Recently I spoke in assembly about the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, a topic which due equal admiration and ire from its Yorkshire audience. One of the few football managers to be knighted in our era, Ferguson divided opinion as to whether we should admire his character as much as we might do his legacy. Even if you dislike football, his achievements are worthy of your consideration:

Over 26 years he has won an unprecendented 13 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cups, 10 Community Shields, 2 Champions League trophies as well as a host of other silverware. Winning in total 48 trophies, he is the most successful British football manager in history.


Despite his acclaim However, he is not without fault. Famed for attacking referees in the press and on the field (and, sometimes, his players), he came across as a man who would ruthlessly dedicate himself to success. And success, for him, was in the form of trophies and winning football matches. Lesser managers who shall retire with a, shall we say, more glowing reputation of character (like Wolves’ McMcarthy) often only achieve a handful of trophies, if that.

As much as the man compromised his character (I have many images of him haranguing referees), as a leader he was indomitable. Apparently on the training pitch he liked to seek and engender conflict, and once kicked a boot at David Beckham’s head. Unlike other successful managers of our time, such as Jose Mourinho, Ferguson has remained at the same club. Mourinho’s success is often short-lived. He has been said to emotionally exhaust his players, claiming that each season they are fighting for cultural and sporting capital, framing each season as the greatest challenge of his players’ lives. Of course, you can only do this a few times before the players wonder if the next season is actually the greatest of their lives (until the next one). Ferguson’s dominance reflets his emotional intensity, and comes surely at a price to his personal life –  that price is not one that people are willing to pay.

Yet there is something about Ferguson’s success that is attractive. The notion of a dominant figure monopolising situations to their advantage is a familiar icon throughout Western literature. Even Clint Eastwood has built a career out of these kind of figures (from Dirty Harry to Gran Torino). However, these kind of figures compromise their fabricated success by always operate alone. When placed in this context, Ferguson’s success is admirable because he sustained it in an inherently social environment: he had to perpetually motivate players to want to win.

At this point I am reminded in my speech that I likened Ferguson’s professional ruthlessness to an apparent lack of ‘niceness’. He was a rude, belligerent, stubborn individual. He admitted, accepted and embraced that. However, to what extent is this something to despite? Perhaps he was not nice because the word ‘nice’ has epistemological connotations:


Way back in the beginning, the Romans had a word for it — “nescius,” which in Latin means “not knowing” or, more bluntly, “ignorant.” The French turned “nescius” into “nice,” and used it to mean “stupid or simpleminded,” and it was this sense that was first carried into English. But by the fourteenth century “nice” had acquired another meaning, that of “wanton or lascivious,” so when Chaucer referred to a young woman as “nice,” he meant nearly the opposite of what we would mean today.

In a remarkable reversal in the fifteenth century, “nice” swung in the other direction and was used to mean “shy” or “refined,” and by the sixteenth century the word had been narrowed down to mean “fastidious or tasteful.” We still use this sense in phrases such as “a nice touch” or “a nice distinction.”

Our modern use of “nice” to mean “pleasant” dates only from the middle of the 18th century, and was remarkably controversial for many years. It was only in 1934, in fact, that lexicographers at Merriam-Webster stopped labelling this use as “colloquial” in their dictionaries. Which, I suppose, was nice of them.

What Ferguson’s legacy suggests to us is this: that to do good things for society (or, in his case, for his football club), you occasionally have to do bad things. To win the treble, as he did in 1999, you need to criticise referees and besmirch opponents in the media. Well, you might not have to do so, but such activity certainly helped him. When his players began to wane, you need to show no sympathy. Roy Keane, one the all-time greats, has been effectively isolated from Manchester United after a public spat with Ferguson. In each case, to have been ‘nice’ would have been to lose face or to risk not receiving favourable treatment from referees. While it’s good to be ‘nice’ in your personal life, Ferguson clearly compromised this for the sakes of professional success.

In terms of his lasting legacy, I was reminded of a notion attributed to the Greeks *: that when a man died, he was not given an obituary of how he related to his peers, but rather of whether he had a passion. Ferguson had a passion that drove him to compromise many aspects of himself in order to achieve his goals. He tested himself in a public arena many times (1,500 in total) and came out as the best. While I do not admire how he seems to be as a person, I cannot help but be moved to applaud at what he has achieved. I wouldn’t compromise myself like he did, but I still can’t help but want to be part of acclaiming his success.

*  Even if that Greek attribution turned out to be fabricated for a mediocre Hollywood film from the 1990s…