Friday morning at Manchester United's training ground and you search, in vain, for evidence of vulnerability casting its morning-after shadow on his sanguine features. If there is inner turmoil at the loss of one mainstay, Brian Kidd, which had closely followed the announcement of the impending departure of another in Peter Schmeichel, both with an apparent seven-year itch, he doesn't betray it.
Ice cold is Alex. Whatever emotions are coursing through that proud psyche, he conceals it well. "What do you do when someone leaves you? You can't wallow in pity, can you?" Ferguson insists. "This club's too big for that. Life's too important for that. I've got things to do. Things I want to win."
It is not a callous disregard for his protege, the man who was his syphon to and from the players; just a pragmatism essential for self-survival. The same which accompanied the untimely flight of Le Roi Eric to a future with Elizabeth in celluloid. "It's like picking the team. If you don't have, say, Giggs or Sheringham one week, they're not there, not in my thinking. I've been in situations where I have had my weakest possible side, but I know I'm going to win the match because I concentrate on the 11 players I've got. It will be the same without Brian."
In truth, it will be rather more than that, deprived of the man who shrugged off the potentially damaging effects of being sacked just 12 games into his embryonic managerial career at Preston to become the Number Two's Number Two. Replacements aren't found just idling in Trafford Park, waiting to be summoned. Whoever becomes his aide, be it the likely suspects of Alex McLeish, Steve Bruce, Brian McClair or maybe Mark McGhee, it will take time for them to assimilate themselves in United ways.
The next three days, as he prepares for that climactic Champions' League meeting with Bayern Munich, will undoubtedly be as unsettling for his players as they are disconcerting ones for the manager. They have come to regard Kidd as a kind of elder brother confessor, a man who would elevate their morale if they weren't on the team-sheet or were otherwise troubled.
"Brian was brilliant with the players," says Ferguson. "We'd normally sit down together on the Sunday after training, then on Monday have a chat before we spoke to the lads. I'm going to miss someone I'm used to talking with. But Jimmy Ryan's a good man, he knows the club, and has great experience." For a manager whose maxim has always been "keep one step ahead", Ferguson has, for once, seemingly been caught unawares.
Not that he hadn't been forewarned of the possibility. Numerous clubs have kerb-crawled Old Trafford, openly admiring the coaching acumen of his 49-year-old assistant, and a direct approach came from Goodison Park in the summer. Whatever Kidd's rationale, and because of his natural circumspection about discussing such matters one can only assume that it was related to lack of financial clout, he rejected the overture.
Yet Ferguson, who is clearly perplexed by the exit of a man whom he had come to regard as his natural successor - and who's to say he still won't be? - believes that interest may have caused the first fissure in his man's defences. "It was a surprise about Blackburn coming in. I wasn't aware of anything, to be honest," he concedes. "The Everton thing came up in the summer, and there was a temptation, I think, but I thought I had quelled that one. It may have been gnawing away inside him about whether he'd done the right thing. Maybe you make a decision and a few months later, you're thinking, 'Maybe I should have done that.' And if that nags at you, it can force you to make a decision when it happens again."
The depths of Jack Walker's pockets, no doubt allied to a belief that his cv can only be enhanced by demonstrating his prowess as the "guv'nor", will have convinced him that it was time to sever the umbilical cord. As he perceives it, he might as well be hung for being a Kidd as for being a sheep. Yet, in electing to become a Rover rather than remain a home-town boy, he is risking a reputation established over many years as player and coach at United.
He wouldn't be the first assistant to fail in a role which demands far more than coaching credentials. "The quality of his training will be excellent," says Ferguson. "But what he's got to face is that part where he drops players, and then there's speaking to the media, all the other 101 things you've got to do. I told Brian, 'It's a hard job nowadays'. Anyone who becomes a manager these days has got to concentrate on the core of the job and forget the peripherals, because it's the peripherals that will destroy you. That's why I've developed so well over the last few years, and why I have survived. You have to put yourself in a cocoon and protect yourself. The club and the team are the only things that are important."
Events don't come any more important than Wednesday night, when the tactical warfare between Bayern's Ottmar Hitzfeld, who, as coach of Dortmund, inflicted a psychologically crushing home defeat on United 20 months ago, will prove crucial.
The outcome could well hinge on ability of Ferguson's men to restrict the wiles of the enigmatic midfielder Stefan Effenberg. "He's the key to it, and if we can control him we have a good chance of winning. He's an influential player, who's come back at the right time. For years he was out in the international wilderness, but he's 30 now, he's got a move to the biggest club in Germany and he's revelling in that."
Bayern only require a draw. United could qualify for the quarter- finals with a point, but need a win to make sure. Ferguson would rather have it that way. "Hitzfeld's a clever man and he knows the nature of our club. You can plan all the tactics in the world, but there's things you cannot change and that's your instincts. We're too honest a people to go for a draw anyway. I don't think we've got that mentality, unlike the Spaniards or the Italians.
"We'll be our usual gung-ho. Nine in the box and a cross. You win more than you lose that way." For the sake of Britain's somewhat flagging prestige in Europe and Ferguson's obsessive desire to claim this particular trophy, we can only hope that strategy is right.Reuse content