Ferguson the purist turns pragmatist

football: Manchester United's manager tells Glenn Moore he is ready to sacrifice his principles for the sake of Europe `It is not my job to be too loyal. My job is to be loyal to the fans. Some of our fans spent half a lifetime - or a whole lifetime - waiting for the League title. They have spent millions of pounds coming to give us the biggest support in the land even when we were not winning'
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It was the morning after a bad night; Blackburn Rovers, unexpectedly, were still top, lightning jagged across the Salford skyline and Alex Ferguson was pondering the mortality of his team of double-champions.

The previous night, Wednesday, Manchester United had drawn at home to second-from-bottom Leicester City and afterwards, said Ferguson, he had asked his team: "You can win three successive titles. Do you really want it, do you have the desire to do it?" Then the United manager went home and lay awake wondering if he had picked the right team.

"I told them I can't wait on yesterday's heroes too long," added Ferguson. "It is not my job to be too loyal. My job is to be loyal to the fans. Some of our fans spent half a lifetime - or a whole lifetime - waiting for the League title. They have spent millions of pounds coming to give us the biggest support in the land even when we were not winning.

"In the League this season we have performed when we needed to but there is always a question whether players have what is needed to stay at the top, whether they have that hunger. I gave them a reminder last night. There comes a time when you need to change, a time when the big names are no longer big names. It happens to all teams.

"We have two or three players who are bad losers, who have the hunger to do well. Then there are some who need to be pushed along, to be reminded what it was like when we were not winning the League.

"That personal desire is like a drug. It applies to people who do well in any walk of life. Bryan Robson always had it. He would have injuries - the usual with Bryan - but come the match he would fire himself up."

"Ferguson possesses that desire. As a robust and short-tempered centre-forward he had a solid but largely unspectacular career in Scotland. Though it never lived up to the promise of international caps at schooboy, youth and amateur level, it did includean expensive transfer to Rangers, his boyhood idols.

But as a manager he has won just about everything available. Having begun with East Stirlingshire and then St Mirren 20 years ago, he led Aberdeen to every Scottish honour and the European Cup-Winners' Cup before moving to Old Trafford in 1986. Two titles, two FA Cups, a League Cup and a Cup-Winners' Cup have followed. Yet the hunger is still there; partly out of the desire to emulate Sir Matt Busby and lift the European Cup - but mainly because it is simply part of his make-up.

"I do not have any personal qualms about the '68 European Cup win," he said." I think the players get it rammed in their throat more than I do. People say it is the final thing for myself but I can't let that be the albatross round my neck, you can get too obsessive about things.

"It was a bit like that with the League title when I came to the club. They said: `It is 20 years since we won, we do not want to let it get to 25, that is unthinkable.' But we had to wait to 26.

"A team with our ability should be questioned about Europe. We are good enough. We lost in the European Cup because we retained too much of our domestic way of playing away from home. If we had gone to Barcelona and Gothenburg and played the way we had in Galatasaray - not giving anything away - we would be in the quarter-finals.

"The quality needed to do well in Europe is there, we have to address the other part, how to get results away. Milan set their stall away from home, everything is congested and they make it very difficult for opponents to play against them. They capitalise with good use of the ball and their patience and experience. We have got to acquire that. It is not necessarily the Manchester United way but if we have to bore the arse off people away from home we will.

"My attitude to the Barcelona game [United lost 4-0] was to go and win it on their own ground as an examination of the best players I could put on the pitch that day. I wanted to find out about them but it was a little too cavalier. I think I know how todo it next time.

"We need a bit of the way Arsenal do it. But - without being disrespectful to George Graham's achievements - I don't know whether they would do as well in the Champions' League, you need a bit extra."

Ferguson is assessing where to find that extra. As much as possible will come from within but some aspects will have to be bought.

"By bringing the young players in we are giving ourselves a base for the next five years, it means we do not have to make wholesale change," Ferguson said. "But English strikers are a problem. Paul Scholes is an excellent player, but we need a different type of player to improve in Europe, someone with explosiveness and pace to turn teams and create space behind them. We do that wide and in midfield, but in the central striking position we don't. We need a mix to our game."

Names are not discussed but he has already inquired after Stan Collymore, a player who fits the description. No doubt there are a few of his goals among the customary video collection in Ferguson's office at The Cliff, United's inner-city training ground.

