UTD Unscripted: The highest privilege

Tuesday 31 August 2021 07:00

When I look back over my career so far, there have been a lot of different experiences.

I’ve coached in a number of different capacities, managed at various levels and had a totally unique mentorship with the great Wiel Coerver. I’m currently assistant manager for the Socceroos and recently got back from the Olympics, which was an incredible event to be a part of.

Among everything I’ve done, though, there’s one great privilege that really stands out in my memory: six years of working closely with Sir Alex Ferguson.

He brought me to United as a skills development coach, working with the youth players, then managing the Reserves and doing individual sessions with the first team. When Carlos Queiroz left in 2007, Mick Phelan became the new assistant manager and I became first-team coach. When I look back on that period of my life, only great memories come in my head. 

I think at that time, between 2007 and his retirement, Sir Alex had reached the highest pinnacle you can reach as a manager. He was very experienced in the sense that he had won so much but had also sampled some lesser times of not winning things, and the core ideas of his coaching and management were fully crystallised by that stage. His approach to playing entertaining, attacking football never left him and – absolutely crucially – he was able to constantly move with the times. However fast the game evolved with technology, sports science and the development of the players themselves, he always managed to keep pace with everything. There was never a chance United would be left behind. 

Obviously, he had the role for 26 years and I came in the latter years of his career, so people like Brian Kidd and Steve McClaren were a big part of his journey at different stages, and I’m sure they’d have great stories of working with him. I came at the end when he was already very successful and my goal was simple: keep it going. I wanted to help make sure we maintained our success. At the start of every season it was always the same set of goals: win the Premier League, try to win the Champions league, the FA Cup and the League Cup, in that order. The question we’d ask ourselves was what are we going to win? We always wanted to win something. That level of expectation brings a certain level of commitment, high demands and it could bring a lot of pressure.

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That’s the key, for me, to sum up my time working with Sir Alex: I never felt that pressure.

Never, ever as a first-team coach did I feel stressed out about anything and that was basically because of the environment he created in and around the staff at Carrington. I never felt restricted to go and knock on his door to go and discuss something or to speak my opinion. He was always open for discussions and I think one of his biggest attributes as a leader was that he was a very good listener. Very, very good. He would take things on board if they made sense to him. He always used to say that when he started in 1986 he had eight staff, and by the time I was there he had more than Marks & Spencer! He managed a huge team and what he really did well was delegate.

In all my time at United, I can't recall having more than five formal meetings where we would gather all the staff together. It was generally informal, a lot of the time it was me and Sir Alex in the office or me, him and Mick [Phelan] in the office. He'd walk past me on the training pitch and ask me something, rather than call a meeting. That's how we did it. That's how we did everything together. It was informal and natural because the moment you stick people around the table, they start to feel stressed because they feel they have to say something. If you create an informal environment, people are always happy to speak. No problem. If they speak informally, they speak from the heart. Sir Alex really trusted us, kept it informal and that was, for me, a big part of never feeling stressed.

At the time Carlos left, Sir Alex was brilliant in the way he dealt with the situation. At the time, we carried on through pre-season after Carlos’s departure, and by the time of the first international break that season, speculation began to start over what changes he’d be making to the coaching team. He just killed that straight away. He said to us: “Mick, you’re going to be my assistant manager. Rene, you're going to be first-team coach.”

The framework was laid down very quickly. Later that same week, he called me into his office and we had a conversation that I still vividly remember.

“I'd like to have a quick chat to you, Rene, so that we're on the same page with regards to what we want from Man United,” he said. “If I close my eyes and picture myself seeing the best United team, this is what I see.”
He was standing by a flip chart. At that point, he flipped the sheet and it had a set of three defensive principles. 

“I want to be able to press from the front. At other times I want us to be more compact in a block and maybe press from there, and at times if we have to defend really well, we want to be able to defend narrow and compact but we need to be able to spring and counter. Then obviously we need to look after defensive set pieces, free kicks, corners and so on.”

He flipped onto the second page. 

“In possession, it's important that we get control of the ball as quickly as we can because the most important element of possession is rhythm. If we build up from the back, we break lines and get into an area where it's more compact, then we need to be able to change our rhythm from one-touch to two-touch as we look for a way through. As you know, unpredictability is the hardest thing to defend against and you can create that through one-touch combination play, movement or creating one-v-ones or two-v-ones. We always have to have a purpose and intent when we're in possession. We always want to get forward, break lines and create chances and score goals. Obviously, a lot of time is spent in how we handle transition. If we lose the ball then how quickly can we stop them from hurting us, and if we win it then how quickly can we hurt them?”

