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English Football: Bill Shankly and Sir Alex Ferguson – A Tale of Two Autocrats

April 25, 2014

Manchester United’s sacking of manager David Moyes has unleashed a firestorm of column inches in the British media. One of the most thoughtful pieces appears in today’s Times newspaper.

In Manchester United haunted by successor and failure, Simon Barnes, the paper’s Chief Sports Writer, argues that Moyes never had a chance, because autocrats like Sir Alex Ferguson rule by their strength of character and usually leave an unfillable  void in their wake.

Barnes cites historical examples of failed successions to back up his case. Attila the Hun, Louis XIV of France, Stalin and Margaret Thatcher were all followed by weak leaders, with the inevitable adverse consequences. Après moi le déluge, in other words. He finishes by saying:

“You can follow the autocrat with a good, understanding, listening people-person and he will fail. You can follow an autocrat with another autocrat and he will fail. You can follow an autocrat with Mother Teresa or Attila the Hun, Le Roi Soleil or Pope Francis, and they will all fail.

Autocracy is a marvellously effective system, wonderfully economical in its decision-making, gloriously tidy in the way it works. And you can get things done all right – you can certainly make the trains run on time.

But the one thing you can’t do is pass it on to the next leader. All autocrats are by definition victims of their own success.”

I agree with him and others who have expressed the same view less eloquently. But only up to a point.

One of the ironies of Manchester United’s downfall this season is that it coincides with the resurgence of Liverpool Football Club. In 2011 Ferguson took some delight in “knocking Liverpool off their perch” by helping United notch up a nineteenth league title, thus overtaking  their biggest rivals as the most successful club in English football.

Liverpool are currently favourites to win the Premier League. It would be their first title for twenty-four years. Even if they don’t make it to the top spot this year, they will still have achieved the club’s objective of returning to the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2010.

Liverpool’s history of management provides an interesting counterpoint to United’s current woes. Like United, the club enjoyed a prolonged spell of dominance over English football. Over two-and-a-half decades, starting in the mid-1960s, Liverpool won 13 league titles, 5 FA Cups and 4 European Cups. Without Bill Shankly – another Scottish autocrat – who took the club from the Second Division and won much of the silverware early in that period of dominance, it’s inconceivable that Liverpool would have achieved that success.

But here’s the difference between Ferguson and Shankly. Ferguson went on into his seventies, amassing a number of trophies that will probably never be exceeded by one man. Shankly retired at the age of 61, and handed over to his assistant Bob Paisley, who went on to win more trophies than his former boss. When Paisley retired, he handed over to Joe Fagan, yet another long-time member of the Bootroom – the team of coaches and assistants Shankly had assembled. Under Fagan, Liverpool kept on winning trophies.

Although the Bootroom culture gradually faded over time, successive managers – Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Roy Evans – all had long histories of involvement with the club. Dalglish and Souness were illustrious players during the golden years. Evans had been with the club for his entire career. It was only in 1998, twenty-four years after Shankly’s retirement, that Liverpool recruited a manager with no previous association with the club.

The Liverpool story suggests that the departure of an autocrat is not a guarantee of subsequent failure. The difference between the Liverpool succession after Shankly and the current situation at Manchester United was that whether by accident or design, Liverpool had an abundance of managerial material ready to take over from the supreme autocrat.

Manchester United, on the other hand, perceived that they did not. What’s more they allowed Moyes to dispose of Ferguson’s principal lieutenants, Mike Phelan and René Meulensteen. Moyes did appoint two “keepers of the flame”, Phil Neville and Ryan Giggs, to his coaching team, but neither had the depth of experience as coaches as the two men who departed. The loss was not just of experience but of institutional knowledge – “the way things work around here”.

Was Shankly less of an autocrat than Ferguson? That’s a matter of opinion. But what the two examples seem to show is that regimes can survive the departure of a dominant leader if the leader’s surrounds himself with other strong characters – his court, if you like.

