Football: Ferguson cheered by United's year of youthful maturity

Manchester United's players were full of the Christmas spirit yesterday - but not in the alcoholic sense. Points not pints are the priority at Old Trafford these days.

As he watched his team prepare for the rigours of the coming months, Alex Ferguson talked to Glenn Moore about the past year's success - and of his ambition to field a team of teetollers.

Manchester United's benevolent dictator looked out of his office window yesterday morning and chuckled. This was not because of a sadistic delight at having dragged his players away from their families to train in the rain on Christmas Day morning, but out of pleasure at their reaction.

"The young ones are beating the old buggers," he said barely suppressing his mirth. "They are all dancing about because usually the old boys beat them."

No signs of pressure at the champions then, and no wonder after the year they have had. Discounting the Coca-Cola Cup (as United do) they go into today's match with Everton at Old Trafford having lost just eight games, and won 31, out of 50 played. Not bad for a year's work even if two of the defeats, home and away to Borussia Dortmund, still hurt.

"Would I have settled for the year we've had last January? Oh yes," said Ferguson. "We won the title and that's always the be-all and end-all for me. It would have been a bonus if we had got to the European Cup final but we had the experience of getting to the semi-final.

"The highlight for me, apart from winning the League, is the maturity of the young players and the team as a whole, and the way [Teddy] Sheringham fitted in. He has the vision you need in big games. With players like [Paul] Scholes and him, [Ryan] Giggs and [David] Beckham, you look forward to matches.

"Teddy has combined very, very well with Andy Cole. He is an unselfish player. He will lay a pass on even if he has a chance of scoring, like [Eric] Cantona would. He works really hard for us. Some players get a chance late in their career, like Tony Book at Manchester City, and Teddy, coming to us at 31, has absolutely grasped it.

"It took him a while to get used to it. The games come thick and fast at the start of the season and every game is a cup tie for us. Henning Berg was the same, he hit a plateau. That happens, Cantona did that when he came. If they are good enough, they come again."

Another player worthy of special mention in United's year is Peter Schmeichel, his excellence is often taken for granted until highlighted by performances like that at Newcastle last Sunday. "He's magnificent," said Ferguson. "His last save at Newcastle was even better than those he made there two years ago. He's not dropped his level at all. He's still ambitious and that's important."

One match stands out. The 3-2 victory over Juventus on 1 October. "That opened the door this season. We never start the season that well and this time was no different, but that performance brought the team on to another level. The performance against Kosice had been economical, careful and patient, but there was no acceleration. Against Juventus they were magnificent.

"The wins at Anfield were also major results because the games against Liverpool are massive now. It may change, but in my time here the derby matches against City don't assume the proportions of Liverpool games."

The worst match is no surprise. It's Europe again and the tie with Dortmund. "That semi-final was a killer, no doubt. It was not that we played badly but we let ourselves down with the finishing. I keep thinking about the chances we had time and time again...the Germans are lucky bastards," he added, tongue only half in cheek.

Roy Keane's injury was another low point. "Not so much for us as for the lad's career," said Ferguson with customary paternalism. "To me he is the best all-round player in Britain. But we won't rush him. He will be given the full remedial rehabilitation before he comes back. The operation was a complete success. He's looking terrific, he's getting itchy feet now but that's not a problem for me to slow that down. I'll be happy just to have him back in August.

"The strange thing is it solved a problem for me. It was becoming a real headache getting Scholes in the team: he had come on in leaps and bounds. You would not want it to happen that way but Keane's injury solved it as he and [Nicky] Butt have fitted in perfectly together."

United were doing light training yesterday "to maintain the momentum" and keep the players loose in the limb. Once they would have brought their players in on Christmas Day just to ensure they did not overdo it on Christmas Eve.

That is not so much the case now. There are still a couple of enthusiastic imbibers at Old Trafford but there, and elsewhere in the Premiership, the numbers are declining. This, believes Ferguson, is a consequence of the foreign influx.

"I think there was a lot of scepticism when these players arrived, but there is a realisation that they have benefited the game. The way they prepare is an example, they look after themselves. They don't drink."

There is a theory, still popular at some clubs, that a night on the tiles together fosters team spirit, but it is not one that United, whose team ethic is outstanding, appear to subscribe to. "I've always been against players drinking, and I'm always thinking of ways of getting a team that doesn't drink," Ferguson said. "Eventually that will happen. It may not be in my time but it will happen. I've got about seven players who don't drink at all in this squad. If you drink it affects your fitness."

A Christmas wish? "I wish linesmen would get it right. I don't think they understand the offside law well enough or read the game well enough. I know it's hard with the pace of the game but too often a player is called offside and they're not. They should give the attacker the benefit. Linesmen should be brought to book. They are part of the entertainment industry."

Among Ferguson's Christmas presents were a pair of binoculars from his wife, Cathy. They are for when he goes horse racing but many will feel they may be more useful to United's challengers so they can keep track of them as, with their traditional New Year surge, they disappear over the horizon. Needless to say, Ferguson does not agree.

"No way, it is a hard league to win. There are a lot of games coming up. We may get involved in the FA Cup and will hopefully go to the death in Europe. That's a major season which stretches the capacity and endurance of your players. The continual demands means they will make mistakes, everyone will in that situation, so we're going to lose a game or two, or three."

United lost twice in the second half of last season yet still came from five points behind Liverpool at this stage last year, and Ferguson insisted: "So it's impossible to suggest that the league can be won in December or January. Someone may go on a run and get confident, Chelsea are looking strong at the moment, you can expect Arsenal and Liverpool to go on some sort of a run, and Newcastle.

"The one advantage we have is that we have been there so many times now. Ryan Giggs is 24 and he has four championship medals and could have six. There is a psychological factor to losing, especially in March or April and players like him can put a result in perspective."

So, increasingly these days, is the public view of Ferguson. The Angry Fergie image is being tempered by respect. "I think it is changing. People were writing about me before they knew me. They see me watching a game and say I'm dour. There is no perception of you as a person. I may be wiser, more experienced and I've mellowed in terms of my temper but I'm no different to how I was 25 years ago."

Even so, it is hard to imagine even the mellow Ferguson dressing up in a Santa Claus suit for a tabloid as one of his predecessors did this week. Anything Everton get from his team at Old Trafford today will have to be earned.

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