The room is furnished in haphazard fashion, Ferguson probably regards time spent framing pictures and arranging furniture as wasted time. The bookcase is full of Rothmans and European Yearbooks; there are pictures of Ferguson with Sir Matt and Martin Edwards - the club chairman - at the opening of Sir Matt Busby Way; with Jack Charlton and Bob Paisley; and a sign proclaiming "IHCUMFIGOVIN" in reference to his origins in Govan, Glasgow.

But the key to the room is its location overlooking The Cliff's pitch. This is where United's youngsters train and the A team play. Ferguson regards overseeing their development, watching them mature as players and men, as the most rewarding aspect of his job.

"It is very satisfying when you see players such as Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt start to carve out careers and names for themselves, especially the local boys.

"To build a football club you have to build a good, loyal base. The best is with young kids you have brought in at 13 years of age and you have said to parents `do you trust me to look after your boy' - and they have given that trust.

"You get a great loyalty. Last night they were all in the pool - David Beckham, Simon Davies, Chris Casper and so on. They all eat together, they are a gang. They are really close to each other and they know each other.

"Team building is an interesting thing. When a team is a team they understand each other's capabilities and they know when one of them is not having a good game and they will get into them, they will encourage each other. I played in a couple of teams like that."

The most famous of Fergie's Fledglings is, of course, Giggs who seems to appears on as many magazine covers as the Princess of Wales. This, and a much-charted relationship with television presenter Danni Behr, has led to suggestions that the club have relaxed their earlier protectiveness and allowed outside interests to affect Giggs' football. It is a belief Ferguson totally denies.

"Ryan has not done one commercial thing in six months, the book and the coaching videos were all done in the summer but pictures from then are still appearing. Everybody thinks we have let him off the leash and he can do what he likes. A paper yesterday morning said he was going to South Africa for 10 days' filming in the middle of January - when we are playing Newcastle United and Blackburn Rovers. It is incredible. So in people's mind they are thinking - `ridiculous, that manager, letting him go to South Africa'.

"It must be very difficult for the boy, to handle seeing himself all the time. He is so young. Gary Lineker and Bryan Robson were not overnight successes, they developed their careers with Leicester and West Bromwich before they hit the high spots in their mid-twenties when they had maturity and understood what the media is about."

United, as Ferguson is only too aware, will always be big news. Their success has merely exaggerated things.

"When I came here I knew about Sir Matt but it was only when I got right inside I realised how big it was. I was in the chairman's office and there were photographs of the Ground Stewards' Dance. I discovered theirs was an unpaid honorary position which they hand down from father to son, uncle to nephew. We look after them, give them the Wembley trips and things like that.

"They are unbelievable. They are about 70 and all bright as a button and passionately committed to the club - one of them tipped us off about Ryan Giggs - and I thought `there must be something special about this club'. Then we went away and there were all the supporters' coaches from places like Dover and Falmouth. I'd never even heard of Falmouth. It seeps into you. I like that passion."

Ferguson himself was a fan, standing in the Cowshed at Ibrox, following them into Europe. At times he has to remind his younger players, most of whom have spent their Saturdays playing not watching, about the commitment supporters make to a team.

He is still a fan - "I would pay to watch Cantona" - and would hate to put out a side that played football he did not want to watch.

His attachment to United is such he will not be going elsewhere. In time, possibly when his contract ends in three years, he will move on within the club. The prospect of becoming a Continental-style general manager, alongside a team manager, attracts, retirement does not.

"My problem is how much holding the reins at this club will affect me in three years' time. Eleven years managing this club is a lot. It is a very difficult job and I don't think anyone could come in and run it the way it is being run now. I could not doit if I came in now. It has grown too big.

"I have to prepare myself. The changes I am making to the team, I have to accept, too. There will be a time when I have to draw back."

It is a rare privilege for a manager to pick his time of departure. Ferguson, 53 today and a newly anointed CBE, would like to take leave with at least the European Cup and a hat-trick of titles to his name.

But first there is a championship to win and, today at The Dell, Matthew Le Tissier to deal with.

"I don't know what to do about him," he said. "We are not good at man-marking. We will just have to score more goals than they do."

It may not be the right approach to European glory, but it is the right way to play.