he said, "Spotting everything around you, analyzing what is important. Seeing dangers and opportunities that others don't see. That comes from experience and knowledge."
He has tons of both, though he sometimes hides them. All the people I interviewed about Ferguson for this article, whether they wanted to be quoted or not, said that even though at first glance he looks like a typical old-school football type, he is constantly innovating. One of his secrets, says Crick, is "never being complacent." If Ferguson hears of something that might add a point or two to United's total at the end of the season some new training method, some sports-science wisdom or a new technology that can measure a player's performance he's on it, sending his assistants all over the world to figure out what's what. I was told, for example, that he was one of the first managers to understand that after being laid off because of injury, players need to rebuild their peripheral vision, and that there's some high-end vision-science technology at United's training facility.
Campbell is up-front about his friend: the first thing to say about Ferguson, he says, is that "he is an exceptional human being." He's one of those men who can talk about any number of things, from fine wine to politics to American history; he has particular fascination for the Civil War era. He remembers his friends: if a football manager gets fired, he will quickly hear from Ferguson. He is not, of course, flawless. Ferguson has been involved in plenty of controversies, and if you cross him, he will bear a grudge for years. (Smarting over a perceived hatchet job regarding one of his son's business dealings, he has given virtually no interviews to the BBC since 2004.) "When he's charming," says Crick, "it's on a scale that you can't believe." But when he's not, Crick continues, that is an experience just as memorable. Ferguson's teams which draw their character from the Boss have long had a reputation for being complaining bullies, hectoring referees and constantly feeling hard done by.
For those who aren't United fans, that's enough to temper the admiration that comes from watching the squad play. Old loyalties and enmities die hard "I support two teams," my brother says, "Liverpool and whoever's playing United this week" which is why on May 28, I will be supporting Barcelona, with its wonderful, intricate passing game and its global partnership with UNICEF.
But whether United wins or loses, I have come to the conclusion that it is time to acknowledge what an extraordinary job the club has done in building a global brand that values important things like talent and work ethic. And to recognize that over the past 50 years, Alex Ferguson has been the finest manager that team sports have seen in any sport, anywhere in the world.
This article originally appeared in the May 30, 2011 issue of TIME Europe.