Football: Ferguson's faith in commitment laid bare: Phil Shaw looks forward to today's football programme

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THE night those seedily stolen shots of the Duchess of York's anatomy were using up a small rainforest's worth of paper, one tabloid had the redeeming wit to run a thematic back-page headline about Manchester United's humiliation by Everton: 'Fergie's Bottom]'

The stories were not entirely unconnected, for United are English football's equivalent of royalty. Seeing Alex Ferguson's team propping up the embryonic Premier League table - with Arsenal, bigger favourites than the Queen Mum, one place above them and also without a point - is like spotting the Duke of Edinburgh signing on.

Meanwhile, the proles, represented by Norwich and Coventry, sit regally at the top with the only 100 per cent records. Neither has the look of long-term residents, but after all the elitist hyperbole surrounding the 'new' set-up, it is a welcome aberration.

The classic case of the table turned upside down was Carlisle's ascent to the First Division summit after three wins at the start of

1974-75. Carlisle, who ended up bottom, should have been playing MUFC themselves today. Maidstone's demise may seem as relevant to Ferguson as his namesake's love life, but it puts what is no more than a poor start into perspective.

After the midweek debacle and his diatribe against the referee at Sheffield last Saturday, Ferguson was at pains to present a calm front as United prepared for the visit of promoted Ipswich.

'The fans gave them a raspberry on Wednesday and they deserved it - lapses of concentration and discipline made it an embarrassing defeat,' he admitted yesterday. 'But all we have to do is come up with the kind of football we played in the first half against Everton. All I need to say to them is that we'll have no worries if they produce the commitment they've shown so far.'

Ferguson keeps faith with his 20-year-old son, Darren, in midfield. 'The lad's done well,' he said in that curiously detached manner Brian Clough uses to talk about 'our No. 9'. Neil Webb, left out, may see the manager's preference as a heavy hint.

A nice irony of United's predicament - nice for Mark Robins, anyway - is that he has scored three times in one and a half games since being off-loaded to Norwich for pounds 800,000. Robins, who faces Everton today, might have to maintain such form for 42 games to convince Ferguson he made a mistake, though many United fans are baffled as to why a player he called 'the best finisher in the club' was used so sparingly.

Coventry, who visit the great unwatched of Wimbledon, also parade a three-goal newcomer. John Williams was a Birmingham postman playing for Cradley Town before joining joined Swansea barely a year ago, since when he has been a winner at Wembley, though only in a race to find the country's fastest player.

Bobby Gould, who says Williams nudged him closer to the sack at West Bromwich by making three Swansea goals against Albion, paid pounds 250,000 to take him to Coventry. Williams has predictably been nicknamed 'Linford' (like Christie, he is quicker than Regis). Wimbledon, whose back four are no slouches, will test his pace. Time, and better opposition, will tell what else he has to offer.

Champions Leeds are at Middlesbrough, where there could be a rare sighting, albeit among the substitutes, of David Rocastle. Tomorrow he will surely be watching Arsenal at Liverpool, on Sky or in person, having helped the Gunners record vital victories there in both their recent title seasons. Which match will make Rocky's impatient toes twitch more?

There is, of course, life beyond the Premier League. Newcastle, who attracted last weekend's best crowd, are away to free-spending Derby in a match that should draw close on 20,000, while Wolves and Swindon pit perfect starts (plus Steve Bull and Glenn Hoddle) against each other at Molineux.

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