It's not easy to work hard...

Philippa White

Manchester United's legendary manager has a no-nonsense message for secondary pupils, Philippa White reports

Sir Alex Ferguson stands in a packed school hall talking to 120 star-struck pupils about leadership.

On one side of the stage is a poster of Nelson Mandela, on the other a picture of the Manchester United manager.

After 20 minutes of rapt attention, Sir Alex, whose football team has won the premiership an unprecedented eight times, adds a vital postscript to his spiel.

"One wee point I've forgotten about that is really important: when people ask 'Why are you so successful?' I say 'I work hard'. They say 'Is that all? Is it as easy as that?'

"Believe me, working hard is not easy. If you work hard all your life it's not easy - but what an asset. You can be proud of yourselves."

The message may be basic, but hearing it from a figure as iconic as Sir Alex is what Tarun Kapur, headteacher, hopes will inspire his students.

All 1,300 students at Ashton-on-Mersey school in Sale, Cheshire, have failed their 11-plus, but the specialist 11-16 sports college is sponsored by Manchester United and uses sport to motivate them.

When Mr Kapur, a former PE teacher, arrived eight years ago, just 29 per cent of pupils gained at least five GCSEs at grade A*-C. Last year, that proportion had risen to 60 per cent.

Last week's leadership day was to train hand-picked students from Years 8 to 10 to act as leaders in different curriculum areas.

But even Sir Alex admitted that not all his tactics would be suitable for classroom use.

He is known as "the hairdryer" for the force of his breath when he gives his players a blasting, and is famous for having kicked a boot that struck David Beckham above the eye and for rattling fellow managers such as Kevin Keegan and Arsene Wenger with his pre-match mind-games.

After his talk, Sir Alex said his temper had sometimes got the better of him, although he blamed the media for exaggerating incidents.

"I'm much more mellow now," he said. "But the thing I find difficult to deal with is myth, and the bigger the man the bigger the myth."

Ashton-on-Mersey pupils, however, defended the fiercer side of Sir Alex's character. Sports prefect Adam Gorey, 16, said: "Every time he has lost his temper it's because of his passion to succeed - his passion to be the best."

Adam is head ball-boy at Manchester United and responsible for making the manager's half-time tea (Sir Alex likes five bags in his teapot). "He is the role model who everyone looks to because he's reached his full potential in life," said Adam.

"I was struck by what he said about his dad waking him up at 6am and how it is important to be early for everything. It's the first impressions... if somebody arrives late, it puts you off."

Amelia Connor, 12, said: "I will remember what he said about working hard so it will pay off in the end."

Sir Alex gained the ultimate accolade from head boy Michael Simcock, 15.

"I'm a Man City fan but Sir Alex is the main man in Manchester. I respect him," he said.



* Distinguish between control and power: "You want to be respected but you don't want to be feared."

* Delegate so you can observe: "From observing, I see more from the outside than I could from the inside."

* Be decisive: "Don't be afraid to make decisions."

* Stick to your guns: "If you believe in what you are, you shouldn't change because of what you read in the papers, or in books."

* Analyse defeat: "Keep calm. Be analytical. Look at the reasons why things happen. You must not go down the route of panic."

* Look after yourself: "Eat the right foods, and watch the number of hours you sleep, because you need energy in your job."

* Remember people's first names: "You are making them feel part of your operation, part of your team."

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Philippa White

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