Lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson

It is unlikely that anyone would suggest Sir Alex Ferguson was a friend to referees. His mind games before matches such as, ‘This game is going to need a firm referee’; meaning he expected the referee to be strict against his opponents, were employed to press his influence.

Let’s also remember his ranting at officials during games resulted in at least four touchline bans. And his post-match criticism includes having posted comments on the club website, even after television had proved the referee correct.

Then there was his walking up and down tapping his watch towards the end of the game. He has since admitted that he had no idea how much time was remaining, he did it to intimidate the referee if his team were winning.

So what can we learn from this referee baiter, but extraordinary manager? There is a new book out by management consultant, Professor Damian Hughes, entitled How to think like Sir Alex Ferguson from which we might take some clues.

Firstly the professor says that Ferguson did not see himself as a football manager, but a manager of change. Ferguson always had his eyes fixed on three or four years ahead; where he wanted the team to be and adjusted accordingly.

Do we as referees always think in this way? Where do we want to be in four years time and what do we need to do to get there?

Hughes says that Ferguson had a relentless focus; he believed that a lack of focus drains energy, which is vital. Ferguson told fellow Scot, tennis player Andy Murray: “If you can keep your focus for the entire game, the consistency will follow.”

That is true of refereeing; is there any of us who can’t think of an occasion when we have let our focus wander, miss an incident and bring unnecessary inconsistency and turbulence to our game?

Ferguson’s comment on his selection of players is particularly interesting. He did not necessarily pick the best players, but wanted those with the right spirit. What did that mean exactly?

Let us consider the advice singer Lionel Richie’s father gave him, “altitude depends on aptitude and attitude”. In other words how high you can rise depends on both your ability and your approach. Mohamed Ali went further, “To be a champion,” he said, “you must have the skill and the will, and the will must be greater that the skill”.

One player endeared himself to Ferguson because he stayed behind after training and helped the coaches collect stray balls. Someone prepared to help those around him.

Are we prepared to help others, perhaps at our local RA, or as a mentor, or assessor, or a tutor, or even make sure we help others like appointment secretaries with our administration.

Another trick was to watch videos with players, asking them to analyse their mistakes. Some players would get defensive, but he was looking for those who were willing to learn rather than justify themselves.

Have we got an open mind and try to learn all the time? All good referees will tell you that there is always something they could have done better.

One story Ferguson enjoyed telling his players was that of three men laying bricks. Each was asked what he was doing, ‘Laying bricks,’ said one; ‘Earning £10 per hour,’ said another. The third said, ‘I’m building a cathedral and one day I will bring my kids and tell them that their dad contributed to this magnificent building’. He wanted his players to believe they were building the best Manchester United team ever, something they would be proud to talk about.

Why shouldn’t we look at our games in the same way? What are we doing? Refereeing a game and earning £25 or positively contributing to a match that everyone enjoys and pleased to talk about having taken part in?

Professor Hughes says Ferguson was also unafraid to seek advice from others and here’s a man at the top of his profession. He frequently refreshed the people around him, making sure he was up-to-date with the latest thinking.

Are we stuck in a rut, thinking we know best and not bother to listen to others who may have different ideas? By attending RA meetings you may not only learn from speakers’ experiences, but from other peoples’ points of view, or what they have found to work.

Finally, Ferguson rigorously practised for when things weren’t going well, especially in the closing moments of the game, sometimes known as ‘squeaky bum time’.

Those closing moments are often important to us as referees. Do we have a plan that we put into operation especially when things are tight, or do we just plod on and hope to get to the final whistle unscathed? Is that the time when our focus might slip?

Ferguson may have been the bane of many referees’ lives but if we look closer at how he achieved such amazing, unprecedented success, there are lessons for us all.

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