Ferguson shrugs off turbulent summer

Despite a difficult close season, the Manchester United manager is optimistic about the future. Guy Hodgson reports
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The Independent Online
There was a distinguishable touch of sadness about Alex Ferguson yesterday. He had lost something he wanted to keep and, like anyone, he was casting around looking for a way to replace it. But there was also an element of relief.

The Manchester United manager was ruminating on the impending transfer of Andrei Kanchelskis, a move clouded with so much acrimony that on top of the departures of Paul Ince and Mark Hughes, his very right to be in charge at Old Trafford has been questioned. And while he had tried to keep the Russian winger, the very fact that a decision had been made seemed to have a cleansing effect.

"I just felt the situation was going to fester," he said, explaining why he had let Kanchelskis go without first getting a replacement. "I thought: 'What's the point of keeping Andrei here when he's not happy?' He gets away and we can get on with preparing for the new season. The best thing to do is to lay it to bed.

"We hoped to swap Andrei for Darren Anderton, but once that fell through we could have ended up trying to do a deal with a club that didn't want Andrei. So we might as well take the money, have it in the bank and hopefully have a new signing within the next few weeks."

Then the sense of loss came through. "He did very well for us," he said. "He's 26, and whoever he signs for, he'll just be reaching his peak. We're going to miss that. We don't have his blend of pace and power to get behind people."

Even Ferguson admits that the Kanchelskis affair has been wounding. "It's been a wee bit," he began and then altered his assessment to "a big bit of an embarrassment." So much so that the launch of his new book, Alex Ferguson: A Year in the Life (Virgin, pounds 12.99), was swamped by the turbulence that has swept over Old Trafford this summer.

No one ought to be surprised by the fickleness of fans, but the telephone poll published in the Manchester Evening News last week that revealed 53 per cent of callers wanted Ferguson to leave was astonishing. This for a manager who had brought United their first Double only 14 months previously, and who had every reason to believe he was as much a part of the fabric of Old Trafford as the club crest.

It is a frightening turnaround, and the discontent is unlikely to change until a player of stature is signed. Even that is not imminent, as no footballer from these shores fits Ferguson's template, and no one specific from Europe has been targeted either.

But if Ferguson feels hounded, he hides it well. Defensively, he said, United are stronger for the return to fitness of Paul Parker and the maturing of Gary Neville, and he is drooling over a striking combination of Eric Cantona and Andy Cole, which he expects to yield 40 goals a season. "Yes, in terms of balance, the wide-right position is a matter of concern to us," he said, "but there are other aspects of the team that make me optimistic. I feel good about it."

So much, of course, depends on Cantona, and if the past few weeks have been disconcerting for the United manager, his faith in his errant Frenchman, whose suspension lasts until 1 October, seems to have grown.

"I have no fears for him at all," he said. "I can't think he would want to go through anything like that again. He was under horrendous pressure in the months after the Crystal Palace incident, but the summer comes, his wife has had a baby, and he knows he is coming back.

"He can smell the football again. His performances in training are phenomenal. You can't believe he's not played a game of football for six months. The drive is he wants to play."

After a summer of discontent, the sooner the whole team can play, the happier Ferguson will be. Even without Kanchelskis.

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