Most people don’t have inner conviction. Their confidence is easily shaken, they blow with the wind and can be plagued with doubts. I cannot imagine how anyone, without firm convictions and deep inner beliefs, can be an effective leader. As a player my confidence was shaken when Rangers dropped me and wanted me to agree to a transfer as a part-exchange for another player. But I was determined that I wouldn’t let them beat me, and before training I used to go and play nine holes of golf to clear my head and get ready to attack the day. I just resolved not to give in and, when they sold me to Falkirk in 1969, it was on my own terms.
When I did waver, or at least was not being true to myself, it sometimes took another person to shake me out of my stupor. There was an occasion during my early time at United in 1991 when Jock Wallace, the former manager of Rangers, phoned me and said he was coming to watch us play Southampton. Jock was suffering from Parkinson’s but he was as shrewd as ever and, after the game, we went out for dinner and he said, ‘That’s not an Alex Ferguson team. once you get an Alex Ferguson team, you’ll be all right.’ It was a wonderful piece of advice because I hadn’t been entirely true to my own beliefs. I knew some of the players weren’t good enough but, instead of selling them, I’d been trying to turn them into something they weren’t capable of becoming. John Lyall, the West Ham manager, told me something very similar. He said, ‘Make sure you see Alex Ferguson in your team.’ Both Jock and John were implicitly telling me to be true to my own beliefs and convictions. Today, I use the same line with other managers I am trying to encourage.
I don’t remember many periods of self-doubt, particularly after I left Aberdeen. I had worked hard and served a footballing apprenticeship that, from the time I started playing to the time I left Scotland, had lasted more than 29 years, and I had achieved considerable success at Aberdeen. These experiences helped harden my inner beliefs and strengthened my confidence in my own conviction. When I was offered the United job, I was very proud and felt confident in my own judgement and abilities. But after I arrived at Old Trafford, and I saw what I had to contend with regarding the drinking culture, I got a bit rattled. I wondered, ‘What have I got myself into?’ There was a time in 1989 and the start of 1990 when things just weren’t going right with United. Of our opening 24 League games we had only managed to win six, and from the end of November 1989 until early February 1990, it was bleak. We won none of our 11 League games. In fact, after we beat Nottingham Forest on 12 November 1989, we did not win another home game until we played Luton Town on 3 March 1990. The fans were getting restless and the media were sharpening their knives. Compared to the consistent level of success I had experienced at Aberdeen, it was a shock to find myself in that situation. My son Jason, who was in his teens at the time, remembers sitting in the kitchen in tears during this drought, asking whether we could just move back to Aberdeen. He tells me now that I said, ‘No. We’re going to crack on. It’s going to work.’
It’s one thing to have confidence in your own abilities. It’s a completely different challenge to instil confidence in others. Every player is always competing for their place in the side. If they emerged from the academy, progressed through the reserves and made it into the first-team squad, there was always the prospect of someone else emerging through the youth system, or from the transfer market, who might be better. At the end of every season there were always members of the squad who went on their summer holidays unsure whether their place would be assured when we played our first League game the following August. Young players are usually intimidated by the veterans, in part because they are playing alongside their boyhood idols, while the older players are always battling with the spectre of age and injury. Even if an injury does not bring a rude end to a career or, worse still, the promise of a career, as happened with young Ben Thornley in 1994, it erodes a player’s confidence and spirit.
Many players, particularly the younger ones, take their bodies for granted as reliable allies. Yet after an injury, they immediately enter no man’s land, where they stop travelling with the team, work through rehab by themselves, and have to deal with the uncertainty of whether they will recover or if the club will buy a replacement. Some are even plagued with guilt about being paid when, in their own mind, they are not contributing anything. Two examples come to mind: when Fernando Redondo joined AC Milan from Real Madrid, he suffered an awful knee injury in one of his first training sessions, and refused to be paid until he was fit to play. It was two and a half years before he made his debut and he didn’t take a penny off his new club in that time. When Martin Buchan left Manchester United in 1983 after 11 years of service, he joined Oldham Athletic and received a hefty signing-on fee in the process. Early in his second season he realised that he no longer had what it took to be playing professional football, so knocked on his manager’s door, retired, and returned his signing-on fee. Two class acts from men of honour.
