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Ferguson vs Busby: A managerial analysis

17 Nov 2013, 14:18 IST

Sport, Football, Old Trafford, 1991, Legendary former Manchester United Manager Sir Matt Busby (right) meets with the current United Manager Alex Ferguson  (Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images)

Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby

Both are Scottish. Both are football players turned managers. Both are honoured with the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of The British Empire (CBE). Both have coached the most successful club in the English Premier League for a quarter of a century.

One is Sir Alex Ferguson. The other is Sir Matt Busby.

Merely by superficially looking at the number of trophies in the cabinet of Manchester United in the reigns of these two world class managers, a conclusion cannot be drawn. The footballing environments in their respective tenures were too diverse and different from each other to even compare these two legends. Both are known as highly successful managers of Manchester United. But few know about the struggles and the reforms they have had to undergo to set such high standards for themselves. These strategies and plans during these times create the difference between good managers and great managers.

Busby took over the charge of the Red Devils in 1945. Immediately, he chose previous acquaintance Jimmy Murphy to be his chief coach. Although initially offered a 3 year deal, Busby convinced the officials that he would need at least 5 years to reshape the team, thereby bagging a 5 year contract. He and Murphy gradually began to click and United were runners up in the league a number of times before finally winning the championship in 1952 in addition to an FA Cup win in 1948.

His players were gradually ageing and the requirement of a new string of players was imminent. Busby shocked the footballing fraternity when he decided to go for teenage players instead of signing high profile players of that era. It turned out to be a calculated risk as the team went back to winning silverware, being crowned champions in both 1956 and 1957. All was going well but then came the Munich tragedy. Busby lost most of his players and turning around was a huge challenge. He took some time to come back to business and prepared a new team revolving around some of the survivors of the crash.

He carefully signed footballers from other clubs – David Herd, Denis Law and George Best to name a few, and developed his team to perfection. In 1965 he tasted silverware again when United were crowned league champions. They won the league in 1967. But making a mark in Europe was becoming equally important. Cherry on the top of the cake became possible when they won the European Cup in 1968.He retired from the managerial post shortly after but remained actively involved in the club administratively. The capability of making the most out of limited resources and bouncing back from the ashes are what made Busby one of the greats.

Ferguson, on the other hand, started his full-time career as the manager of Scottish club St. Mirren after a brief stint at another Scottish club East Stirlingshire. With limited resources, he was not only able to promote them to First Division but made them Scottish champions in just 3 years with shrewd signings, pressing football and sharp strategies. After that, he joined his new Scottish club Aberdeen, which had always been in the shadows of Celtic and Rangers. He took just one season and made them Champions.

He continued to impress with top 3 finishes in the league in the following years while he completed a hat-trick of Scottish Cup wins, not to mention the winning of UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1982-83. He left for the Red Devils in 1986-87 but it was difficult to taste success with a mediocre team within a short span as far as English football was concerned.

Even after winning so many trophies in Scotland, it took him a solid 6 years at Manchester to taste league success. These 6 years were crucial. It involved lot of patience, innovative thinking and path-breaking decisions. Fans were getting impatient and they wanted results. Just winning the FA Cup once in a while was no longer enough. Appropriate players including the likes of Roy Keane, Peter Schmeichel, Eric Cantona and Steve Bruce among many others were signed in a period of few years and this created the breakthrough in 1992-93. And frankly speaking, there was no looking back ever since.


It is often neglected but getting success and maintaining success are two very different things and Sir Alex proved proficient in both as the years rolled on. Many popular players came to play and many players came and gained popularity in their tenure at Old Trafford. After a nearly 27 year spell, 13 EPL titles, 2 Champions Leagues and innumerous other trophies under his belt, Ferguson can be considered a wizard of silverware. But the underlying efforts and the path breaking decisions in the initial days made the difference for him and that made him the world famous manager that he is today.

The footballing brain and the administrative skills of both these legends are unprecedented. As it is popularly said, “The right decision taken at the wrong time becomes the wrong decision.”

These two greats showed to the football fans all around the world how to get the job done no matter what, without complaining.

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