FOOTBALL COMMENTARY : Ferguson fosters Everton's sense of escapism

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The sequence was kick-started by Eric Cantona. Within a week it was continued when a spectator tried to attack the referee at Blackburn, and then by a near riot at Chelsea. Seven days later came Dublin, followed by Highbury's mourning for the demise of George Graham: four Wednesdays and a funeral.

When Saturday comes, however, it brings an odd dichotomy. It is as if the scandals and scrapes belonged to an unrelated sport in a strange midweek world. Its morality may be as questionable as the technical quality, but as measured by rising attendances at Premiership fixtures or its watchability on television, English club football is booming.

Among the vast majority of the 40,011 at Goodison Park who saw Everton produce something for the weekend - a 1-0 victory over Manchester United - the mood was closer to carnival than crisis. That no one fostered this sense of escapism more than Duncan Ferguson, Joe Royle's £4m centre-forward from Rangers, was replete with irony.

Days before Cantona's leap in the dark, Ferguson faced an assault charge dating from an alleged butting incident at Ibrox. His new employers were concerned that he might presently be joining one of HM prison teams on loan. The case was adjourned until the summer, freeing Ferguson to remind his namesake in the United dug-out of the maverick element he must now cope without until October.

Unlike Cantona, Duncan Ferguson was conspicuous by his presence on Saturday. One suspects he would give partying a higher priority than poetry, but in talent and temperament the pair are kindred spirits. "Gallus", the Scottish expression which best describes the latter's cocky demeanour, is not so far removed from "Gallic", and the gangling striker already enjoys the kind of cult status among Evertonians that the Frenchman maintains at Old Trafford.

Royle went so far as to suggest that Ferguson could be Everton's biggest idol since Alex Young 30 years ago, or even Dixie Dean three decades earlier. Ferguson has scored eight goals in 21 games as opposed to Dean's 60 in a season, but there is no doubting the 23-year-old's class.

Unless, that is, you are Alex Ferguson. Royle, admitting that the match- winner was not a "natural scorer", suggested his record signing was looking "cheap at the price". His United counterpart, though, could not bring himself to concede more than that Fergie the younger was "a handful" and "very mobile for a big lad", concluding grudgingly: "Apart from the goal, he never gave us any bother."

Even if that were true - and it evokes thoughts of the "What have the Romans ever done for us?" scene in Life of Brian - the home support would have been delirious. In fact, Duncan Ferguson was the key component in Royle's strategy. In the absence of Paul Rideout, his readiness to hustle, his pace, aerial strength and linking ability kept both United's central defenders occupied. This enabled Stuart Barlow and Anders Limpar to execute their unlikely role of keeping United's wide men in check.

The game plan, which also involved Joe Parkinson anchoring midfield, appeared designed to avoid defeat. If so, the goal Ferguson headed in from one of Andy Hinchcliffe's trademark corners was what the football fraternity terms a bonus. The fact that it came from a set-piece and against the run of play should not blind United to the realisation that, for the first time, they missed Cantona.

Without his penchant for the unpredictable, the champions looked as mortal as we have seen them in a domestic context. The creative onus fell on Paul Ince, who had his hands full with the born-again playmaking prowess of Barry Horne. The other individual capable of elevating inspiration above perspiration, Ryan Giggs, was back to his peripheral worst.

Andy Cole and Mark Hughes, showing few signs of having been introduced, seldom received a service tailored to strengths which may not actually be compatible. Yet both fluffed chances, prompting Alex Ferguson to claim that United had been "unlucky".

Fortune certainly failed them in one respect. Joe Worrall is renowned for his laissez-faire refereeing, but in his desire to treat the players as adults he suffers from Roger Milford Syndrome. He neglected even to caution Barlow for a reckless lunge at Lee Sharpe when, with a less lenient official, United may have been facing 10 men for most of the match.

In that event, Kenny Dalglish would no doubt have detected a conspiracy against Blackburn. In fact the leaders appear capable of blowing the title themselves, though on this evidence the extended absence of Cantona could prove a greater factor than Dalglish hoped or Alex Ferguson feared.

Results elsewhere magnified the importance of Everton's first Goodison goal against United since 1989. "At last there's some breathing space," Royle said. "When we survive and play United next year, hopefully we can go at them a bit more." As encouraging as the use of "when" instead of "if" was his awareness that Everton fans expect fighting spirit to be harnessed to a certain swagger. Hence the way they have taken to their latest No 9.

Time will tell if "Duncan Disorderly" is merely a lovable rogue of the kind for which his adopted city is infamous, or whether he will succumb to the darker side of football's current dual identity. The task facing Royle, like Alex Ferguson's with Cantona, is to curb the excesses without stifling his intuitive brilliance.

Not that Goodison's new folk hero has much time, apparently, for the analysis and scrutiny which is the fate of those similarly blessed. "TV just asked permission to interview Dunc and I said `yes', but don't hold your breath," laughed Royle. "I'm just glad the referees can't understand what he's saying to them."

Goal: Ferguson (58) 1-0.

Everton (4-5-1): Southall; Barrett, Watson, Unsworth, Hinchcliffe; Barlow, Horne, Parkinson, Ebbrell (Samways, 73), Limpar; Ferguson. Substitutes not used: Amokachi, Reeves (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce, Pallister, Sharpe; Keane, Ince, McClair (Kanchelskis, 68), Giggs; Cole, Hughes. Substitutes not used: Butt, Walsh (gk).

Referee: J Worrall (Warrington).