Why do some talented people fail miserably? Why do they lead very average lives when they could have attained greatness at some point? Talented people do not fail because they lose momentum or because their ability wears off. Sometimes, they are simply in the wrong environment. Because your environment affects your performance. No one knows this better than Alex Ferguson.
1988/89, three seasons into his job as the Manager of the biggest football club in the UK, Alex Ferguson had to make some hard decisions. Manchester United had not won a single championship since he joined, the drinking parties of the players were rampant, and the top players spent more time injured in the physio room than they did at training.
Shouting and fining players had little affect. They had been through a couple of managers in a very short span already, and the new guy flexing his muscles wasn’t going to straighten them up.
Every team needs a hero
Ferguson, also known as Fergie, had to re-think his strategy to inspire change in the team. The only way Manchester United will change was if it had a hero. A hero who embodied the culture of being world-class; someone who could sail the club through turbulence to victory. Someone who’d come in at the last minute to save the game when they need it the most. Someone who’d build the morale of the team leading by example.
Because, when you have a hero they become bulldozers for rapid change. Players look up to them and crave to be like them. This was the only way to transform this club; shouting at and fining players wasn’t sustainable.
But, how do you find a hero? You don’t have a supermarket for heroes to walk in and pick one up. It won’t be easy – and he knew it. You must either create one from within the club like an alchemist turning lead into gold, or tunnel into the deep mines of football wannabes and surface back with a blood-red-diamond.
Man. U already had great players like Paul McGrath, Norman Whiteside, and even the legendary Bryan Robson (who, in 2011, was voted the greatest player ever to play at Manchester United). They were devils on the pitch – fast, focused and ferocious. But, as much as they were world class athletes, they were also world class alcoholics – a combination only recommended for frat parties. They were not worthy of heroism; at least, not in Ferguson’s standards. Even in the eyes of a layman, how could they be heroes? If they were heroes, by now, having them in the team for years should have brought home a trophy. Rather, these players contributed the least to consistent victory.
These were not players willing to change their ways – their cups were too full. Humility is the first ingredient of a hero – and none of them had it in them to transform…
Single out the “one”
There was, however, one player who had all the ingredients to emerge as the star of Man.U. He was no stranger to being a star either.
Ferguson knew Gordon Strachan because they were both at Aberdeen, the scottish club Ferguson coached before he was head hunted by Manchester United. At Aberdeen, Ferguson together with Strachan, won 3 Scottish Leagues, 3 Scottish Cups and one European Cup – the most successful period in Aberdeen’s history to this date.
“Aberdeen had been a terrific team, with no shortage of strong personalities, but he (Strachan) had always been able to stand out, certainly in the eyes of the press. He had drawn nourishment from his status….”Alex Ferguson, Managing My Life (1999)
Grooming a hero’s mindset
While Strachan was the hero in Aberdeen, he wasn’t even close to one at Man.U. But, how could he be one? At Man.U he was among the giants from the England National Team; guys who, when they said a word to their fans, it was only second only to the word of God. When they needed a saviour, Man.U had an arsenal of greats to choose from. They had no need for another. This, as Ferguson thought, was what Strachan didn’t have at Man.U that he had at Aberdeen – no one relied on him for glory. This inferiority complex got to Strachan. The player could never showcase his real skills under pressure. He always felt intimidated by the players around him. He felt that there was always someone who could do better than him, or that he would never match up to the greater players around.
But Strachan was different to the others in discipline and potential. The spark of a hero could be ignited. He didn’t partake in the drinking parties, and he took feedback to improve himself. It was obvious that it was in him. At Aberdeen, Ferguson allowed Strachan to be his star player; put him in front of the press, made the entire team believe that he is the only person to rely on. Everytime Ferguson did this Strachan proved himself time and time again, scoring the winning goal at moments it was desperately needed. Because Ferguson saw how the attention, like an elixir, fed into Strachan’s energy and performance.
This had to be the strategy to create the alchemy that will take Strachen from just another center to the goal scoring hero Man.U desperately needed.
The closest to victory in a long time
Before the 1988/89 season began it had been almost 2 years without a title for Manchester United with Fergie as Manager. 25 years since the club’s last one. Things were heating up. Fans and Press were questioning Fergie’s capability to win championships.
With an unprecedented effort of the team, that February in 1989 Man.U turned things around. A stellar performance by the team qualified them for the quarterfinals of the FA Cup trophy. It was the first time in years that they came so far. Looked like Fergie was going to prove the critics wrong after all.
Decisions fail more often than they don’t
By this time Strachan had been groomed for his moment of fame for months. Ferguson had given him the feeling that he was becoming the emerging star. He gave Strachan strategic positions and let the team know that Strachan must be looked up to as their main pillar of strength. But none of the previous matches sparked the player’s morale enough to reveal what Fergie saw in him. The inferiority complex showed up in bouts – and his performance always fell short. This quarterfinal, though, was a critical match. Making Strachan the highlight of this game was a sure shot chance at reviving glory. So, during the pre-match press conference Ferguson chose his comments intentionally “It’ll be Gordon Strachan who could take us to Wembley” he said, singling out the player. A boost of confidence for Strachan, Ferguson thought.
On the day of the game, the effort seemed to not have taken effect. From the start of the match he was intimidated by the opposition team and Man.U lost to Nottingham Forest 1 – 0. Strachan never seemed to recover from his inferiority illusion.
At that point in time, a decision had to be made. Many incidents of disappointment with Strachan had already racked up. There are only so many chances one can be given. Ferguson realised some players can’t be changed even if they are given the best opportunities and have the perfect ingredients. Something else had to align, and that was probably their environment.
Weeks later, Strachan was sold off to Leeds United. A rival of Man.U for centuries.