Every player can have his confidence rattled during a game. They may be having an off day, they don’t want the ball to come in their direction and, believe it or not, they may even secretly want to get substituted. I always found that strikers and goalkeepers had the most doubts about themselves and, if their confidence was shaken, they completely changed. When goal-scorers don’t score, they are convinced they will never score again, and when they score they cannot imagine they will ever miss another opportunity. All my strikers were like that, including Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Mark Hughes, who in recent years has been a manager, played for United between 1983 and 1986, and 1988 and 1995; he was as tough as nails and a man of great determination. Mark was born to be a big game player and could always be counted on in the most important games, but was deeply affected when he didn’t score.
The other place where the level of individual confidence is revealed is when penalty kicks are taken in a sudden-death finish. Some players, like Patrice Evra, would be spectacular penalty takers during practice but dreaded the idea of being asked to do the same in a game. Paul Ince was the same, and Wes Brown, our long-time stalwart defender, would sooner have played barefoot than take a penalty. I think Wes prayed that the game would be decided before he had to take his turn. Then there were the guys who just brimmed with confidence. on the rare occasion that Eric Cantona would miss from the spot, he had a look on his face that said to the world, ‘How did that happen?’ I don’t think he thought it conceivable that he could miss a penalty. Denis Irwin, Steve Bruce, Brian McClair, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney: all relished hammering in penalties. Rooney seems to excel when he is under pressure. In May 2011 we were trailing Blackburn Rovers 1–0, needed a point to win the League, and 17 minutes from the end of regular time we got a penalty. Rooney absolutely battered it into the top corner. I’m sure it helps that, even before he has taken the field in any given match, Wayne has decided where he will place the ball if he takes a penalty kick.
From time to time, I’d slide players on in the last few minutes of regular time if I sensed we were heading for a sudden-death finish. I did that in the 2008 Champions League final when I sent on Anderson, the Brazilian midfielder, to take a penalty kick. He was only 20 at the time, but he had all the confidence in the world and scored our sixth penalty, helping us beat Chelsea for our third success in the competition.
Sometimes the occasion would overwhelm even the most experienced of players. You can imagine the tension associated with what might have been the biggest single game of a player’s career. It is unrealistic to think that all of them can ignore the press build-up, block out the noise and atmosphere inside a stadium and treat a cup final – particularly a Champions League final – as just another game against 11 mortals. Life does not work that way. When we played Barcelona in Rotterdam in the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, Paul Ince, who was 23 years old at the time, was a bag of nerves. It did not help matters that the kick-off was delayed to allow the crowd to finish entering the stadium. Paul had a rocky first half, during which Bryan Robson had been snapping at him. At half-time I said to him, ‘Incey, just concentrate on the game. Forget everything that’s happened before the game. Nothing bad is going to happen. Just go and relax and enjoy it.’ In the second half he was much better and worked brilliantly with Robson to protect our defence.
Every now and again, something beyond our control would rattle the confidence and resolve of the entire club. At those sorts of junctures it’s vital to boost the collective confidence. When Manchester City started forking out the biggest sums ever seen in Britain, it was natural that everyone at United would be reading the newspapers with a mixture of shock and awe. This was exacerbated when we gave Manchester City the League championship on goal difference in 2012 after we only got ten points out of a possible 18 in the final six games of the season. I know people will misinterpret this, or take it for sour grapes, but City didn’t win that championship; we lost it.
I used City’s Premier League title to buttress everyone’s confidence later that summer. As we reassembled for the following season, I kept reiterating that United expected to win absolutely every game we played. It didn’t matter whether our opponent was the reigning Premier League, or Champions League champions, or a fourth division team we’d drawn in the FA Cup. I was just able to keep reinforcing the ideology that no club was bigger than United – no matter whether their owner controlled all the oil in the Persian Gulf, or every coal-mine in Russia.