Big man with a cause

while United's manager stands on the threshold of history and takes comfort in his high achievements; Ian Ridley meets Alex Ferguson, whose turbulent season may be crowned in glory
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IT IS 9am and the staff of the Manchester United superstore are arriving for another day's serious trading. Already, customers are gathering on Old Trafford's forecourt where the burgers are ready for grilling.

So, too, down in the manager's lounge in the dressing-room area, is Alex Ferguson. He must be an early bird, you venture. "Oh, I only need five hours sleep," he says. "Like Margaret Thatcher," you reply. "Don't associate me with that woman," he responds with feeling. "Somerset Maugham, maybe."

The narcoleptic Maugham believed that failure makes people bitter and cruel, success being rather better for the character. Ferguson is clearly of like mind as manager of England's team of the Nineties: seven trophies and counting. The next seven days could see an unprecedented repeat of last year's Double.

However, there is bitterness from other quarters towards the sprawling success of Manchester United on and off the field, of superstar and superstore. "The modern cynicism. People's envy of success," Ferguson says. Still, the goodwill of the neutral and the respect of those committed to other clubs shown towards United has dissipated somewhat amid the moments of madness.

The Eric Cantona affair, Paul Ince's part in its immediate aftermath and Roy Keane's semi-final stamp have been the main stains. "One of my most trying seasons," is Ferguson's assessment, which, in terms of understatement, is a little like John Major viewing the local election results as a slap on the wrist.

As one might expect, Ferguson's response - like himself, and like his team - is vigorous and passionate. "If you look at all the things that have happened in the last year, not one opposing player has been seriously injured playing against Manchester United," he says. "There have been no gashes, no broken noses, legs or jaws, no teeth out, no ligament damage." You will not, he insists, see a United player's elbows rampant, which he believes is the curse of the modern game: "No need for it. They say you need leverage, but that's rubbish."

Ferguson does have a point; even Matthew Simmons escaped pretty much unscathed at the feet of Cantona, reprehensible as the action was. And unacceptable as Keane's action was, Gareth Southgate soon continued for Crystal Palace. "It was a silly thing that Roy did. The whistle had gone and the boy came flying in. It's the silliness of it all," Ferguson adds.

He will have no hesitation in playing Keane in the FA Cup final if he is fit, he says, despite calls for his withdrawal. In addition, the FA's ban on Cantona until October, extending that imposed by the club, still rankles. "The modern Manchester United player has to expect different treatment from everyone else, from the opposition and the FA," he added.

"But for more than a year we have been playing games like Cup ties every week. Every match is high profile, on TV around the world, usually live. Players are asked to perform at such a high level of intensity every week, there are bound to be moments. We have tackles against us and we make tackles."

From such statements stem the criticisms of Ferguson: a whinger with an absence of contrition and a reluctance to apologise or criticise his players. It is not, it seems, because of a fierce pride instilled during his formative years in the Govan district of Glasgow, where indiscipline was dealt with "indoors".

"I had a rough time at this club a few years ago," he explained. "But not once did the chairman question me. Martin Edwards was marvellous. He stuck by me and so it's vital I stick by my players when they are criticised. I am the manager of the biggest club in the country and when boys come here, their families have a right to expect from me the best treatment for their sons. They don't want to go to the shops and hear, 'The manager says your son let Manchester United down.' We know what we do. Nobody gets away with anything here."

Has he not felt like getting away from it all for a week, like Brian Clough used to? "No, never. But it's a nice thought. This is just such a big place now. There are so many castles people are building, so many things to keep an eye on."

The keeper's biggest concern is outside the portcullis, however, in the present attitude he perceives towards Manchester United. "And the mood of one or two players changes, sadly, as well. They get a big profile. But it's the envy against us that is greater." He was first alarmed by the undercurrent that is now a tide when Ince was poisonously treated last season by the fans at West Ham, the midfield player's former club and whence he returns with United this afternoon. That, though, was more of an individual grievance.

"People talk of arrogance. That seems to be a common term they use about us. But where's the arrogance in Bruce, Pallister, Sharpe, Hughes, Giggs, Kanchelskis, Gary Neville or Butt? And no matter what you think about Keane, he's really a down-to-earth boy. I know Cantona has an arrogance about him in the way he carries himself but superior players can do that.

"But you know, when we go to some of these places, they all want us to go up for presentations and they want balls, kit, programmes autographed. It's like a jumble sale in some of these dressing-rooms. In some cases there is an envy and hatred of us but they expect us to sign all these things."

Is it not counter-productive to dwell on such perceptions and allow them to intrude? "Aye, that's a problem. And it's something we have been wrestling with. We don't want to adopt a trench mentality; we just have to be big enough to take it. But I don't use it as a motivation. The best motivation is a cause." Or, in this week's case, two causes.

It is not all whine and rosettes, however. "Some managers have told me how strong they think I have been. And the people that have realism within themselves respect us; managers, players, other supporters, parts of the media."

So much for the burdens of being Manchester United manager in this high- pressure era. What about the pleasures?

Certainly, he is gratified by the development of a way of playing in keeping with the club's tradition, with wingers who take on defenders and score goals, allied to midfield players of vision. There is such a thing as a Manchester United player, says Ferguson. "He has to want the ball, have the courage to want the ball. A player with imagination, a player who has the big picture." Does Paul Gascoigne interest him? "He interests me, aye. I haven't turned my mind to it, though."

Then there is his youth policy established soon after taking over from Ron Atkinson nine years ago and now bearing ripe fruit. It is more than this, though. "I love coming in and hearing all the old stewards who have been here for years calling me 'boss'," he says. "I love to look out from my office at the Cliff over the training ground and seeing all the boys out there. That's what it's all about."

For a man on the threshold of English footballing history, he seems remarkably relaxed. Perhaps it is because his place in the pantheon is already assured. He switches off, if it is possible, by reading and watching Westerns and takes a particular interest in American politics, being an expert on the JFK assassination. A visit to the scene of the crime in Dallas during last year's World Cup fascinated him.

"The longer I am here, the more I get immune to it all," he says. "There is no point in getting upset. It stops you doing your job." He has indicated that he might just do that at the age of 55 in two years' time, but you somehow doubt it. And he adds that, yes, he would like to remain with the club in a more general role.

I tell him I have heard that some Liverpool supporters are already preparing leaflets in French that cast aspersions on Eric Cantona and his mother, ready to brandish at Anfield next season. "No?" he says, then his face lights up with an unexpected laugh. "I'm just not going to worry about it any more."

Again, you doubt it. But this, too, even this early in the morning, is Alex Ferguson. As humanly flawed as the rest of us he may be, capable of misjudgements and angrily confrontational to those who upset him, but warm and expansive too. It is probably why he has brought more out of Cantona than any manager before, and possibly why United are as they are. A big man for a big job.