Football: Ferguson the monopoly man

REMEMBER last Christmas? This championship, the satellite sages kept telling us, was wide open. More clubs were in with a chance. It would "go to the wire". Two games ahead of the finish, Manchester United clinched the Premiership title mostly by their own superiority, partly through the shortcomings of others.

The reality is that United have won their fourth title in five seasons - and it could have been six in a row - to establish a grip of the English game close to Liverpool's of the 1980s. With assets of home crowds more than 15,000 higher than any rival and merchandise sales that outstrip all others, the dominance could well continue.

Heaven forbid that the Premiership should come to resemble Scotland but such a monopoly could seriously damage the health of the national game, for all the depth of competition in England and the fact that others, Liverpool especially, did have the chance this season to take the title.

Neither is this a great Manchester United team, certainly not yet comparable with that of 1993-94, the club's best in 25 years. The lessons to be absorbed by the rest, beyond any talent - and several clubs such as Liverpool and even Middlesbrough contain more gifted individuals - concern the qualities of Alex Ferguson. Strength of character, discipline and a refusal to allow achievement to cloud ambition have set United apart. Under a similarly determined Scottish manager in Kenny Dalglish, Newcastle appear to be learning quickly. Expect them - as well as Arsenal and possibly Liverpool - to return to United's exemplary 4-4-2.

This United, in Ferguson's words, "played well when it mattered in the big games". If not in Europe, which still leaves them grasping at greatness, then certainly domestically, United found a change of pace at crucial points, like a distance runner putting in a few quick laps to break the resistance of rivals. Twice-beaten Liverpool and Arsenal can only concede as much.

It's the run

wot won it

UNITED have never been much interested in scaling peaks in the autumn; after all, until re- organisation of the Coca-Cola Cup goes ahead, no trophy is handed out before Christmas. Their young players were preoccupied and probably overawed by the Champions' League and it spilled over into their Premiership form that had initially looked so assured when David Beckham scored the goal of the season on opening day at Wimbledon.

Most title-winning teams suffer at least one thrashing; one recalls Arsenal losing 5-0 at Stoke City in their double-winning season of 1970-71. United registered worse. In 14 dark days, their 5-0 beating at Newcastle was followed by the 6-3 reverse at Southampton and a 2-1 home defeat by Chelsea, with the loss of the 40-year unbeaten home European record to Fenerbahce sandwiched between.

The secret lies in the reaction. "I just said 'Right, enough's enough'," said Ferguson, recalling the period last week. "We got back to basics." Twenty-seven years ago, Arsenal embarked on a 14-game unbeaten run. United's stretched to 16, 11 of them won, which resembled last season's 12-match streak that also disheartened challengers.

It began with a hugely important 1-0 win over Arsenal and took in their best Premiership football of the season, a 5-0 win over Sunderland and the pea-shelling 4-0 at Nottingham Forest. It could still have been lost after that, but one sensed their fortitude. Arsenal at Highbury and Liverpool at Anfield felt it.

Figures amid

the facts

STATISTICS may ultimately prove theories, but players achieve them. It has been a season notable for the growing up of United's young breed, particularly in Europe as confidence grew with each match, realising how close was their own ability to that of fabled opponents.

In midfield, Beckham promises parity with the very best, once his occasional physical excesses are curtailed. His passing perception and shooting have complemented Roy Keane's more limited, withdrawn but vital competitiveness and though a surge of speed may be lacking, Beckham does possess a change of it.

Early and recent aberrations apart, the defence has adapted to the departure of Steve Bruce with aplomb, David May's positioning compensating for a lack of pace that has led to deflections occasionally going in off as an attacker steals half a yard on him. To his right, Gary Neville's composure and efficiency grows ever more impressive.

It is up front, in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, where the real revelation has come. Ferguson bought the Norwegian as an investment for the future. His present reward of 17 goals has been a bonus. With his sharp eye for a goal chance, short backlift on shot, and physical edge, the comparisons with Denis Law become harder to resist.

Any problems United have had have been with their more experienced players and Ferguson's next task will be to assess how much longer some should linger. Already it seems that Phil Neville is supplanting Denis Irwin. Gary Pallister may not defy being patched up much longer and clearly a dominant defender will be needed. And a striker? Andy Cole retains the potential to bully Premiership defences but Europe will be another matter.

How long, too, for Eric Cantona? The silver lining to the cloud over his form is that United have achieved without the timely, consistent contributions of last season. It will be a difficult balancing act for Ferguson. The Frenchman's influence on the club is still profound and appreciated, though the team has to share out his duties when not in possession of the ball.

Home thoughts

from abroad

WHICHEVER 11 Ferguson perms from the present crop next season, even if the input from Jordi Cruyff and Karel Poborsky has disappointed, United will remain capable of seeing off domestic all-comers. The European Cup will be something else. Peter Schmeichel and Keane form two strong links of a spine but the new defender and touchstone striker look like requirements. Not only that but the competition will be considerably more difficult to win with the introduction of second teams from Italy, Germany and Spain. Even England, perhaps.

Ferguson will rely on the present squad - "nobody's going out," he insists - and will expect the maturing process to continue. Ryan Giggs's performance against Porto showed what could lie ahead. Doubtless he will also strengthen. Ferguson has, however, quietly let it be known, as if to chide the keepers of Old Trafford's purse strings, that he has only pounds 8m to spend on new players.

Still, it will not be beyond him to spot the right men at the right price, on the evidence of the past with Cantona. "I can't see myself letting up or easing up. That's the nature of me," says Ferguson. The rest, struggling to keep up, have been warned. Again.

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