Sir Alex Ferguson’s Press Conference

Has there been a high profile, high quality public sparring in recent memory like the mid-week round between Sir Alex Ferguson and Wayne Rooney?

 

Ferguson’s disdain for the press conference as firing line has led to a successful control of his media access. Fergie logic dictates that if the media is out to get him, then he has every right to defend himself through avoidance or bearishness. Calling a press conference to address the Rooney rebellion/insurrection indicated that the situation had reached a severity no longer served by entrenched distance. The obligation to publicly address the situation became an opportunity to reassert authority.

Ferguson spoke for six absorbing minutes. A grave seriousness carried something somber within it. Those brief downward glances were subtle expressions of a wounded man’s exasperation. Thirty-seven years of hardened managerial experience couldn’t hide a sense of powerlessness. As his version of the story wove its way through the course of events, it became clear that there was no intention to hide his solemnity.

His stated intent was to set the record straight, but it would not have been possible for his version of the story to so masterfully take control of a crisis with multiple fronts without the emotional content of his words. History, identity, and legacy were at stake. Presenting the facts as “we understand them” addressed the immediate circumstances and framed the future by anticipating the questions and criticism that would certainly follow in the aftermath, regardless of outcome.

The first front was the defense of club’s position through the tradition of paternal benevolence of which he is the pillar. Every Manchester United player is an equal part. They will be taken care of, looked after, and supported in difficult periods on and off the pitch.

Ferguson spent almost a third of the press conference addressing Rooney’s recent “ankle injury” through the context of this familial bond as policy.

The ankle is fine, Rooney tells everyone in the Wembley mixed zone. He has no idea why he’s not playing. One brief impromptu interview committed multiple transgressions. He contradicted Ferguson, and in doing so intimated that his manager was lying. Second, he took the matter outside the family. Third, he threatened the family bond through his intransigence, disloyalty, and ingratitude. Fourth, he attempted to commit patricide by throwing mud.

The ankle became the flashpoint, the public evidence of their deteriorating relationship. Was Rooney out to escape or escape by destroying? Ferguson had to reply.

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If he falsified or exaggerated the injury in order to provide Rooney cover and protection from the incessant, and clearly debilitating criticism, then his white lie becomes a noble display of benevolence. Few in the media could criticize the move once they were included in the open secret. The lie was an act of protection. Ferguson’s defense of the club’s familial traditions turned Rooney’s intended embarrassment into an advantage. Unable to ensnare his manager in contested facts and deception, Rooney instead came off as unprofessional and foolish.

Throughout negotiations, according to Ferguson, the club had listened to Rooney’s concerns and taken them to heart. They were willing to renegotiate his contract, make him a an that no team could match. Despite Rooney’s irreverence and foolishness, Ferguson made it clear that the “door is still open” if Rooney should change his mind. This was non-coercive coercion through delicately applied pressure. No fight, no war of words. It was entirely up to Rooney to decide. If the crisis ended with Rooney’s departure, Ferguson would ensure that it was Rooney who cast himself out.

Having established his rectitude, Ferguson absolved himself of responsibility for outcomes and fallout. If Rooney was set up to be the fall guy, he was at the same time extended protection. Perhaps the most remarkable feat of Ferguson’s position on matters was the characterization of Rooney.

Ferguson opened and closed his statement by telling those in attendance that he couldn’t answer their questions, so there was no need to ask them. This would not be a question and answer routine, but a statement to which everyone should just be quiet and listen (calling his own press conference didn’t mean he had ceded dictating the terms). He simply wanted to “present the facts…as we understand them”.

As we understand them. No less than five times did Ferguson state—with slight variation— his inability to understand what Rooney was doing. Twice facts were qualified by “as we know them” and “as we understand them”. On three occasions, he expressed a lack of understanding, “we just don’t quite understand it”, “we can’t understand why he’d want to leave”, and “we don’t understand it”. Ferguson’s inability to answer questions was not only a way to avoid scrutiny, but an admission that he really truly didn’t have a clue what had unraveled before him. The gifted boy that he had groomed into a star had become incomprehensible to him.

