Football: The title Challenge: United's nervous breakdown: Eamon Dunphy believes Alex Ferguson has played a part in his side's fall from grace

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The Independent Online
REFLECTING on the sour disposition of a distinguished Irish playwright, Ulick O'Connor, Ireland's ubiquitous man of letters, remarked that his contemporary represented the only known case of somebody 'embittered by success'. Watching Alex Ferguson and his players bicker and bitch their way through the last few months Ulick's mots have frequently come to mind.

A feeling that the world outside is conspiring against you - 'waiting for us to fall flat on our faces', as one Manchester United player asserted recently - is fairly common in champions' camps. John McEnroe, Nick Faldo and Nigel Mansell all wear their paranoia on their sleeves. In English football Don Revie's Leeds United are perhaps the quintessential example of persecution mania and its consequences, which are as likely to be self-destructive as to be a source of inspiration.

By any standards - and Arsenal and Wimbledon here deserve a mention - the bitter noises emanating from Old Trafford these past few months have been bizarre. Now self-destruction is on the cards. Several weeks ago Ladbrokes suspended betting on the title race. United seemed beyond the reach of their rivals, the best of whom had settled for the consolation prize of Europe.

Kevin Keegan, whose Newcastle United side have this season exposed the mediocrity of the Premiership, has acknowledged United's supremacy: 'They are different class and look set to dominate the game for years. The rest of us are battling for the scraps.'

Sky Sports, desperately seeking to justify their investment in the Premiership, promote United as 'The Invincibles'. Keegan and the TV hucksters have, however, been a trifle premature. As Aston Villa, Chelsea and Blackburn Rovers have demonstrated in recent weeks, United are vulnerable, edgy beyond belief, on the brink of what may prove to be one of the most spectacular nervous breakdowns in the history of the game. Two dodgy refereeing decisions saved a total of four precious points, against Liverpool and Oldham, without which United would be chasing Blackburn instead of clinging to the slender advantage they enjoy this morning.

The first symptom of success- induced bitterness surfaced in January after Manchester United had beaten Norwich rather cosily in an FA Cup tie at Carrow Road. A keenly contested match was notable for two reasons: Norwich's impotence and two nasty incidents involving Eric Cantona. The second of these saw the Frenchman aim an ugly boot at the head of a Norwich City player who was in no position to defend himself. This was gratuitous blackguardism. The game was won, nothing had happened to provoke such spite.

In the circumstances Jimmy Hill and Alan Hansen, working for the BBC, were correct, indeed obliged, to draw attention to Cantona's delinquent behaviour. Hill's indictment of the guilty party amounted to nothing more than a mild rebuke. Yet informed of Hill's criticism at the post-game press conference, Alex Ferguson lost his head. Jimmy Hill was, the United manager declared, 'a prat'. The BBC had, he continued, been longing for United's downfall, following them around the country, one understood, hoping to see them beaten. This was nonsense, revealing nonsense. The champions were rattled, a glimmer of light was offered to those pursuing Manchester United in the title race, a ray of hope which Kenny Dalglish for one is sure to have spotted.

Dalglish, the veteran of so many championship expeditions, may have concluded that January was early days for Ferguson to be losing his 'bottle'. From January the championship road lengthens, becoming steeper and more hazardous as you travel hopefully through February, March and April. Yes, the critical months of the season are a test of character and this is the challenge most obviously proposed at Carrow Road in January, the challenge United seem least equipped to deal with.

Having looked at a video recording of the evidence, Ferguson ought to have fined Cantona a couple of weeks' wages. Had he done so instead of attacking Jimmy Hill, Ferguson and his team would not be in the hole they are in today. Attacking Hill, United's manager implicitly sanctioned Cantona's well-advertised propensity for loutishness, a costly error of judgement which can be linked directly to the five-match ban which has eliminated this gifted rogue, upon whose Gallic whimsy his team's now patently fragile supremacy was founded, from the critical contests of the season. An epidemic of indiscipline which has seen Peter Schmeichel and Roy Keane go the way of Cantona suggests that the players in the Old Trafford dressing-room are as incapable as their manager of coping in a crisis. A crisis, largely of their own creation.

Far from seeking Manchester United's demise, the football community, with the exception of those charged with competing with them, has warmed to the prospect of a great side emerging from Old Trafford, a team worthy of its storied predecessors that might, in the manner of Charlton, Best and Law and of Matt Busby's legendary team that died at Munich, restore English pride in Europe's glittering arenas. It was a United team to challenge AC Milan rather than kick shit out of Norwich City and Swindon Town that the BBC, like the rest of us, longed for. Having no understanding of this is Ferguson's real offence, one for which this otherwise decent chap will not easily be forgiven.

The dream of Manchester United, invincible bearers of the banner for the English game, looks doomed for reasons of character. There are too many dubious characters in this undoubtedly gifted side, all of whom have availed of the opportunity presented by their leader to funk the big challenges when they have come. Fists up, flying boots and angry gestures, spiteful fantasies about imagined enemies, it is for those characteristics rather than their intermittent imposition of grandeur (the magnificent demolition of Wimbledon in the FA Cup serving perfectly to illustrate what has been squandered) that we will remember United 1994 regardless of what they salvage now. Their signature must, sadly, be Cantona's ugly petulance, Keane's ill-concealed callowness, Peter Schmeichel's self- indulgent histrionics, a big blond baby in a man's world. Others, such as Paul Ince and Mark Hughes, while not exactly calming influences, can be pardoned on the grounds that they do the business when it matters. Ferguson has failed to put manners on his team. On the contrary, he has fed the monster, immaturity, and now must anxiously await the tab.

Meanwhile, in a quieter corner of Lancashire, a more inspiring story is beginning to unfold. Blackburn Rovers are, arguably, a player or two short of what Sky would call invincible. But Dalglish is getting there, maybe soon to defy one of football's most cherished maxims the one that claims that you cannot buy success. If any were sceptical (and many were) about the wisdom of Jack Walker's unsecured investment in a personal dream as beguilingly valid as any attaching to Old Trafford, the contest, resolved most comprehensively in Rovers' favour at Ewood Park last week, establishing beyond reasonable doubt that Dalglish will offer more than mere scraps to Blackburn's generous benefactor.

Alan Shearer's two fine goals separated the contenders statistically at Ewood Park last Saturday. A more profound distinction must however be drawn between the last two teams remaining on the championship battlefield. With Ferguson's fire we should contrast the ice beneath the droll Dalglish persona. The contrast on the field can be defined just as starkly: the simmering, enervating rowdyism of Keane, Ince and Hughes failing to impress on the cool hard professionalism of David Batty, Shearer and Tim Sherwood; the delightful brio of Graeme Le Saux mocking the scowling torment of Ince, a young man enjoying his football unlike Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe, gifted contemporaries who seemed faintly, yet distinctly baffled by the driven aura of the older players around them. Where Schmeichel blustered, distress signals radiating forward causing the defenders in front of him to match him twitch for twitch, Tim Flowers, his opposite number, projected the smiling self-assurance of a man in charge.

Cantona will return and all may be well for United in the end. But Ladbrokes have reopened their championship book. Blackburn Rovers may fail this year but long term if not short, they are the smart money bet. Sadly, for Alex Ferguson, a nice man, a distinguished professional, he has allowed his temper to triumph over common football sense. The world was never against him - not, alas, until today. When he wakes up in his London hotel room facing an FA Cup semi-final against Oldham at Wembley, he might reflect that it is he and his players who have behaved more like prats than champions.

(Photograph omitted)