Football: Ever-smiling Yorke's year of excellence

Ronald Atkin finds Sir Alex full of praise for his talisman
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IT HAS been a year this weekend since Dwight Yorke signed for Manchester United and a grateful Sir Alex Ferguson wishes him a happy anniversary.

After Friday's session at their training ground in preparation for today's visit to Highbury, Ferguson paid high tribute to the striker, bracketing him with the most influential recent figures in United's squad.

Before the transfer market lapsed into total lunacy in recent months, eyebrows were hoisted when Ferguson paid pounds 12m to prise Yorke away from Aston Villa. Had the fellow flipped? The answer lies in the manager's beam when asked about his belief being rewarded. Yes, Yorke has scored in all three Premiership games, but it is elsewhere that Ferguson feels he has done well for the club. "He has been fantastic in the dressing- room," he said.

"He is bright and breezy, smiles and jokes with the others, sees life from a different angle. Some players come in moping about another day's training but Dwight will have a laugh. It's his nature. Mind you, he's a tough wee bugger, just try to knock him off the ball." Or, Ferguson could have added, to stop him scoring.

"It's a funny thing," the manager mused. "The pressure has affected a lot of players who have come here but there have been a few who fitted in well. Peter Schmeichel and Eric Cantona were unbelievable. Eric's input was on the training ground and in the dressing-room with young players." Yorke's dressing-room input was crucial, too, he emphasised.

The continuing excellence in attack (seven goals in three games) ensures that United do not need to concern themselves unduly with the theory about the spine of a team being the vital component, though defensively they have not been too dusty, either, with just one conceded - and that a Jaap Stam own goal.

There will probably be one change against Arsenal, with the reserve goalkeeper Raimond van der Gouw replacing the injured Mark Bosnich. For the rest, it is United's best line-up. "In certain circumstances I've got no option anyway," said Ferguson. "With Jesper Blomqvist out, there is no decision to be taken about the left-hand side. Because of the injuries to Ronny Johnsen and Gary Neville the centre-back choice is a straight one of Stam and Henning Berg. So the team is more or less picking itself, really," he said, adding that he was "looking at some options" for a further defensive signing.

The exception, he stressed, was Nicky Butt, a midfield regular last season who has come off the bench for all three games. "He may be a little disappointed," Ferguson said, explaining that, unlike Butt, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes had not made the close-season trip to Australia and China. "So in a sense we are balancing the freshness, with the ones who didn't go forming the nucleus of the ones who start the season for us."

Then, of course, there is the small matter of the two scorers who won the European Cup for United in Barcelona also sitting among the substitutes. "I have started with Andy Cole because he did so well for us for most of last year," he explained. "It's a bit unfortunate for Teddy [Sheringham] and Ole Gunnar [Solskjaer] but over the next week we will be changing things because we have four games in seven days now." Not that he should worry unduly. Both strikers continue to express loyalty and a deep desire to stay at Old Trafford. Sheringham, in particular, looked decidedly cheerful as he pulled away from the training ground on Friday in his Ferrari.

That 2-1 Charity Shield defeat by Arsenal four weeks ago was brushed aside by Sir Alex. "We were the better team and should have won it. We should have finished it off and didn't. But in terms of telling me anything it didn't, other than what I already know. Arsenal will be our main challengers again, that hasn't changed. And they know we are going to be there. I think Chelsea will be there, too. Those are the main three, though there may be a surprise. Villa have started quite well but we aren't searching too deep to find our main challengers."

While not going overboard in the admiration stakes, Ferguson offered a nod of approval about Arsene Wenger's achievements with Arsenal. "You recognise ability, that's the nuts and bolts of it. He has brought in a lot of foreigners and in the main they have done quite well." But what, someone suggested, about the "hiccup" over Nicolas Anelka? That made the manager of the world's richest football club laugh out loud. "Some hiccup. They made a pounds 21m profit. Bloody hell. Not bad." Anelka apart, Arsenal will have key players missing today, as will United.

"So I don't think this will tell us much," Ferguson argued. "It is an important game and could have significance but it doesn't decide anything."