A fascinating observation by a senior England official at the recent camp prior to the friendly match against Egypt gave an interesting insight into the vast difference in attitude between players from various clubs. This particular official was able to clearly differentiate between the players of Chelsea and those from Manchester United.
One of the groups had a certain swagger around the camp, a confidence that seeped into cockiness when compared to those from the North West who were far more humble and respectful. It is the difference between Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Chelsea, where managers have been chopped and changed almost at the whim of the squad, and respect for authority eroded.
The London players have power because many of them were lured for huge contracts and where money is what binds them to the club. If contracts are not improved, they make threats. Manchester City will be next to suffer from this loss of power to the dressing room after creating their own inflationary spiral. A player such as Shaun Wright-Phillips has seen what others are earning – and now he wants the same.
At United no one doubts who is the boss. No one questions who will win the arguments. They know that there is only so far they can push their luck, their behaviour or their demands for better pay. But it’s about more than shouting, it is about nurturing young players so that they have the character to thrive when they make it into the first team. It is a system born of stability and longevity, something attempted only at those few clubs where they plan beyond next week.
They do that at United where Ferguson still involves himself in developing the youth, telling young aspirants that it is not success that should make them proud but hard work. He will instruct them to respect their rivals “Don’t ever think you’re above a challenge. It’s not right” he will say “Arrogance is not a quality, it’s a hindrance to success”
In a fascinating interview recently, he talked of his paternal pride and his joy when those young players uphold the best values. He smiled as he revealed a text from Cristiano Ronaldo – “I miss you so much”. But he also talked about how Wayne Rooney’s humility was not to be taken for granted in a cossetted age.
“He’s a one off in terms of the modern type of fragile player we’re getting today, cocooned by their agents, mothers and fathers, psychologists, welfare officers” Ferguson said “Rooney’s a cut to the old days” Ferguson cannot give players hunger, that must come from within. But he can find the right characters and help to shape them. He did that with Beckham and might have continued doing so had the player not fallen for a Spice Girl and the glamorous lifestyle that came with her.
In Ferguson’s view Beckham took his eye off the ball. Beckham disagreed vehemently at the time, but he acknowledges now that Ferguson was a second father to him, passing down values that have helped to shape the rest of his career, and perhaps the rest of his life.
Given half a chance Beckham will talk about how some of Ferguson’s greatest work has been done far away from the first team pitch, teaching teenage boys what it takes to reach the top. Even as his former manager snarls and changes the subject, Beckham will speak as he was taught to do all those years ago – with humility and respect.
Do most players lack these values in the modern game?