It would be too simplistic to blame the decline of both clubs solely on a failure of leadership, or indeed on the crumbling of a culture built up by Shankly and Ferguson. Liverpool and Manchester United have both had to contend with factors beyond the control of their managers. In Liverpool’s case the Hillsborough and Heysel disasters and the uncertainty arising from the club’s previous unfortunate choice of owners, Gillett and Hicks. For United, ownership continues to be an issue as a large slice of profit is sucked out of the business every year to service the debt its current owners incurred in order to buy the club. And the departure of chief executive David Gill coinciding with the end of the Ferguson era created a double rupture.

So the picture is more complicated than simply the inevitability of failure following an autocrat for whom, as Barnes put it, “le club c’est moi”. And for every historical example he quotes to back up his argument, there are others to contradict it.

Take Genghis Khan, an autocrat if ever there was one. His sons and grandsons consolidated and extended the empire he founded. Way before Genghis, Alexander the Great created an empire which his successors – although they carved individual fiefdoms out of Alexander’s domain – ruled for the next couple of centuries, and longer in the case of Ptolemy and his family in Egypt. In the modern day, the Kim dynasty of North Korea continues into the third generation twenty years after the death of the founding autocrat Kim Il Sung.

It seems to me that if you are an autocrat and you wish see your legacy continue intact after your demise, you need to have done several things.

First you need to have instilled an abiding sense of purpose that survives you. John Major did not fail just because he was weaker than Margaret Thatcher. His other problem was that he didn’t believe in the principles of “Thatcherism” as the compelling purpose of his government, and his colleagues by and large didn’t either. Nor did he create a new sense of purpose that galvanised the electorate as Thatcher’s philosophy did.

Second, you need to have created a structure that survives you. In many cases that structure is the family, or a close band of associates who have the talent to keep your show on the road and will not cut each other’s throats after your passing. Kim Jong Il would not have been able to succeed his father without the support of the structure – primarily military – that his father Kim Il Sung created. Kim Jong Il’s son Kim Jong Un appears bent on destroying that structure by eliminating in spectacularly gruesome ways a number of his father’s and grandfather’s closest supporters, which is one of the reasons why political observers are predicting that he will be the last of his dynasty.

Third, you need to have created a sense of tradition that survives the test of time. At Liverpool that tradition still lives, which is one of the reasons why the scintillating football played by Brendan Rodgers’ team is hailed by football lovers, including this writer, as a return to the values of Shankly, Paisley and Fagan.

If you get each of these three elements right – and if your successors enjoy a little luck and manage not to be swept away by events beyond their control or understanding – then your empire stands a fair chance of avoiding the deluge.

In Manchester United’s case, the club’s owners appear to care little for purpose beyond making money.They certainly have no emotional attachment to football. The structure they have created is purely business-driven, despite the presence of Ferguson and fellow United legend Bobby Charlton on the board. The one thing that they have not been able to destroy is tradition, because that lives in the emotions of the supporters and employees of the club.

Liverpool, on the other hand, have an owner in John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group that is acutely aware of the importance of tradition, as fans of Boston Red Sox – also under Fenway’s stewardship -would testify. Under Henry, the club has a strong sense of purpose and probably closer links to its supporters than any of its peers, just as the Red Sox do. It also has a structure – of which current manager Brendan Rodgers is a part but not the sole dominant personality – that would seem appropriate to the long-term stability of a major sporting enterprise.

Much as I cherish the great football moments Sir Alex Ferguson and his teams helped to create, my money’s on Liverpool to forge ahead of their old rival in the decade to come.

As for the fiefdoms of the autocrats, who’s next for the deluge? In football, Cardiff City after Vincent Tan, because of his failure to respect tradition, and in politics, Russia after Vladimir Putin, because of his failure to create structures that do not depend on him. Unless North Korea gets there first, of course.

From → Business, Sport, UK

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