Change at Manchester United

September 14, 2014

by Paul Hinks

Manchester United’s current turmoil provides a platform to explore how leadership dilemmas are influencing events at the world famous football club

THIS DEVELOPING STORY IS BEING UPDATED REGULARLY.  ADDITIONS TO BE FOUND AT THE END OF THE ORIGINAL POST

On the 10th Sept 2014 the BBC reported Manchester United’s annual revenues They had risen by 19% to £433.2m -but they also reported an 84% drop in Man Utd’s profits.

Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward directed attention towards a new shirt deal with Adidas. When a club of Manchester United’s stature is discussing shirt deals instead of trophies there’s implicit recognition that it has fallen below its own high standards of achievement.

Change vs Inertia

Sir Alex was manager of Manchester United between 1986 and 2013 – his teams became synonymous with success, dominating footballing headlines for all the right reasons. Trophies symbolized the success; fans and pundits alike enjoyed watching an entertaining style of football which also delivered results – to the envy of rival fans, this was the ‘Manchester United way’.

Manchester United’s culture, discourse and identity

Reference the ‘Manchester United way’ and it has a different meaning to different people – perhaps a benchmark for free-flowing attack minded football, or a fan’s recollections of an important victory against a fierce rival; perhaps somebody referencing the successful development of Man Utd’s youth into world class talent?
A great attribute of sport – and football in particular – is that it provokes opinion and debate effortlessly. For a club of Manchester United’s stature, any deviation from their own high standards of success amplifies the process of inquiry.

Alpha Males and Autocratic Leadership

The appointment of David Moyes as Manager is increasingly reflected upon as a transition period which didn’t go to plan. The swift and recent appointment of Louis van Gaal as Manchester United’s manager [19th May 2014] takes the club in a different direction again. In some ways Louis van Gaal’s leadership style has parallels with Ferguson’s: strong values; clear standards; absolute authority. In Ferguson’s time those who crossed him, or fell short of Manchester United’s standards, quickly found themselves playing for another club. Louis van Gaal maintains a similar reputation.

The ‘Make or Buy’ dilemma

In his short tenure, Louis van Gall his has spent in the region of £150m bringing in new players. He’s also started the process of shaping his team, which includes the controversial sale of highly rated home grown player Danny Wellbeck to Arsenal for £16m. Are we witnessing the start of a new ‘Manchester United way’ – one where success is bought rather than developed in-house?

The Guardian provided additional commentary on the situation:

Ryan Giggs has denied Manchester United’s recent transfer policy represents a betrayal of Old Trafford traditions, although Nicky Butt, the club’s reserve team manager, admitted promoting homegrown talent must take a back seat under Louis van Gaal.
United have spent £215m on new players over the past 12 months and off loaded the academy graduates Danny Welbeck to Arsenal and Tom Cleverley to Aston Villa on the day Colombia international Radamel Falcao arrived on loan from Monaco .

That turnover prompted Mike Phelan, United’s former assistant manager, to accuse the club of losing their identity, while Eric Harrison, the ex-youth team manager who brought through the famed “Class of 92”, said United were losing “their soul” as a consequence.
There’s a certain paradox and tension between retaining tried and tested methods versus embracing new and different ways of working.

Like any organisation, Manchester United has various metrics to measure its success – trophies remain the currency that most fans prefer to use – but perhaps here is one of the biggest misnomers of football – football is increasingly commercially focused. Sure the fans crave the bragging rights that go with winning, but there are other stakeholders to consider too.


‘Something Special’

Sir Alex had an enviable reputation for developing the potential in players, nurturing youth into world-class talent; examples include: Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville and Nicky Butt – there are others too. Perhaps aged 63, Louis van Gaal perceives time is not on his side? Perhaps his experience helps him recognize the urgency in returning Manchester United back to be serious challengers for honours? If he doesn’t succeed quickly, perhaps another candidate will be afforded the opportunity?

Manchester United’s various stakeholders – its fans, directors, owners, sponsors – and indeed its closest rivals all expect Manchester Utd to be serious contenders for honours. Few other clubs have history and expectation to deliver success – Louis van Gaal is shaping the future of club which many regard as ‘something special’. How he delivers will be watched with great interest.

UPDATES START HERE

July 14th 2014 

The Adidas shirt deal is worth £750 million over ten years.

September 14th 2014

Manchester United beat Queen’s Park Rangers 4-0 Van Gaal’s team with its costly Galacticos win in style at Old Trafford. Move from 17th to 9th in league table.

September 15th 2014

Disenchanted Ronaldo wants move back to Manchester United.


Sir Alex Ferguson: He’s only human (like Desert Orchid)

January 1, 2012

It was a week when North Korea reported supernatural events on the death of their dear leader. It ended with a reminder at Old Trafford that even great leaders like Sir Alex Ferguson are only human, and will make mistakes from time to time

Let’s make this personal. Susan and I settled down to listen to the game between Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers, the mid-day match on New Year’s eve. The stated odds were twenty to one against a Blackburn Rovers win. For arcane contractual reasons there were no Premier League football matches televised that day.

More injury worries for United

We listened to the team news with surprise but only slight concern. United’s injury problems seemed to have become even worse with makeshift arrangements in defence and mind-field. And the latest casualty was Wayne Rooney, by general agreement United’s most gifted attacking player.
Still, Blackburn Rovers were in turmoil. They were bottom of the league. Their hapless manager was the target of a vociferous campaign to have him sacked. Sir Alex said Rooney would miss the game but would probably be back for the next one. Rooney watched the game from the Directors’ box.

