The King is Dead; Long Live the King

On Sir Alex Ferguson, Roberto Mancini, and Bullying

It seems appropriate, in a week where Sir Alex Ferguson, Roberto Mancini, and David Moyes are front and center, to discuss cults of personality. It’s far too easy to engage in a “one is not like the others” exercise. Take, for example, interactions with the media. Sky Sports’ Geoff Shreeves, of making Chelsea players cry fame, spoke to Sir Alex with a quiet dignity yesterday in the post-match interview, sidestepping the news that Wayne Rooney had filed a transfer request with blasé nonchalance, perhaps fearing the type of 7 year media ban that ended more than a few careers at the BBC. Obviously there would have been other reasons, but nobody would have blamed him - the 71 year old Sir Alex exudes authority even in retirement. Meanwhile, Roberto Mancini justifiably questioned why the first question posed to him after the FA cup defeat to Wigan (and in the several preceding press conferences) was whether he would be sitting in his managerial chair come August. Sure, part of that comes with age and longevity - the logical assuption to make is that an appointment to a hugely important role is a prima facie reason that one would be minimally competent. And part of it may be that Geoff Shreeves particularly enjoys trolling Chelsea. And maybe it’s easy to pull the nationalism card, and say that Mancini, with his prickly, broken-English platitudes, was never a particularly strong candidate for media-favorite. It can’t just be that, though.

Why is “personality” addressed differently in executive and interpersonal contexts? A line from the Arseblog post a few days ago stood out for me.

He danced on our pitch, he fought with our manager, he was so irritating one of our players chucked a slice of pizza in his face, and while I completely and utterly respect what he did, I didn’t like him then and I don’t like him now. I’m also sure that’s pretty much exactly how he wanted it.

I would go one further - at his heights, Sir Alex was the archetypal bully. He was the bully that everyone hated on the middle school playground, the bully that arbitrarily decided who and what was “in,” the bully that enacted swift and brutal punishment on any challengers to his throne. Bullies that came from other schools learned quickly that if they played the game right, the best they would achieve was sidekick (Mourinho), but the worst they would achieve was a special ostracization from the establishment (Rafa), fearful of being noticed by the despot. Of course there were the holdouts - the science club (Wenger) got some academic accolades, but as long as they didn’t step on the playground, the popular kids couldn’t possibly care less.

As for the rest of us, the somewhere-between-mediocre-and-middling, the media, the fans, hell, even the players, we hated the bully, but more importantly, we wanted to be him, to join him. We wanted a moment in the sun before fading into irrelevance, and there was this immovable obstacle, the king of the hill, the man with some spurious excuse for still ruling the middle school playground 26 years later. We sold out our values, praising the “us versus them,” the “mental strength,” the “financial acumen.” We tried desperately to avoid the reality that we were them, a silent papering over the psychological cracks.

It’s interesting that a lot of the same characteristics ascribed to Sir Alex, positive AND negative, have also been attributed to the late Steve Jobs. And yet, in technology, though there are the geeks (Page and Brin), the eccentrics (Ellison, Musk) and the hipsters (Dorsey), there is a very clear vacuum where the bully used to be. Perhaps this is the most apt portent of post-Fergie English football, a vague utopia where everyone can do their own thing without wondering whether someone is going to steal their lunch money. I don’t know whether this is a good thing, and I don’t think any of us will until much later.

It goes without saying that in modern football, with rich financiers, self-interested agents, and twitter ITKs quick to report that Zlatan Ibrahimović is currently taking a shit on Antonio Conte’s chamberpot, that there will never again be a 26-year reign, but a lesser one might be just as difficult. We’ve graduated middle school and now we’re in college. Nobody cares that you used to rule the playground, and if you dare bring it up, we’ll come at you with so many barrels that you’ll be forced to conform with the rest of us. The hivemind is much more powerful than any individual. So go ahead, try. We were all bullied once, it’s not happening again.

Which brings us back to Mancini, and his curiously predictable sacking. On results, he certainly deserved another year, but beyond that, the traits that the media were so quick to praise in Sir Alex (disciplinarian/ no-nonsense attitude) were brought up to criticize Mancini, and equally, Mancini’s biggest flaws (bad use of transfer market) were never equally criticized with Ferguson. When Ferguson was knocked (briefly) off his perch, the media were quick to say that since he hated losing, Manchester United would be favorites for the following league title. There isn’t a single journalist willing to stake that claim for Mancini. It’s worth mentioning that Mancini largely used to bully his way around Serie A. There can only ever be one bully on the playground in England.

In this, now far-past-reasonable-length analogy, it makes perfect sense that Sir Alex was so keen to cling onto his power for so long. He was able to sit in a world where he could pompously regulate by fiat, where middle schoolers would forget that they would grow up one day. It was a recognition that if he ever left, people would come to realize how much of an asshole he was the entire time. In Moyes, he’s appointed a manager that was in his friend circle, but was happy to play second fiddle and quietly reap rewards rather than foist his personality upon the terrorized subjects. Maybe the nerds will revolt, maybe there’ll be a new bully, and maybe everyone will hold hands and break into an interpretive dance. Time, or more aptly, fergie time, will tell.