Us vs. Them

“You’ll not win anything with kids” said Alan Hansen of Sir Alex Ferguson’s young team that became branded as Fergie’s Fledglings. The response? A metaphorical “Hold my Scotch and watch this!” Those kids went on to dominate for years to come and only time will tell if a team can become so dominant for so long again.

It wasn’t all good times though, and events like the famous Cantona kung-fu kick.

Fergie stood behind his player against a hostile media and fans from every area of the game. Publicly Fergie would always back his player. How many times did a United player commit a foul only for Ferguson to tell reporters “I didn’t see it!”? On the other hand, when van Persie had a ball kicked at him it was Ferguson who said “He [van Persie] could have been killed.” Brian Clough had this to say about Ferguson “But Alex is still too thin-skinned, too ready to defend his players against outsiders.” I would suggest that Sir Alex wasn’t being thin skinned, he was building an us vs them mentality in the team and setting himself up as the gatekeeper. You wanted to get at his players and you’d have to go through him first, and good luck with that.

However, the public image wasn’t necessarily the whole of the picture, as we know from the famous hairdryer treatment that would be given to players away from the public eye. As brutally defensive as he was in public, behind the dressing room doors, stories are told of Ferguson shouting at players, holding nothing back.
Rio Ferdinand has this to say on his former manager:

“We played Benfica away and I think we got beat. We didn’t play well and he was shouting at me and I thought I was one of the best players on the day. So I was going back at him. And the problem is, which I failed to learn quickly, is that the more you shout at him, the louder he gets, and the more aggressive he gets, and the closer he gets to you.”

But also has this to say:

“He was a master of psychology, knew how to get the best out of every player and created an unstoppable winning mentality. He gave people the confidence to try things and didn’t mind if you made mistakes if you were trying the right things.”*

Ryan Giggs also recalls some early hairdryer treatment:

“I remember him having a go at me at half-time and I had the sort of attitude that ‘right, I’ll show him’. And I played well in the second-half, so then he quickly knew how I would respond to him losing his temper. That followed me for the next 20 years, so it was a big mistake early on.”

The core value of the team Ferguson created was “us vs them”. You don’t let garbage from the outside bring in an infection, and what happens in the team stays in the team. Ferguson stuck to this, he made difficult decisions, and he stayed the course no matter how big the player was to the team.

When David Beckham became a Spice Boy, it would seem a rift developed. Beckham now had two masters and could not serve them both equally. Beckham states that Ferguson had been like a father to him, even after having a boot kicked at his head by the latter. The respect was so strong, and yet Beckham had allowed an outside influence into the inner circle and it had taken his eye away. It was time for Beckham to leave. Roy Keane, the man who had been the recipient of so much grace, and had so many sins overlooked found himself on the outside when he dared criticise his team-mates in public. This was not done. Ferguson would not allow infection into his group. He was going to protect the brand and maintain values at all costs. The idea of “us vs them” cannot be maintained when even a little bit of “Them” infiltrates, or the “Us” becomes weak. Under Ferguson, and people like him, you are in or you are out, and if you take a step outside you’ll find a helping hand to keep you moving in that direction.

Here are the three takeaways for today:

1 – “You’ll not win anything with kids” was a big mistake in that Hansen was only looking at experience. Although there wasn’t a ton of experience, there was an amazing belief and attitude, and as Graham Westley says, “attitude is more important than ability.”

2 – Creating a tight group doesn’t mean overlooking the behaviours we don’t want, or removing all accountability, but it does mean not airing your dirty underwear in public. A concept the current United manager could benefit from implementing.

3 – Ferguson made himself the focus of attention and took pressure off the players. He wasn’t thin skinned at all, in fact the guy is made of elephant skin and took all of the attacks for his team, and they paid him back on the field.

In sport, a “us vs them” mentality is an amazing way to fire up your team and create confidence that everyone is fighting for the same cause. It’s a basic social identity concept, it works well in sport. In society, too much of it is, well, how we end up with the division we are seeing now.

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