Three-and-a-half years ago, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gave a lesson in laconic dialogue to an assembled room of NFL reporters. It may as well have been taken directly from a seminar for sports-management students titled, ‘How To Be A Tight-Lipped B*stard In Front Of The Press,’ and it went like this:
— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) October 1, 2014
Belichick is a man who believes in the importance of the press conference. He aims to give the media as little as possible, treating each interview as if he were a stranded marine under interrogation from a local Taliban commander in Kandahar. Name, rank, serial number is very much the Belichick approach. It’s one of the very few ways in which he differs from another grand master of the media room, Sir Alex Ferguson.
For Fergie, press conferences were weapons of mass destruction. He used them to control everything from his own players to opposition managers, players and the media in general. In the football world, he had few equals when it came to making sure people were talking about what he wanted them to talk about.
He was occasionally outspoken and frequently aggressive, but rarely reticent in the Belichick mode.
Yet despite the two men’s divergent styles when addressing the fourth estate, they both had the same objective: not merely to steer the narrative, but to set it.
It’s often a dangerous game to compare figures from different sports, particularly ones so diametrically opposed as association football and ‘gridiron’. There are so many variables in what’s needed to succeed in the Premier League and the NFL that trying to draw parallels between two practitioners of those respective codes is fraught with pitfalls. But when it comes to these two Sultans of Spin, the similarities are obvious.
Across a decade or more, they dominated almost every aspect of their sports, a pair of spiky, wily old foxes for whom nothing was/is more important than winning. Over the years they fostered – or perhaps coerced – a culture of success into their teams, refusing to accept anything other than 100% professionalism and commitment at all times. If there’s a hallmark of a Ferguson/Belichick team, it’s that dogmatic adherence to the laws as dictated by the coaching staff; a zealous trust in the omnipotence of the supreme leader.
Players were simply slotted in when and where they were required.
What was consistently remarkable about United, and still is about the Patriots, was how the playing personnel often seemed mere pawns on a chessboard. Though individuals came in and out, the team simply went on and on: a hammer is still the same hammer even if the handle is replaced every now and then.
United and the Patriots learned what it took to win, and never forgot how to do so. Fergie’s teams became famous for their late winners, for their composure when the chips were down; a trademark of Belichick’s Pats has been their fourth-quarter resilience, that ability to come up with the goods when it matters most. Opponents feared them both as a result; losing late to United or New England ended up as a self-fulfilling prophecy for many who crossed their path.
Not every time that Manchester United won a major competition were they the side with the most talented footballers; not every time the Patriots coasted through the AFC and won the Super Bowl were they the side with the most talented players. But there was always something inexorable about these two sporting dynasties in any given season. You just knew they were going to be there or thereabouts, no matter who was on the roster.
Eventually, largely because of their constant presence at the summit of their sports, Ferguson and Belichick engendered as much hatred as respect.
Controversy surrounded them at times – as is inevitable when you spend two decades as the figurehead of a major sporting organisation. But their auras of invincibility only got stronger as the seasons went by: Fergie won the Premier League in his final season; in Minnesota on Sunday 4th February, Belichick could win an unparalleled sixth Super Bowl at the age of 65.
Their longevity sets them apart from the rest. Like gruff, wrinkly old chameleons, they regenerated several times to suit the changing of eras, and somehow always remained ahead of the curve. In doing so established dynasties very much alike in their nature, and which may not be equalled in greatness for many years to come.