Ferguson's faith is rewarded

Glenn Moore pays tribute to the style and allure of the new champions of the Premiership
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The Independent Online
There is a seat in the director's box at Old Trafford which is dedicated to a man who will never sit in it again. Seat No 1 in the Theatre of Dreams belongs to Sir Matt Busby, the man who built the Manchester United legend and now watches his club from the heavens.

Sir Matt died in January 1994 and, for a while, United left the seat symbolically empty but, with thousands clamouring to get into Old Trafford every week, it did seem a waste and now Sandy Busby, Sir Matt's son, sits there.

As United today celebrate a third title in four seasons, and look towards the unique prospect of a second Double, the probability arises that, in time, Sir Matt's descendants will have a member of the Ferguson clan alongside.

Not that Alex Ferguson is ready to join Sir Matt, Jock Stein and Bill Shankly in the Scottish dug-out at the Elysian Fields just yet, but his achievements stand worthy of comparison.

While Ferguson has not built a club in the way Sir Matt and Shankly did, he has revived a great but failing one; a club whose past had intimidated and overwhelmed a series of managers, some of them very good ones, over two decades.

There had been money, there had been good players, there had been cups and trophies galore; but there had been no championships. As recently as 1992 United were still stumbling in the run-in and counting the years - 25 years of them - without a title.

Now, like the proverbial London bus, they have come along in a cluster and there will be more to come. Manchester United have been first or second for five successive years and are already the bookies' favourites for next season. Given the weight of teenaged talent forcing its spotty way into the dressing-room (the reserves and 'A' team also won their titles), and the club's immense and ever-growing financial resources, it is hard to see them being overtaken.

Moreover, the titles have been won with a style very much in United's tradition. The emphasis is on pace, movement and width, even in a season in which the club are without a natural right-winger. There are individuals of great gifts and no little glamour. The allure of United is as much about the present as the past.

Ferguson is proud of both. He is a historian of his club in the way that few managers are. Ferguson says he has been inspired by Busby, not intimidated. He has even held press conferences in the red shirt that was specially made for the 1968 European Cup final but never worn (United wore blue).

Long-serving staff say he has revived the humanity and warmth the club possessed in Busby's day. To the outside world United may seem paranoid and defensive - and, to an extent, they are - but internally there is a confident sense of security.

Ferguson's approach is applied across the board but is most noticeable - as it was with Busby - in the way he treats his fledgling stars. Young players at Old Trafford stress Ferguson's personal involvement in their development. It can start from the first approach - when United went to sign Ryan Giggs it was Ferguson himself who met his mother, Lynne.

But it is one thing to have a good youth scheme, it is another entirely to trust its fruits. When United lost Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes in the summer, most pundits decided this year's title would be beyond them. Ferguson had different ideas. "I never looked upon this as a season of transition," he said this week. "This club has to be challenging all the time."

Hughes' departure made sense. He was not going to command a first-team place and would only be of limited benefit in the reserves. Kanchelskis left of his own accord. Only the sale of Ince could have been prevented, though persistent whispers in Manchester suggest he wanted to go. Whether he did or not Ferguson was happy to let him depart. Roy Keane was ready to take over his mantle and Nicky Butt waited impatiently in the wings. Their partnership has been the platform for United's success.

The summer sales also changed the face of the team from snarling whingers to freshly scrubbed smilers. While Keane is still a regular on the charge sheet he is the only one. The perplexing thing for Old Trafford regulars is that this change of mood is yet to lead to a change of perception nationally.

Saturday's FA Cup final is the next task, but Ferguson will already be looking further ahead. That chair may be earmarked for Fergusons in perpetuity, but Alex will not feel comfortable in it until he emulates Sir Matt and lifts the European Cup. As in Busby's day, the title has become a means to an end, not an end it itself.