Alex Ferguson, the controversial Manchester Utd football manager, celebrated 1000 matches at the club yesterday with a notable win in Europe. But the interesting observation from some pundits was that, but one for one goal in 1990, he might have been sacked and the legend would not have been created, at least not at ManU. Ferguson arrived at the club in 1986, but like his two predecessors initially failed to deliver the particular success the board and fans expected.

The goal turned the tables and allowed United to win the FA Cup that year. As the official history on the Man United website puts it: “Fergie’s first FA Cup, achieved after a replay against Crystal Palace, seemed at the time to be a stand-alone success, one that possibly saved his job after another poor season in the League. But nine years later, it seemed that Lee Martin’s winning goal against Palace lit the fuse for an explosion of unprecedented success.”

Ferguson had already demonstrated considerable success as a manager in Scottish club Aberdeen from 1978. These long tenures are worth noting. But perhaps the most difficult issue for any board or manager is to determine whether short to medium term losses are a result of faulty process and whether to ride out the storm. Ferguson’s case is clearly one where the future success was generally not predicted, although his previous track record might have given some reasons for hope.

Football is particularly difficult as the simple scoring system lends itself to more lucky outcomes than say tennis, and yet of course it is a game requiring consummate skill. You can see this written in the faces of all football managers and a good many fans. The possibility for euphoric, against the odds reversal perhaps explains its enduring appeal across the social spectrum, in contrast to games like tennis and rugby where mismatches in talent more rarely produce unexpected outcomes and are more appealing to those higher up the pecking order.

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