Ferguson and Cantona – Vulnerability and Strength

cantona celebration

Eric Cantona’s famous pose of celebration after his greatest goal

Eric Cantona played for Manchester United from 1992-1997. One of the greatest football players I have ever seen. Majestic, commanding, sublimely skilled. A leader, a talisman, a game-changer.

He was also, when he joined, thought to be mercurial, a maverick, unmanageable, yet in Sir Alex Ferguson he met the greatest football manager of all time and someone who worked with him brilliantly.

Alex Ferguson was known to be one of the very toughest football managers, yet the letter he wrote to Cantona after he retired from football displayed open-ness and vulnerability, giving an inside view as to what truly powered Ferguson’s management of his team. Or, should I say, his leadership. After all, a football “manager” can’t be on the pitch to play and inspire, can’t score the goals to win the matches. Cantona certainly did both.

Today, that letter, my thoughts on what leaders can learn from it, as well as some background on Sir Alex Ferguson and videos showcasing the sublime Eric Cantona.

Sir Alex Ferguson

This letter from Sir Alex Ferguson he published in his book Leading. I love to learn elite lessons from sports for business leadership, this book is highly recommended. Another similarly great book about another leader who got the best out of elite and often maverick talent (like Cantona) is Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson, coach of Michael Jordan’s (for it truly was his team) Chicago Bulls. Jackson also, as the title infers, takes the source of his leadership deeper than Ferguson, into buddhism and mindfulness.

Ferguson and Cantona

So, back to Ferguson and Cantona, and first, the letter. (Also, I’ve copied the full wording at the base of this post as the photo my be difficult to read.)

Ferguson cantona

I was a little astonished and at the same time hugely impressed by this letter.

You see, Sir Alex Ferguson was, as this in-depth article from The Guardian notes : “sometimes difficult, always great”, and “the caricature: the flint-faced authority figure, menacingly chewing his gum, pointing to his stopwatch, little red puffs of toxic smoke coming out of his ears.”. This is a lovely article about the relationship of Ferguson and the press, written when he fell seriously ill this past summer, and also getting behind that caricature, as his letter to Cantona does.

The letter is a master class in care, understanding, empathy, as well as vulnerability.

As Chip Conley notes in the short interview video I placed in this article some time ago, a powerful form of leadership is that of the “Vulnerable Visionary”, someone who knows themself well enough to be vulnerable in front of their people, whilst at the same time being clear and confident in their vision.

Read this site and you will see countless references to leaders and the power of humility, vulnerability, vision. On the #BeMoreYou page, I refer to the qualities of being hungry, humble, brave and open. These are four qualities I’ve repeatedly observed in the most successful open leaders.

So, this letter truly impressed me as it showed Alex Ferguson behind the caricature, showing a leader demonstrated that confidence allied with vulnerability.

Who is Eric Cantona?

Eric Cantona retired after five glorious seasons with Manchester United at the young age of 32. As noted in this article, he was a “footballing genius, poet and cod philosopher king {and often} as gnomic as a sphinx”. Eric the footballer ended in 1997, Eric the actor, poet and more continues!

This goal is widely considered to be the greatest goal he ever scored. If you’d like more, try this link for a collection of his goals.

 

And, to finish, an utterly sublime goal. Unthinkable genius. Literally, he as in #Flow, what he does here is beyond the rational mind!

 

Full text of the letter :

Dear Eric,

Some months have passed since we last spoke and I felt that I should write to you as a mark of respect and esteem in which I hold you.

When we re-started training, I kept waiting for you to turn up as normal but I think that was in hope not realism and I knew in your eyes when we met at Mottram your time at Manchester United was over. Although, I still fell you should have taken both your Father’s and my advice and taken a holiday before making such a major decision.

One thing, I would like you to remember is to remain active and fit. I always remember when I finished at 32 and I started management, I was more concerned about organising training and the coaching of players that I forgot about my own fitness and then when I realised about six years later what was happening, I started to train again to recapture my fitness and it was murder, so you do need to keep your fitness.

I am sure you have been keeping an eye on our results and as you can see we are doing quite well as you know we have signed Teddy Sheringham to replace you but at the moment he is finding it difficult to find the space he got at Tottenham and is playing deep so we have some adjusting to do. Players sometimes don’t realise how difficult it is to play at our level as every game is a Cup Final for our opponents so I just hope he can do it for us.

Our pre-season tour wasn’t too bad. The Far East tour was better than expected and our games against Inter Milan were very good. The Charity Shield wasn’t a great performance but we were better than Chelsea and deserved to win, even though it went to penalties.

I still feel as we discussed at the end of the season that a top class striker is what is needed and that is always going to be the problem at our club as the financial restraints will always stop us getting the past because of our wage structure and it is such a pity because when you are at at the top you should buy the best to stop the others getting to you. If I was younger, I suppose I would look at it differently, but from a personal point of view, I have not won the European Cup and it does get to me at times. However I just carry on and not put up a mental barrier and I have always had that belief and trust in my players and wish to continue to do so. I keep hoping that i will discover a young Cantona! It is a dream!

As I close this letter, I would like to hope that we will have a chat, a drink, or a meal together soon. I know the club has written to you about the forthcoming dinner and I hope you will manage it, but that is not the most important thing, for it is to remind you how good a player we were for Manchester United and how grateful I am for the service you gave me. I will never forget that and I hope you won’t either.

You are always welcome here and if you just pop in unexpectedly for a cup of tea, no fanfare, just for a chat as friends, that would mean more to me than anything. Eric you where I am if you need me and now that you are no longer one of my players, I hope you know you have a friend.

Good luck and God bless,

Yours sincerely

Alex Ferguson CBE

MANAGER