Dream workers in theatre of reality

United, with Giggs in the lead role, have triumphed on a European stage. Ian Ridley applauds the director
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Yes, it was "only" a quarter-final, and a first leg at that, but for a few days at least let them and us delight in the achievement. After a harsh winter, and at times harsh judgements by the highest standards upon Manchester United, they deserve some warmth of spring. It is certainly in their step.

Before the second leg in Oporto arrives in 10 days' time, with its dreary if valid talk of not doing anything silly and of keeping it tight, we can permit a few dreams. After all, this - lest the Stock Exchange ever force us to forget - is why most still throng and weave down Sir Matt Busby Way to Old Trafford's theatre. And for such heady, vibrant nights as the 4-0 victory over Porto. Megascope rather than Megastore.

Is fate taking a hand? It is just possible that the French side Auxerre, though they are 3-1 down, might overcome Borussia Dortmund for a European Cup semi-final meeting with United. Eric Cantona returning to where it all began for him? Then could come a final against Juventus, a club also tinged with tragedy, that of Heysel in 1985. The Italians reached their own redemption in Rome last May, just as Sir Matt's United had done once at Wembley in 1968. But this would be in Munich. Of all places.

Good morning Mr Red, your wake-up call. Alex Ferguson himself will not need one. He will be well aware that a team of Germans has been known to end a few English fancies. Within minutes of last Wednesday's final whistle at Old Trafford the United manager may have been talking of a result beyond his wildest dreams but he was soon telling a small group of us: "Concentration. That's what we need over there now." He will also know that they are unlikely again to encounter a goalkeeper as edgy as Hilario or a referee as punitive towards Porto.

The temptation is to claim United's success as a sign that English football is back in European business - if not by enviously grudging devotees from rival clubs, then by the admiring but unaffiliated observer. It is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is an indication that United have finally fulfilled Ferguson's work ethos. Several clubs have as much talent and skill, notably Liverpool and Newcastle, but United are set apart by a collective drive and determination that reflects the leader who has instilled it.

Here was Ryan Giggs darting to prod home a goal then running back 50 yards moments later to tackle an opponent. There was David Beckham spraying a crossfield pass from left to right then getting a foot in to nip a prospective Portuguese attack in the bud. The two embody what Ferguson and United are all about.

Both players were obtained young, when impressionable, by a Ferguson gifted with foresight, as opposed to the hindsight of most of us. There may always be expensive enhancements to the squad but the two are lifeblood. One wonders if Giggs would have remained simply a tricksy, flying winger rather than the more rounded perceptive passer into which he is developing had he opted for Manchester City. Would Beckham have become the level- headed producer as well as midfield director had he remained in his native London?

Such steel with style is the modern blueprint. It has led to a remarkable self-belief that also distinguishes United from the domestic competition, that gives these Red Devils all the best tunes in the Britpop of the Premiership. "It's what I said to them before the game," said Ferguson. "You can read all about the other team's names but you have got to believe in your own ability. That was the key factor for us, the belief."

It was omnipresent. David May and Gary Pallister were solidity itself. "I always feel confident with Pally in my team," Ferguson said. "He's got the experience of this club and people forget how quick he is." In front of them Ronny Johnsen, quietly, competently, held the fort.

The four-goal haul was pleasing, particularly for one of the scorers and the only weakish link, Andy Cole, who failed to retain possession on a few occasions early in the second half when Porto briefly threatened to recover. But a clean sheet is as important as the scoresheet. The lesson of Europe, for Liverpool last season and for Aston Villa and possibly Newcastle this season, has been not to concede in a home leg.

After the first-minute warning of a chance for Artur, United did not look like being passed. Peter Schmeichel's one alarm in the second half must have been caused by slipping on the mess Hilario had left there in the first.

Then there was the bold attacking selection of Cantona, Cole and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Ferguson employed the maxim of making a virtue of a deficiency, the absence of Roy Keane. It may look lately as if Cantona's individual influence is waning; more, it is surely that the maturing of others has brought United a greater range.

Ferguson could have been forgiven for feeling vindicated in his bold statements of autumn, when most doubted him as United lost twice to Juventus and conceded 11 goals at Southampton and Newcastle, that his team would be ready when the business end of the season arrived. Or in his belief that when rules governing the number of "foreign" players were relaxed that United's true colours would fly high. But he is not inclined to gloat.

"It doesn't hold any worries for me, this time of year," he said simply; another aspect that sets him and his club apart from choking contemporaries. The experience of losing that championship to Leeds United in 1992 has been instructive. As for Europe, he allows himself only a tinge of regret: "The team that won the first Double would have done well. It never played again together."

Is there a particular reason he can cite, he was asked, why United have come on so much in six months, unrecognisable from the team so outplayed in Turin last September? (I added the last part in the writing; no one would dare be so crass face to face with Ferguson.)

It was, he said, all down to preparation time. Early season was crammed with fixtures, now there is breathing space and coaching time. More vindication of his attitude towards the Coca-Cola Cup, though one still questions his statement last week that England's three games in France in June are misguided. Surely the national team need them; surely his players, Beckham especially, will benefit in the future?

As ever, United are also prisoners of their past. There were indeed echoes of George Best and Benfica in Giggs and Porto, though they should not be amplified. Solskjaer does bear superficial resemblance to Denis Law but half a season is no basis for judgement; Cantona and Bobby Charlton - with their effect on the team at least - may be closer.

As Ferguson, worthy keeper of the tradition, again sets about keeping talented feet on the ground, he will know, with his intense interest in football history, that United once lost 4-0 away to Porto in European competition.

In fact, there is one factor which may link this team with that of '68 and an era difficult to compare, less burdened as it was by the pace of today. It comes in a refusal to be bowed by the legend. Many have passed through Old Trafford oppressed by its expectations, nay its high demands. This class appear instead inspired by them. Out of the reveries lies the potential for glorious reality.