Football: Ferguson takes seat in the gods

`Sometimes you feel lucky. There are eerie coincidences. I hope it has all got a meaning'
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The Independent Online
DESTINY. Shakespeare took the view that "hanging and wiving" depend on it. Few in football would doubt that the mischievous, mysterious forces play havoc with reason in their lives, too. When your name's on the cup . . .

Alex Ferguson pondered the word last week and how it applied to Manchester United's season. "Everyone believes in a bit of superstition, believes in the gods at times," he reflected after a pause. "Sometimes you feel you're lucky and you've had the breaks. I know it's Matt Busby's 90th birthday on the day of the Champions' League final, and we're playing Munich where the accident was, so there are eerie coincidences about it. I hope it has all got a meaning."

You can't help but believe that Manchester United has already been inscribed on three "cups". Just recall Peter Schmeichel's FA Cup semi-final penalty save from Dennis Bergkamp, and the first leg of the Juventus tie, when Zinedine Zidane and his team ought to have placed the Champions' League semi-final beyond Ferguson's men. Then there was Tuesday at Elland Road. If Ferguson could have witnessed the utter bewilderment on Arsene Wenger's wan, pinched features, even the Scot might have had fleeting sympathy for his fellow manager.

Ferguson didn't watch it. Like some of his players he found it unsuitable viewing. Denis Irwin even confided: "My mum was over and she wanted to watch Emmerdale. There's no point in putting yourself through that, anyway. It's not good for the heart. I just looked up Teletext at the end."

The manager confessed that he had watched a film. Yet, if anyone found the ensuing scenes at Elland Road disturbing, it was the participants themselves as Arsenal had horrific close-ups of their failure. For once, you noticed fissures in that formidable Gunners' rearguard; Martin Keown and Tony Adams both scything the angelic-featured Alan Smith, dubbed "Tasmanian Devil" by David O'Leary, and whose brist-ling presence can infuriate the best of defenders. One received a penalty, the other a caution, but it seemed to exemplify the sense of desperation in the Arsenal ranks well before the cold-to-the-contest Nelson Vivas emerged to become ludicrously castigated for Leeds' winner.

Yet Arsenal still should have won. They had 18 oppportunities, some of them presented with lavish gift-cards. The following night United began as though personally determined to eject Blackburn and their former assistant manager, Brian Kidd, into obscurity but ended luxuriating in the knowledge that the point won means that a victory of any sort against Tottenham today will suffice.

George Graham departs on holiday tomorrow. The players at his former club, concluding their fixtures against Aston Villa, must remain convinced that a number of his Tottenham men may not be in a promenading mood, also. Kenny Dalglish, never happy being interrogated, is even more enigmatic pontificating on the game. But he uttered one telling remark 24 hours later: "Arsenal played better yesterday than Manchester United did tonight."

There is certain truth in that over the season, too. United have displayed remarkable fortitude at times, performed with a panache more than worthy of their tradition, particularly in Europe; yet, if the uncommitted were offered a ticket at Highbury or Old Trafford, you'd wager they'd opt for the former. Denied United's squad strength, suffering through their own self-inflicted disciplinary problems, and having to contend with the wiles of the sublimely talented yet vexatious Nicolas Anelka, Arsenal have nevertheless transcended all others in their capacity to entertain with movement and imagination.

While a few breakfast tables in Salford and beyond may be thumped at such heresy, what is unquestionable has been the galvanic genius of the United manager, who in the constant shuffling of his squad has remarkably restricted tactical errors. There are certain managers who, given the same players, would have ended with a blight on the fertile plains of Old Trafford.

Ferguson has never been one for premature elation and his response is typically blunt when the subject of the treble is introduced. "Nothing has happened yet to get me excited." He will not contest that significant progress has been made, however. "They were disappointed last year," he said. "But it's a great measure of a person's character to see how they respond to adversity. What you find with this team is that they're hard to beat. Each year in Europe, we have got better. Some of the performances in the Champions' League have been absolutely fantastic."

Only if pressed does he reveal something of how he acquired his motivational powers. "There are things that happen in your lifetime that shape your personality. I was very influenced in many ways by my parents. Take time- keeping. In five-years as an apprentice engineer, I was never late. I've had many experiences in my life that have given me drive, like starting in management young at a time when players cost about pounds 100."

And though he doesn't broach it, those factors include a precipitous beginning at United in the late Eighties. "I never thought I would get sacked," Ferguson maintained. "Although there was a lot of speculation, it never got to me. I never put myself under that kind of pressure. The only pressure I felt was pride, in terms of how my team were performing.

"A massive test was winning the league for the first time [in 1993]; that was the be-all and end-all to my mind. It was the important thing. It gave me longevity and gave me control. Thereafter, you can pick off all the challenges you want without any desperation about it."

Regardless of the events of the next 11 days, the United manager, bolstered by a renewed contract which will take him to his expected retirement at 60, will be inveigling his board to countenance further spending, despite the limits placed on it by the failure of the BSkyB takeover. "These players have got the best years ahead of them. If they get the title and the Champions' League final you'd expect them to improve, wouldn't you? But if we win something, it's always right to buy. I'm not saying it's necessary, but you can't ever stand still. You're always looking for quality, another Giggs, Beckham or Scholes. You always hope that you'll find a Ronaldo playing for Crewe Alexandra. You're just adding to protect your position in the game."

What was remarkable about Wednesday was that Ferguson clearly had no idea that anything but a Blackburn victory would dispatch his former No 2, Kidd, to that football Hades they call the Nationwide. Not that it would have altered United's policy. As Kidd, who has, of necessity, developed a gallows humour, remarked straight- faced before the game: "Fergie'll have a lot of sympathy for me. I don't think he'll be looking for a win. He'll go easy on me . . ." He paused, before adding with a wry smile, "And if you believe that, you'll believe anything."

In fact, United gave Rovers more chances than might have been anticipated to secure at least a temporary reprieve. Ashley Ward failed to avail himself of the best of them and Jack Walker's moistened eyes said everything about the end of an era. Ultimately, glory has been purchased at an horrendously expensive price. In a week in which there has been a concerted rush to avoid responsibility, it all demonstrates that you can construct a magnificent stadium and import fabulous talent, but if the players' affinity for that club is perhaps less than total, if the foundations are anything less than solid, it can quickly become a fragile entity.

Kidd must start to reconstruct from the bottom. "I'm sure Brian will bounce back," said his replacement at Old Trafford, Steve McLaren. "Sometimes you have to start off in the trenches, and he's certainly in the trenches now. He's been though adversity when the gaffer was first here and he knows how hard it was and what it required to turn it around. I think he's the perfect lad for the job."

His old mentor Ferguson, claiming one, two, maybe three trophies, will be all the inspiration Kidd could need.

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