Football / FA Cup Final: Ferguson ready for the highest honour: Manchester United's manager can become the fourth this century to win the Double. Joe Lovejoy reports

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HE IS holding court in a lounge decorated with prints of the Busby era, at ease, at last, among the icons of Manchester United's proud past. Alex Ferguson even chooses to wear a player's shirt from 1968, prepared to invite comparisons he would have been at pains to avoid barely a year ago.

Successive championships, the FA, League and Cup-Winners' Cups and just one step away from the classic Double, Ferguson has laid the ghosts by earning his own place in the Old Trafford pantheon.

The theatre of dreams offers most things in the post-Taylor age, and he is seated next to a creche. Appropriate, really. The past is past, and it is the 'Fergie Babes' to whom the red legions pay homage these days.

The man has a profound sense of history and, having steeped himself in United's tradition, he needs no reminding of the significance of this particular Cup final. Victory over Chelsea today would make him only the fourth manager to achieve the League and Cup double in modern times. More important still, it would be a first for United. Not even the late, lamented Sir Matt managed that.

It was a new 'challenge' (one of his favourite words) but, blessed with the best team in the country, it was one he was facing with equanimity.

On match days, so the players say, he still prowls as tetchily as ever, but between games the preoccupied frown has started to crease into a smile. The pressure of perennial expectation temporarily relieved, the tiger is suddenly a pussy cat. Until match day.

Ferguson looks happier, more relaxed, as he lolls in old-time playing kit, addressing the final, but events of yesteryear, and the need to live up to the club's distinguished past, are never far from his mind. 'This shirt is unique, d'you know why?' he barks, pointing to his red breast. 'It was made for the European Cup final and never worn. United had to wear blue that day.'

Typical. The man could win Mastermind on 'Manchester United: The Glory Years'. Brian McClair, who knows him better than most, says: 'Alex has a tremendous knowledge of what has happened here in the past, and particularly of old players' careers. He's very much into that. He looks after any players who have been involved here, even in a small capacity. He has this remarkable empathy with the whole tradition of Manchester United.'

Had success mellowed him? 'I think it has made him more secure, but I don't think his will to win or his ambition has diminished any. His enthusiasm is still obvious. For example, even though we'd won the League with a record number of points he was still after the record number of goals. He's always been the same in the seven years I've played for him. He still wants to be involved in absolutely everything.'

Ferguson is 'delighted' to be at full strength against opponents who had the Indian sign on his champions in the Premiership, beating them at home and away.

Peter Schmeichel's rapid recovery from ligament damage sustained less than two weeks ago had not surprised him. 'As is always the case when you get to a Cup final, everybody is fit for selection. It's amazing. We should have Cup finals every week.'

Twice Chelsea had played as if they had, Gavin Peacock scoring the only goal at Stamford Bridge in September, and again at Old Trafford in March, to inflict two of only four defeats United suffered in the League all season.

'Yes', Ferguson nods, 'that's something they do carry into the game. Nobody can question that they have beaten us twice.' Glenn Hoddle's team were no better than ordinary, losing more matches than they won to finish a modest 14th, so how had they succeeded where more accomplished sides had failed?

'I think they had a bit of luck in our two previous meetings. When we played them down there, Cantona hit the bar with a classic volley and they went straight up the pitch and scored. When things like that happen, you know it's not your day.'

More pertinently, perhaps, Ferguson had tinkered with his team, resting Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis - potential match- winners, both - in the aftermath of midweek internationals. 'If you're looking for reasons or excuses, I suppose that's one,' he says.

There were none for the second game. 'Chelsea defended brilliantly here, they really did. They were playing for their lives because they were still in danger of relegation, and they did a good job. They scored with their first shot at goal, and we missed a few chances, but in fairness, we didn't play particularly well, and a lot of credit for that must go to Chelsea. They changed their team cleverly, and worked hard to contain us.'

Hoddle's successful game plan had revolved around the deployment of Eddie Newton to sweep in front of the back four, and Peacock breaking from deep. The 4-1-2-1-2 formation had stymied the better side, but the surprise element has been lost.

'Their system is something we've been discussing,' Ferguson said, knowingly. So were Chelsea's Christians (Hoddle and Peacock are 'born again') going to be thrown to the lions, the man from the Sun wanted to know. Caesar Fergie - the headline that never was. This canniest of Scots was too cute to be drawn into that trap.

The prospect of the Double proved more fertile ground. 'A few years ago we'd never won the League Cup and we got that one out of the road. We'd never won the Cup-Winners' Cup, and we did that. It's always good to add to the honours list.

'When people look at a match-day programme, the list is there to tell you how successful a club has been. Look at anyone's programme and it tells you what the club is all about. Their tradition. Here, the Double has never been done before, so it's something we want to add to our list.'

It was an omission which saw United compared with their rivals in an unfavourable light, and one Ferguson was keen to remedy. 'The three big ones - Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool - have all done it, and it would be nice to share their place in history.

'Tradition and history is always a big thing. Maybe, for a few years, people coming here were afraid of the club's history. We hadn't won the League for a long time, and supporters were always harking back to Best, Law and Charlton, or Edwards, Coleman and Taylor. That's not a problem now. They're talking about my team, which is a great feeling.'

Today could complete the transition. 'It's the last game of the season for us, and we're going into it in the knowledge that we can do the Double. We've already got the biggest thing in the bag, which takes the pressure off. We go into the final knowing that we've already put some silverware on the table, which is something we must look to do every year. We've done that. We've done the hard part in winning the League. Now we can go out and enjoy the greatest showpiece of them all - the club game that is shown all over the world.'

Relax and enjoy it? More Champagne Ron than Scotch Alex, surely? 'Of course I don't want them relaxed too much. I think we're at our best when there's an edge to our game. We showed that a couple of weeks ago, when we went to Leeds and won. The atmosphere was supposed to be intimidating, but we were never going to bow down that night.'

The two losses to Chelsea would supply the same sort of motivation. 'The players don't want to lose to the Cockneys again.' Their manager apart, only Dennis Wise among the 'Cockneys' - the word was spoken with a Shanklyesque disdain - had appeared in the final. Might their inexperience be a disadvantage? 'Not really. They played their semi-final at Wembley, so they know what the place is like. It's a question of whether they think they are good enough to win.

'We know we are. We've proved it over 63 games this season, losing only six and scoring 122 goals. The players are confident, and confidence is important, going into a final. It's not a lot to ask, for them to do it one more time on a sunny day in London, is it?'

Probably not.

(Photograph omitted)