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More than Manchester

14 minute read
Michael Elliott

On Saturday, May 14, as the final whistle ended a 1-1 draw in the English Premier League between Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United, a man looking perhaps a shade younger than his 69 years began dancing around and hugging everyone in sight. If Sir Alex Ferguson, United’s manager, looked like a bit of a dork — as he usually does when celebrating — nobody cared. United had just won its 19th English League title, beating the record of its archrival Liverpool, the team that Ferguson had long ago promised to “knock off their perch.” Of those 19 championships, 12, together with five FA Cup victories, have been won since Ferguson arrived in 1986. On May 28 he will go for another title, when United meets Barcelona in the final of the European Champions League in London. If his team wins, Ferguson will have his third European championship and United its fourth. Only Real Madrid, AC Milan and Liverpool have won more.

But the bare bones of United’s record — and Ferguson’s — tell barely half the story. Analyses of sports clubs’ commercial operations vary, depending on who’s doing them, but in 2010, Forbes magazine ranked United the most valuable franchise in world sports, with an estimated worth of $1.8 billion — more than that of the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys — and that was before it signed a record $130 million shirt-sponsorship deal with insurance company Aon. United’s international fan base, measured in the tens of millions (with much of it in Asia), is greater than that of any other team in any other sport. Sponsors include Nike, a Turkish airline, a Thai beer, the capital of South Korea, a Chilean winemaker and a bevy of telecommunications companies spanning the globe. But the global reach of the brand has not come at the expense of local loyalty. United’s stadium at Old Trafford averages attendance of some 75,000 a game, in a season 10 months long.

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It’s an astonishing record, but it’s also a bit of a mystery. Manchester is an O.K. sort of a place, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, with a famous club scene and a concert hall uniquely named after an economic theory, but it’s not a capital city or a megalopolis. So how did this town in the northwest of England manage to produce one of the age’s true global brands? And — even more mysterious — how has a single man, over 24 years, been able to sustain such excellence in his teams at a time when the social, economic, technological and competitive environment of his sport has been transformed, turning it into perhaps the only spectacle that the world truly holds in common?

The story starts with a tragedy.

Making the Legend Live
On the evening of Feb. 6, 1958, a chartered plane carrying United’s young team — England’s champions, known as the Busby Babes, after their manager, Matt Busby — stopped off in Munich on its way back from Belgrade, where United had drawn with Red Star, securing a place in the semifinals of the European Cup (the precursor to the Champions League). Conditions were dire, with slush on the runway and snow in the air, but after two failed attempts to take off, the pilots tried again. The plane never made it, clipping a house at the end of the runway and crashing. Seven of United’s players were among those who died in the crash. An eighth, Duncan Edwards, just 21, who men of a certain age will tell you with iron conviction was the greatest footballer England ever produced, died two weeks later. Busby was terribly injured and was administered last rites but survived.

The horror shocked Britain. Even those who didn’t follow football or weren’t from Manchester had loved the Babes, who had brought a sense of glamour to a nation that was still struggling to lift itself from the drabness of the postwar years. I was just 6 at the time, and the Munich disaster was the first time I realized that really bad things could happen. We lived in the suburbs of Liverpool — both my parents had been born in the streets next to Liverpool’s stadium — so United wasn’t our team. But our next-door neighbors, a retired railroad worker and his wife, were big United fans, and I can remember, when I got home from school the day the news broke, feeling a child’s surprise at seeing adults so visibly distressed. A few weeks later, we all crowded into the only house on our street with a TV to watch United’s second string try to win the FA Cup, only to cruelly lose to Bolton Wanderers.

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Yet out of the ashes, Busby rebuilt the club. By the mid-1960s, he had formed a thrilling new team around three players known in United legend as “the Holy Trinity”: George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, who was just 20 when he was hauled from the wreckage of Munich. Even I, a die-hard Liverpool fan (which is why this article is written through gritted teeth) loved seeing them play. In 1968, 10 years after Munich, they positively murdered Portuguese champions Benfica to become the first English side to win the European Cup. As the game ended, Busby marched across the field to embrace Charlton, two survivors united in a moment of shared joy and grief.