The crowd sang Happy Birthday

The press had built up the occasion as the day when Sir Alex Ferguson would celebrate his seventieth birthday, and when United would leapfrog their ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City to head the league table at the start of the New Year.

The nightmare begins

Sometimes you can anticipate when a team that starts badly is going to get worse. This began to seem one of those times. United were playing as if it were only a matter of time before Blackburn would drop out of the two horse race, leaving the thoroughbreds to canter on to the winning post. But Blackburn defended grimly then broke away and scored. “That’s what the neutrals wanted” said the commentator. “Now we’ve got a game on our hands”.

The nightmare continues

At half time the game remained one goal in Blackburn’s favour. United’s patched-up team had begun to run out of attacking ideas. Then the next blow. Another breakaway goal. The inexperienced defence exposed again.

A brief time of hope, and then

Unlike proper nightmares, there was a brief time of hope. United scored within minutes of conceding Blackburn’s second goal. But then the nightmare continued. Yet another piece of poor defending by United and Blackburn score again. The Old Trafford fans were silenced, as their lambs were despatched. The game ended Manchester United 2 Blackburn Rovers 3. “It’s a disaster” said Sir Alex

The story behind the story: bend it like Beckham?

Within hours the story behind the story broke. Wayne Rooney had mightily displeased Sir Alex, and had been dropped as a disciplinary measure. It all sounded a bit like the famous David Beckham episode resulting in Beckham’s injury from a flying boot, not on the field but in the dressing room.

Perhaps coincidentally, Rooney had made a very public joke about that incident a few days earlier. He had also broken the strict training regime having dinner with a few players and wives after the last United match. A confrontation with the notoriously prickly Sir Alex, and some punishment was inevitable.

He’s only human

I couldn’t help remembering the words of a stable girl after another great sporting personality, Desert Orchid, failed surprisingly. “He’s only human” she said in Dessie’s defence.

Maybe we should remember the same point about Sir Alex. Even the greatest leaders sometimes struggle with the dilemmas they have to deal with.


Getting into Fergie’s mind (games). Cathy Cassell may have one answer

May 14, 2011

Cathy Cassell

Sir Alex Ferguson’s mind and his mind-games over his period as manager of Manchester United Football Club have been much discussed in football circles. Such leadership behaviours require careful analysis. Which is where someone like Professor Cathy Cassell may have an answer.

A starting point for studying an individual’s leadership behaviours is to select a set of critical incidents which collectively throw light on the person and their behaviour patterns over an extended time period. That is what sports journalist Michael Carr did recently [May 2011]. His top ten Alex Ferguson incidents are:

1. Treble champions (1998/1999)

2. You don’t win anything with kids & managerial mind games (1995/1996)

3. Putting the boot in (that David Beckham dressing room injury 2002/2003)

4. Rivalry with Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger (1996 – Today)

5. First Premiership Crown (1992/1993)

6. A battle of footballing philosophies (with Jose Mourhino’s Chelsea 2006/2007)

7. A dramatic turnaround (Arsenal snatch championship defeat in March 2003)

8. Surpassing Liverpool’s nineteen league titles (to be confirmed, Confirmed May 14th 2011. 2010/2011)

9. Panorama accusations (after which, AF refuses to give interviews to BBC, 2004)

10. You’ve gotta be joking ref! (FA punishment for various comments about referees, 2011)

First impressions

The stories provide a wealth of information about one of the most successful leaders in Football of all time. They provide ‘compare and contrast’ opportunities with two other great managers (Wenger and Mourniho). They remind us that leaders are humans with human faults and weaknesses. A besotted fan might find plausible explanations to explain dressing-room outbursts like the one which speeded up David Beckham’s departure as a strength. Leadership theories might treat this as an unintended consequence rather than part of a grand strategy to get rid of David Beckham.

Critical incident analysis

Professor Cathy Cassell is a distinguished management scholar and long-time football supporter. She teaches her students at Manchester Business School qualitative research methods, including critical incident analysis. This approach helps a researcher identify the various themes which recur within a set of stories and their critical incidents. So come on Cathy. Let’s be ‘avin you. How about putting Sir Alex under the microscope on your courses next year?


Hossam Hassan, Egypt’s football legend who aims to became a successful coach

August 25, 2010

The greatest footballers often aspire to become great coaches. Maradonna is but the latest to try his hand in a leadership role. One who is setting out on that path is Hossam Hassan. The Egyptian legend became the most-capped and highest-scoring player in African football history (83 international goals and 170 appearances over 21 years with the Pharaohs). Hassan joined Cairo’s prestigious Al Ahly in 1985 and forced his way into the national team not so much for technique as for what FIFA described as “the steely resolve that would become his trademark which ensured that he was soon enough established as his country’s first-choice forward.”

Successes and setbacks

In 1988, Mahmoud El Gohary took over the Pharaohs reins for the first time and steered the team to their second FIFA World Cup appearance two years later. Hassan found in El Gohary a mentor.
After a spell in European football Hassan returned to a struggling Al Ahly, and helped them regain their former status. But he suffered a setback when he was released (together with his twin brother) under a disciplinary storm. He then moved to Al Ahly’s great rivals Zamalek and duly led them to several titles. He also continued his international playing career (there are some similarities with David Beckham) and in 2006 at the age of 40,  he was part of the Egypt team that regained the Africa Cup of Nations in 2006.

International ambitions

He remains a controversial figure, although he retains ambitions of international coaching leadership: “I hope one day to take charge of the Egyptian national team…and I believe that I will achieve that very soon.”

Acknowlegements

Image from the Zamalek webpage. Also to the student in Dubai who introduced me to the name of his sporting hero. If he reads my post and gets in touch I will be pleased to add his name to the acknowledgements here.