Then he came to the last page. Attacking principles.

“This is the most important page. It revolves around these things: we want to attack with speed, power, penetration and unpredictability. Those four things.” Then he took his pen to the attacking principles sheet, smiled and said: “If that doesn’t work, we gamble!”

I loved that.

“Basically, those things on those three sheets – defending principles, possession, attacking principles – I want you to train the players with them in mind every single day. Whether it’s a finishing session, conditioning game, whatever. Those three sheets are your framework.”

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That’s how simple it was. On three flip charts, that was my entire job outline. Sir Alex trusted my imagination and creativity, he liked the positive energy I had, so he gave me the ingredients that I needed to use when devising training sessions. That was great. It was made so simple for me. 

It was all about putting a purpose to what we do, so that the players understand why they were doing what they were doing. You had to challenge those world-class players. It could be anything – a finishing session, a conditioning game, anything – but the job was to challenge them and, within that challenge, give them ownership because that's what you wanted them to do in matches. Sessions were always about purpose and challenge, and they always revolved around quality and intensity. They were interlinked. If you do those four, most likely the players enjoy it. The key for those players, no matter that they were well-paid, top professionals, the core of them playing football was because they loved playing football and as a coach you need to capture that love for football. That keeps them engaged. You want them to feel something. When that happens, you feel the energy and quality coming out on the training pitch.

The biggest compliment that I had over my six years – and I did all sorts of sessions where I worked with one player, two players, 30 players, it doesn't matter – was that never, ever did one player come off the pitch and say to me: “That was s***, that. I didn’t enjoy that.” Never. And if it had been, they’d definitely have told me. Those players didn’t hold back. 

The most important part, of course, was how those sessions translated into events in games. When I was sitting next to Sir Alex watching the game, and I knew what we’d worked on, I’d be asking myself: are we pressing from the front, nice and compact, good in transition, breaking the lines quickly enough? When the final whistle went, usually after a win, the boss always stood up and said: “well done”, and that was enough. He said to me once that those are the two most important words in coaching. Coming from him, they carried weight. “Well done,” was enough.

That’s all you needed, because it was relentless. Champions League Wednesday, Premier League Saturday, League Cup Tuesday… that hard drive never stopped spinning because it was always thinking ahead and that’s why you need good staff, good people around you so you can get their take or their feelings on a situation. Sometimes we had the odd bad result, but we never dwelled on it. We didn’t get carried away with the highs and never got too down with the setbacks.

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Sir Alex was always in control, but he always seemed relaxed. He was clear with all of us. He’d say: “We work in a stressful job. It's 24/7, but that doesn't mean that I want you to be busy with football 24/7. If your job is done and you want to refresh yourself, go home. It's all about quality, not quantity.” 

At the end of the day, if people can only think about one thing, then it’s a slippery slope. You need to refresh yourself because if you don’t, you could slowly lose anything: energy, sharpness, creativity, imagination… and you wouldn't even notice it. You had to be at your best because every game was an exam. You win, you draw or you lose but, for me, the exam really has two parts: the style and the result. Those two go hand-in-hand. 

At times there were games which probably weren't great but we found a way to win and afterwards Sir Alex would remind us that those are the results that are going to get you the championship, but his intent was the most important thing and that's a really strong word for me. The intent always had to be right. He always wanted to play with the right intention. Before games, the build-up was always about us, maybe 80-20 or 75-25 in terms of how much we spoke about us, rather than the opposition. That's how we address the players. We had an attitude of… not arrogance, but self-consciousness, confidence, self-belief. 

We’re Man United.

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That came through to the players. 

It was such a great setup to be a part of. So enjoyable. It was serious work, but there wasn’t one day when we didn't laugh, and that stood out to me. Sir Alex loved to take the mickey out of you and he didn't mind if he took the mickey out of him at times. I’d often give him a lift to Macclesfield station if we were catching the train to an away game, so there was a lot of quality time in the car, and he’s just an unbelievably knowledgeable guy. That’s not just about the game of football, but so many other areas as well. He had a wide range of knowledge and interests, particularly in people who were leaders in politics or other areas. That probably shaped his managerial style. He laid the foundations for everything at United and, when I recently wrote a coaching book, it was in part a tribute to him because I wanted to make people understand the importance of him as the layer of the foundations for United’s success.

I’m always forward focused and I’ve still got a lot of ambitions remaining in my career – next up, the main aim is getting to the World Cup with Australia – but I think it’s safe to say I probably won’t end up working with another character like Sir Alex Ferguson. Those years working with one of the most successful managers in the world, who won so much and shaped an entire club, were just the highest privilege.

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