Why a Glass of Wine with Fergie Won’t Win You the League

Just for a minute, picture yourself as a football manager.

Your relegation-threatened Premiership team have been offered a lifeline in the form of their first FA Cup quarterfinal in 22 years. Cheered on by a feverish home crowd, your players concede an early goal. Rocked by the setback, your young charges look to you for inspiration: what they need is a gesture, just one signal from you to spur them on and urge them to get back on terms. So what do you do: shake your head, bury your face in your hands and quietly curse your hopeless team.

That was the reaction of Birmingham manager Steve Bruce when his team went a goal behind to Liverpool, before slumping to a 7-0 pummelling in front of their disbelieving and increasingly angry fans. Far from inspiring his downtrodden troops, Bruce’s gesture was one of despair, a man devoid of ideas who just wanted to go home. Maybe he was longing for the safe pastures of Old Trafford, where he was once a hero, the rock on which Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering young side was founded in the 1990s.

As a manager Bruce is a relic, a throwback to an up-and-at-them era of tea cup-hurling managers and die-hard, tough-tackling players. His incompetence is matched only in the Premiership by that of Bryan Robson at West Brom and Steve McClaren at Middlesbrough. And where did these three all cut their teeth: under Ferguson at United.

'It is nothing short of the intellectualization of the beautiful game and blundering buffoons like Bruce and Robson are being left behind.'

These days, football management is more about nous than nuts. Ferguson's disciplinarian approach, acutely effective when he was blessed with possibly the greatest generation of young players this country has seen, looks way off the mark in the modern game and it's no surprise that United, the league's richest club, are about to complete a second straight season without a trophy.
What we are witnessing is the advent of the thinking man's manager: students of the game showing former players-turned-managers the route to success on the field.  It is nothing short of the intellectualization of the beautiful game and blundering buffoons like Bruce and Robson are being left behind.

It is no coincidence that the three most successful managers currently operating in the Premiership – Jose Mourinho, Rafael Benitez and Arsene Wenger – had no playing careers of note. Their methods are born out of analysis, preparation and a nerd-like obsession with scouting talent.

Bruce and Robson landed high-level managing jobs largely on the basis of their illustrious playing careers at Old Trafford. Wenger, Benitez and Mourinho were obliged to learn their trade at small clubs, prove themselves and earn the right to serve at football’s top table.

While Wenger scours the world for young, hungry players bursting with energy and technique - think Fabregas, Eboue, Van Persie - Bruce and Robson are prone to panic buys. Their desperation (and desperation comes naturally when you are propping up the league) is characterized by an obsession with buying strikers: a knee-jerk quest for a quick fix when all is at sea. How else do you explain the fact that West Brom have not two, but five mediocre forwards operating under Robson's “rotation system” at the Hawthorns?

Given the January transfer window to arrest his team's slide down the table, what did Bruce do?  He signed Chris Sutton and DJ Campbell - a 33-year-old has-been and a former non-league striker who had just achieved the mighty feat of scoring against Sunderland in the Cup. The return so far from this deadly duo? No goals, nul points, zilch.

It's easy to say these managers don't have the resources of Benitez, Wenger, or Moneybags Mourinho. But it doesn't take just hard cash to be sharp in the transfer market. Bolton's Sam Allardyce - very much a disciple of Wenger in his concern for player's diets and psychology - shows a tremendous knowledge of the global game by boosting his squad with exotic bargains every year. Alan Curbishley has turned Charlton into a mid-table side on a shoestring and Paul Jewell, in his first season of Premiership football with Wigan, is likely to finish higher in the league than Bruce or Robson ever have.

McClaren's case is even more suspect. He's spent £40 million on players in the last four years - £10 million more than Wenger - and Boro’s youth system are churning out talent. Yet the team still languishes 14th in the league. In January, when his side were given a 7-0 hiding by Arsenal, McClaren labelled the result a “good experience'' for his young team.  What he failed to note was that Wenger's side that day featured four players under 21, who ran rings round a team featuring overpaid, unmotivated internationals like Mark Viduka and Gaizka Mendieta.

So why was Ferguson such a bad teacher? Well, maybe he wasn't so great himself in the first place. Granted, the Premiership's most successful coach has something. He brought the best out of Beckham, Giggs, Scholes and the Nevilles by sheltering them from the limelight and cracking down on any perceived indulgence (party-boy Lee Sharpe was soon jettisoned to Leeds, Celebrity Love Island and the Football Focus sofas.) He fostered partnerships like Yorke and Cole and won the European Cup with a never-say-die spirit that was the very embodiment of a man brought up on the Glasgow breadline.

But in the transfer market, Ferguson's record is sketchy at best; the club's efforts to replace Roy Keane have been shambolic. Veron, Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba, Miller, Fletcher, Richardson have all tried and failed to bridge the gap and the current partnership of Giggs and O'Shea looks desperately makeshift. Devoid of leadership and power, the club failed to get past the group stages of the Champions League this season and hardly mustered a shot in limping out of the FA Cup to Liverpool. 

After a recent 3-0 drubbing at Old Trafford, Bruce will no doubt have taken up his former mentor's offer of a glass of Merlot. One cheekily imagines them reminiscing over the time Ferguson gave “Pally” Pallister the ‘hairdryer' treatment.

Wenger, of course, famously declines Ferguson's tipple.  Why have a glass of wine with the enemy when you could be charting the progress of a 15-year-old Cypriot who just might be the next Thierry Henry?

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