Football: Ferguson's fascination with destiny

Ian Ridley finds United's manager relishing the demands of a European odyssey
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The Independent Online
The trails for tonight's BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award have featured several prominent football figures as candidates for an honour that still counts among the reassuring traditions of the nation. Curiously, Alex Ferguson, fast becoming another of the country's institutions, has not been among them.

What? The Alex Ferguson with the nickname Taggart after the dour Glaswegian television detective? The man forever whingeing, according to Manchester United's detractors, and with a temper that has led to his players calling it the hair-dryer treatment when he stands toe to toe to bawl them out?

Yes, that Alex Ferguson. The United manager may not actually be a participant, as the BBC's criterion appears to have it when it comes to the award, but in terms of achievement he has no peer in British sport, having guided his club to four titles - two Doubles - in the five seasons of the Premiership. In personality too, many may be surprised to know, few these days can outshine the expansive Ferguson.

For this is a man at peace with himself and his place in the pantheon of the English game. The European Cup remains the grail - and you sense he can almost taste it, so close does it seem this season, and so openly does he talk about winning it - but he knows that his record domestically now surpasses any other manager's. He seems consequently willing more regularly to give rein to the smiling side of his nature that also, against the modern trend for banality, dispenses memorable Shanklyesque quotations by the week.

Ask him anything, from his early days at a desolate St Mirren training ground ("even the birds woke up coughing") to Ryan Giggs ("when I first saw him as a boy, he was like a wee cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind"), and gems tumble from the lips of as comfortable a figure as exists in this fraught, frantic game.

Take last Tuesday in Turin before United's final Champions' League game against Juventus. In the airport's arrivals hall, he batted not an eyelid when Italian photographers poked lenses in his face as he proof-read his programme notes for tomorrow night's home match against Aston Villa. "I spent more time on them than I normally would," he said with a laugh after the snappers had gone. "Those Italians will think, 'He's thorough, that Ferguson'." Everything with him is thought through.

They say teams reflect their leader and this new Red issue is similarly at ease and assured, even if the second half of Wednesday night's 1-0 defeat saw them totter as they inch their way along the tightrope to the greatness that in Europe eluded his previous best team, the 1993-94 Double side who he feels sure would have gone close had today's eligibility rules applied.

Not that Ferguson will allow complacency to intrude on the contentment. Indeed, annoyance was creeping into his voice as he debriefed on the flight home. "When they are not under pressure I don't think they are the same team," he said. "They should be coming home with a good experience, a good result, having knocked out one of the favourites.

"It's got to get the toughness of that team, mental and physical," he added, comparing the present crop with that of four seasons ago. "You look at every one of that team and there was a toughness to all of them. They never got messed about by anyone. You would not want to play against that lot. Hughes, Ince, Robson, Parker, Bruce, it was a hell of a squad. Kanchelskis was really powerful, even Giggs."

Not to mention the toughest of the lot, sometimes excessively so, in Cantona, though the not-quite forgotten one still comes to Ferguson's mind when he makes comparisons. Even if Eric never shone consistently in Europe, the two legs against Borussia Dortmund last season being the semi-final straw for him and Ferguson, the manager acknowledged his contribution to the development.

"I don't think it's a matter of replacing Eric but Teddy Sheringham has provided the same composure that great teams need," he said. "Big games don't worry him. Some people get the chance of a lifetime and don't know how to take it. Teddy has taken it and responded brilliantly, better than I thought he would.

"The big difference is that Cantona came to the club when it wasn't winning. Now there's no pressure on anyone coming to Old Trafford. Cantona was the very man we needed. Teddy has not been daunted by the man he replaced. They faced different types of challenges and both answered the questions.

"As a whole, the potential of this team goes way beyond what the '93- '94 team could reach, in skill, temperament and ability. I have a certain feeling about these players. I am confident about them. The way they have started the season and the authority they have shown; they are assured in their own ability.

"Sometimes when they go on to the pitch I am confident they are going to win. Sometimes they are only in second gear but you know they are going to explode on a game and do well. I think that is the hallmark of a really good team."

It is the development of Giggs and David Beckham that fuels much of Ferguson's current optimism. "Giggs is maturing.Last year and the year before he had a lot of niggling injuries. Players built like him are going to, but he's coping. He stretches more pre-match, his preparations are more concentrated."

And Beckham: "I like him out wide because he produces for me there. There's nobody better in the country from there. As the evidence of Juventus showed, he can be superb in the centre of midfield, too, but I've got Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes there and Ronny Johnsen can also do a job in there. The harder thing is to get the balance, and Beckham provides that.

"But he can come in and he is still allowed the freedom to link the midfield. He is blessed with great stamina levels so he can provide crosses from the last third as well as being involved in the build-up. Because he is such a long passer of the ball he can also join in early."

It could be that the Dortmund experience is the turning point when the history of this team is written. "They've not let it daunt them," says Ferguson. "The performances against Juventus at home and Feyenoord away were excellent. It is down to them being just a year more experienced but also they have listened to the tactical side of it.

"If they are all fit, it will be a massive problem picking a team for the European Cup final. Fortunately it's the last game of the season so I can go and hide somewhere in France after it."

There is in his voice a deep affection for his squad, from which stems the inevitability he appears to see in this European campaign. These are halcyon days, he knows, and there is a chance to surpass the Busby Babes of both the mid-Fifties and Sixties; neither side quite sustained success the way Ferguson's have.

This one is a team that scores goals from all angles and positions, that works hard for each other in the way of all-conquering Milan a few seasons ago, a team linked in trust and a common cause, rather than rent byindividual egos, capable of eclipsing even Liverpool's great combinations of the mid-Eighties.

Probably in that lies the reason for Ferguson's present mood and the absence of concern about whom United pull out in Wednesday's draw for March's quarter-finals, or about the more testing days to come in the Premiership. The result in Turin may not, frustratingly, have borne it out but United can be as worthy European champions as Juventus were.

"It may be fate, anyway. I think we'll get them in the final, because I think we will get to the final," says Ferguson. "They'll be no problem for us then. We'll be stronger." If that does happen, the BBC may well - in these modern times of cult of the coach and importance of the manager - then have to create an award especially for Alex Ferguson.

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