The Fans were flabbergasted.
How your environment affects your performance
You’d think the story ends there for Strachan. Not really. At Leeds United Strachan went on to spend the best time of his career in the English Football League. Just one season after he was sold, Leeds went on to win their 1st Division League title – led by Strachan as Captain. The worst part? Manchester United ended in 2nd Place. Like a slap on Fergie’s face.
Ferguson was criticised by Man.U fans and pundits for letting go of such an influential player. But by then Ferguson understood a very important principal – how a player performs in one environment is different to how they will perform in another.
What no one foresaw in players like Strachan was the effect different environments had on their performance. While at Aberdeen this player was a big fish in a small pond. But, at Man. U he was playing with the worlds greatest – he was just another fish in a large pond. Getting noticed wasn’t that easy and that got to him. Forced compliments or pats on the back by the manager goes nowhere if the person doesn’t feel they truly deserve it. Strachan might not have been the most talented player to be with Man.U, but Ferguson was absolutely spot-on to identify that he had the potential to be a star.
It was good on Strachan. At the age of 35 he found his glory with Leeds and the Championship. Right after that season, his back injury would turn severe and he would miss matches until he never was able to win another title. The player claimed glory as he rightly deserved in the nick of time.
But the story doesn’t end. Alex Ferguson still needed a hero for Manchester United.
The hunt for a hero
Losing Strachan was not the end for Man.U. Ferguson still needed a hero. But with Strachan gone he had no one with heroic potential within the club. Looking outside was the only option.
Many players across the league showcased inklings of potential to take on the helm of Man.U in the field. But they were either not up for sale or too expensive for their worth. Regardless, Ferguson knew he had to make a purchase, and it had to be someone unique or even disruptive.
Now when you keep your eyes out for something, you are eventually going to see it. And he did. Ferguson would find the ideal player during the 1992-93 season, between a game Man.U played against one of its arch rivals, Leeds United (Yes, the same Leeds United Strachan played for at the time)
Leeds had acquired a new French footballer, merely as a temporary fill-in for one of their stars who was injured. The player’s name was Eric Cantona. 26 years old and a complete freshman to English Football, Cantona was at a dimension of his own. He was satirical with the press; had his collars thrown up at all times, and would make sure he showed off a bit whenever he was on the pitch.
During the match against Manchester United, Cantona attempted a goal with a magnificent bicycle kick, which for a moment left the entire stadium breathless. The goal was saved – but the entire audience, even the Man.U supporters, erupted in a spontaneous applause. That evening, Manchester United won 2-0, but the bicycle kick would be unforgotten by Ferguson and the Man.U players for the rest of the season. “Did you see that guy’s kick?” was the talk in the locker room – and Fergie heard it loud and clear.
But, was Cantona a star?
Cantona’s environment affected his performance
Cantona played at Leeds only for 9 months. He was rarely drafted for matches, and performed so badly that the coach of Leeds, Howard Wilkinson had publicly criticised him for his disruptive style saying “No foreigner has ever succeeded in English Football”.
The French footballer was too different, too disruptive and too “stylish” in his play. Even the football pundits agreed that Cantona had to leave Leeds. So, before you knew it Cantona was up for sale for a ludicrously low £1.3 Million. Ferguson pounced at this offer, and was able to negotiate the rate down even further. Little did Ferguson know that this decision would be the defining moment in Manchester United’s history.
“We were an inspired and transformed team and I knew that when I had found myself longing in the previous summer for someone who would lift our already formidable qualities on to another plane I had been imagining a footballer very much like Eric Cantona.”~ Alex Ferguson
The very season that Man.U hired him, Cantona scored successive game winning goals. In a few months the player led Man.U to win their first Premire League title. The first league title for the club in 26 years. To this day Manchester United celebrates that victory. Eric Cantona’s presence made Man.U the optimus prime of football leagues in a matter of months. The club would win 4 Premier League titles, 2 FA Cups and 5 Super Cups in total with Cantona in legendary fashion. This achievement was a behemoth compared to what Leeds United did with Strachan. The game of football was changed in many ways because of this introduction of just one a unique player.
But it is not just the player in this case, it was the environment within Manchester United that brought out Cantona’s greatest potential. Cantona would have never been the player he is known to be if he didn’t change his team. A great representation of how your environment affects your performance.
“If, as Bryan Robson suggested, United’s rise to championship standard reflected the development in me, no one should have any doubt about the massive contribution made by Eric Cantona.”Alex Ferguson
Ferguson surely had the last laugh, but this story resonates a very important lesson for anyone with talent. For Cantona, the transfer from Leeds United to Manchester United was like a plant going from barren land to a fertile one. Similarly, Strachan’s change to Leeds gave him the glory he rightly deserved. How you perform in one environment can be completely different to how you perform in another. Because your environment affects your performance. So, think about it. if you feel like you aren’t performing at your best – maybe its not you. Maybe you just need to change where you are.
- Bryan Robson voted as the greatest plater to have ever played at Man. U by former players – https://www.express.co.uk/sport/football/263866/Bryan-Robson-named-as-Manchester-United-s-most-marvellous
- Alex Ferguson on Strachan Strachan. Ferguson, A., (1999) Managing My Life: My Autobiography, p (342).
- Wembley Stadium, London is where the finals of the FA Cup in 1989 would take place
- “ I singled out Strachan as the player who could take us to Wembley. I did that to elevate him in his own mind as the star of the team, to give him that feeling of being special which I felt had meant a lot to him at Aberdeen.” From: Ferguson, Alex. “Managing My Life” (1999) p.345
- Cox, Michael. (1999). The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics from Route One to False Nine. Chapter 2. Michael Cox mentions the moment Ferguson notices Cantona in the match between Leeds U and Man U