This repeated grappling for comprehension was not chatter; conveying one’s incomprehension often requires repeated attempts at explanation and understanding. Intentional or not, the restatements of his own confusion served to characterize Rooney’s state of mind. Buried in the record of events was the brief anecdote recounting the meeting where Rooney told Ferguson of his intention to leave. “I had a meeting with him and he intimated to me, in his own way, that he wanted to leave.”

 The anticipation of the meeting, the attempt to communicate and understand, the intensity and finality of the exchange was a climactic scene that Ferguson nearly passed over; it was recounted in a single sentence. The general and economical public summary extends from the private nature of the exchange. Why then did Ferguson feel the need to include the unnecessary in his own way? How someone organizes their thoughts and tries to speak them could be referenced in vague terms like this, but this isn’t convincing against the pleas of incomprehension. In his own way is the other side of as we understand them.

If Ferguson found Rooney’s erratic behavior confounding, if he couldn’t understand why Rooney wanted to leave the club, then it was because Rooney had cracked. The events in his life and the subsequent pressure put on him had left him temporarily insane. There was no justifiable reason to leave Manchester United, the place where he had been nurtured and won trophies. Crazy Wayne doesn’t know what he is saying.

Ferguson’s comments on the contract negotiations reveal a timeline ruptured by temporary insanity. Good intentions and productive discussions where held at the end of last season and continued in the same spirit as the new club season began until, all of a sudden, Rooney falsifies facts, disrespects the family, criticizes the club, and drops the bomb. How far back this goes is unclear, but for Ferguson it came as a shock. He broadened the picture to show that an unbalanced Rooney is an aberration.

Ferguson’s plea, made on Rooney’s behalf, was still committed to self-protection, if by chance he should fail to diffuse Rooney or be made a sucker. Ferguson looks like a guy whose face would be engorged with anger if you truly embarrassed him (look how he acts on the sideline when he embarrasses himself…), which is what Rooney attempted by telling everyone that his ankle was just fine. Anything an unpredictable Rooney might say or do could be written off to his state of mind.

Temporary insanity equally served to protect Rooney from himself. Whoever he is at the moment is not the real Wayne Rooney, the pre-philandering Rooney who dazzled last season, a young man with a temperament that was not self-destruction, but an uncontainable expression of his intensity and passion for the game.

It also served to diffuse Rooney’s criticism of Manchester United as a club in decline. They had won three league titles in a row and missed a fourth by one point. They had attracted some of the best players in the world and would continue to do so. They were on the verge of becoming the most successful club in the history of English football. These achievements are indisputable. Questioning the club’s commitment to sustaining its success (an indirect indictment of the club’s financial situation, which perhaps aimed to garner the sympathy of the Green and Gold campaign) could only have come from someone unhinged.

If Rooney should change his mind and devote his future the club, then his temporary insanity is truly just that. He didn’t mean what he said. Supporters could forgive him for the near betrayal. The team could get back to business as usual without the distraction of criticism that was now no longer justified.

The plea is the defining act of benevolence. It absolves Rooney of responsibility at the same time it submerges him in the warm waters of club tradition. The mentally strained Rooney has the club’s and his manager’s understanding, support, and patience. Through the dissonance Rooney will recognize the restoration of his manager’s ablutions.

Ferguson knows his players better than anyone. In this case, it’s the diagnosis of a condition caused by circumstances, no matter that much was self-inflicted. Rooney had gone unhinged from his life. It was not an indictment, but the identification of a situation that calls for only what Manchester United can do for its players. The boy needs a correction, so he can recover who he was.

Rooney deserved the opportunity to turn things around. If the public wasn’t going to offer it, then Ferguson would. The most expedient and secure way was to bench him and cover it with a credible alibi. On the periphery looking in, Rooney could start to work things out, recede a few degrees into reflection. With a new contract, the ball will remain in Rooney’s court, gifted by his manager who hopes that it is not thrown back at him, if that’s even possible.

 

10/25/10

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