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Sir Alex on modern football, and the all-time classics

Sir Alex Ferguson considers the trends in modern football – attacking formations and ball-playing goalkeepers – insisting the greats of the past could still teach youngsters a thing or two.

Sir Alex on modern football, and the all-time classics
Sir Alex on modern football, and the all-time classics ©Getty Images

After enjoying the cut and thrust of another UEFA Champions League season, former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson spoke to UEFA.com about changing trends in football, and how the greats of the past should not be written off lightly.

This interview was conducted for the UEFA Champions League final programme which is available at UEFAprogrammes.com.

On the modern switch to attacking football ...

That's a lot to do with the fitness of players. The counterattack has become more prominent today; the condition of pitches is superb today; and also the protection of footballers has become more prevalent. So a lot of these things add up to what you're seeing as a far better spectacle. I think you have a duty and a responsibility to entertain. We have to always remember that there's a public to be entertained. In my time at [Manchester] United, it was "as long as you win"; if it was 4-3, OK, or 5-4, OK. My last game was 5-5 [at West Brom on 19 May 2013]! I couldn't ask for a better score in my last game at United.

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Possession now is definitely starting through your centre-backs and your goalkeeper. Barcelona, I think, were the originators of that: Pep's team. It was probably one of the best European teams of all time. As long as you have possession, your opponents don't. When I was at Aberdeen, that was one of the lessons we had to instil in the players. We have to make sure we're still producing players that can penetrate with a pass, like Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick, Zinédine Zidane, Andrea Pirlo.

On how match preparations have changed over the years ...

There's no doubt that preparation today is far more condensed into the areas where you know you can get a result. When I played, the manager used to say: "Well, all the best, good luck", and shook your hand, and they left a lot to the players in those days. You didn't have video analysis, for a start – you didn't have in-depth reports on the players. Very few had a tactics board.

[When United played Rotor Volgograd in 1995] we were trying to send a scout, and they ended up on three planes and were away for a week! There were some endless journeys. I remember, as a player, we played against Brno in Czechoslovakia [with Dunfermline in the 1966/67 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup], and it was a four-and-a-half hour bus journey from Prague to Brno – it was unbelievable. Back then, well, you would sit [on the bus] and play cards. And you didn't have tables.

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On training teams to do the impossible ...

One of the things I always thought about as a young coach was finding solutions to things that happened, but the most important thing I always referred to was never giving in. And we had so many last-minute goals in my time that it wasn't an accident. If you're 1-0 or 2-0 down, there's no point in seeing out the game and saying: "Well, we played well ..." You may as well gamble your life away, because it's worth it.

In the 1999 final against Bayern, we did really well in terms of how Bayern operated because they always took Zickler and Basler off when they were winning games – then they would have a tighter midfield, but it did allow me to play three up. We got a bit of luck on the equalising goal, but from that moment on I knew we were going to win, because Bayern were down on their knees by that time. The impact of scoring so late affected them really badly.

On the advent of the ball-playing goalkeeper ...

Since they stopped the pass back, it meant they had to use their feet. It has become a great part of the game today and I think when you see the performances of Manuel Neuer, he's incredible. They played in the 2013 Super Cup final against Chelsea, and when they were chasing the winning goal, he played on the halfway line like the sweeper.

Fabien Barthez and Sir Alex in training in 2000
Fabien Barthez and Sir Alex in training in 2000©Getty Images

I had Fabien Barthez. Other goalkeepers would play safety first: "If I can pass to one of my team-mates, that's my job." Fabien had a wee bit more. He liked the excitement of taking care of the ball. I remember he kept telling me he was a better outfield player. He could play sometimes in Friday-morning games before the Saturday game, in small-sided games, he had good feet.

On the 1960 Real Madrid team ...

I was at the final in 1960 at Hampden Park, the 7-3; it was quite amazing. You look at Ferenc Puskás's record playing for Hungary, he scored something like 84 goals in 85 games. Alfredo Di Stéfano was a fantastic player and they had the speed of Paco Gento, Raymond Kopa and they had another little midfield player: Héctor Rial.

I followed Rangers as a young kid and they played Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-finals. They lost 6-1 [in Germany] and then lost 6-3 at home, so the way that all Rangers fans were looking at it, those guys [Frankfurt] were gods. Going to Hampden Park, I genuinely thought Eintracht Frankfurt were going to kill [Real Madrid]. I really did. They were a really good side, but they got slaughtered. I left right at the end of the game, because I had to get up for work in the morning and getting buses back to Govan from Hampden Park was very difficult, so I missed all the celebration. I was angry with myself for missing it.

On whether the greats of the past could cut it in modern football ...

Denis Law celebrates a goal for United
Denis Law celebrates a goal for United©Getty Images

Of course they could. When you think of the advantages they'd have playing today, like the condition of the pitches, the medical advantages, the sports science. Human beings of today are more fragile, whereas people born in wartime, during the Second World War, eventually became the great players like Pelé. They were fantastic players. I think that if you put Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best in the Manchester United team today, or in my time, without question they wouldn't be left out. The same applies to Eusébio, Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Pelé – all those big players would be picked by any manager. And the [1960] Real Madrid forward line were unbelievable.

On tomorrow's coaches ...

It's very difficult for young coaches today – not to mention the time they get. I was lucky that, at United, I had Bobby Charlton and Martin Edwards who believed in what I was doing, and they supported me really strongly. And it worked. There's no evidence that changing your manager gives you success. There is evidence with the likes of Arsène Wenger, myself and Brian Clough that long-termism can work. Any coach today, going into the game, has to be aware that it's a serious results industry. You can lose three games and be out of a job. That's why I applaud the young coaches of today, for having the courage to go into this industry.

This interview was conducted for the UEFA Champions League final programme which is available at UEFAprogrammes.com.