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Talk to those who have studied United — or who just love it with a passion — about what it is that makes the club special, and they keep coming back to United’s death and rebirth. I asked my friend Mark Hider, a fan and top advertising executive in New York City who knows something about branding, how important Munich and its legacy was to United’s appeal. “The honest answer?” he said. “A lot.” The club, Hider argues, has “kept the stories, the myths, the legends around the brand very live for the fans.” (Go to the club’s website, look at the banners at Old Trafford that memorialize Munich, see the statue of the Holy Trinity outside the stadium, and you’ll see what he means.) Charlton, now 73, is a director of the club, which since 2005 has been owned by the Glazer family, which also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the U.S.’s National Football League. More than that, says Hider, Charlton is the club’s conscience, a living link to a talented group of young men, his close friends, whose promise was snuffed out.

Put like that, of course, United’s deployment of the Munich story as a brand attribute sounds like a mawkish romanticization of death, a bit like those statues of Confederate soldier boys wistfully gazing north that dot towns in the American South. But there’s more to it than that. The point about the Babes is not just that so many of them died; it is also that they were young and that they played thrilling, attacking football. It’s the memory of that youth and beauty, says Hider, that is the yin to the tragedy’s yang.

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He’s not alone. Time and again, talking to people about United, those two things — “We give youth a chance; we attack” — come up. And it’s true. Edwards was just 16 when he first played for United; Ryan Giggs, now 37 and the team’s evergreen midfielder, was 17. Charlton was 18, as was Cristiano Ronaldo, now with Real Madrid, and the Brazilian twins Rafael and Fabio da Silva. David Beckham, now with Adidas and sundry other sponsors, was 19 when he first started a game. And all those — plus scores more who have passed through United’s system — were players skillful and exciting enough that neutrals would pay good money to see them.

Ferguson, those who know him say, instinctively saw the importance of United’s brand attributes when he was appointed manager in 1986. (In the busy period before the Champions League final, United politely declined TIME’s request to interview Ferguson.) A classic product of the west of Scotland assembly line that produces football managers like western Pennsylvania does quarterbacks, Ferguson took over the club after a period in which it had fallen from grace — and employed some managers who, frankly, were an embarrassment. When he arrived at Old Trafford, Ferguson “understood there was a culture that had to be revived,” says a man who worked closely with him. Ferguson, he says, in the perfect phrasing, thinks of himself as “the steward of the story — he has to keep the narrative going.”

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Talk to those who know Ferguson best, and unprompted they say how much he likes working with young players like the da Silva twins and Javier Hernandez, a 22-year-old Mexican who has just had a spectacular first season with United. “He loves bringing players on,” says Alastair Campbell, a close friend of Ferguson’s and a onetime top aide to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Not that anyone has ever accused Ferguson of being a soft touch. A player who displeases him is likely to get what has famously become known as the hair-dryer treatment, with the Boss yelling into a star’s face from close range. But then, when he arrived in Manchester, Ferguson needed to be tough. His fans were fed up. United had not won a championship in 19 years; in that time, Liverpool had won nine of them. Though Liverpool and Manchester are only some 60 km apart, for all intents and purposes part of the same metropolitan area, they have long had different cultures. Manchester millworkers held rallies for the Union during the U.S. Civil War, for example, while Liverpool was the most pro-Confederate city in Britain. The rivalry between them is intense. Each city thinks itself superior to the other; my father brought us up to intone, “Liverpool gentleman, Manchester man,” while United fans delight in dreaming up chants and songs that bait their Merseyside rivals. (The best draws a link between United’s Korean player, Park Ji-Sung, and the supposed dietary habits of Liverpudlians.)

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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?

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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.”

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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.

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