Brian Viner: Undimmed desire to rebuild greatness makes Ferguson the real 'Special One'

There are plenty of United fans who would quite like to see Fergie pensioned off
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What makes a great football manager? Jose Mourinho gave his answer this week, when as part of his lambasting of Rafa Benitez in the wake of Chelsea's victory over Liverpool last Sunday he said that "intelligence" is the all-important ingredient. Whether the Special One was suggesting that he has it or that Benitez lacks it, wasn't quite clear. Either way, what makes a great manager is a more pertinent question than ever at the end of a week in which the Football Association intensified its search for a successor to Sven Goran Eriksson, and in which Ron Greenwood took his leave of the earthly touchline.

Was Greenwood a great manager? I know West Ham fans who swear blind that he, at least as much as Alf Ramsey, masterminded England's World Cup victory in 1966. It is a view given some credence in these pages yesterday by Martin Peters, who was quoted as saying that he wouldn't have made the team had it not been for Greenwood. Ramsey had decided that he wasn't good enough, "but Ron chirped away at him", convincing him that Peters had the quality to unlock foreign defences.

For all his achievements at Upton Park, though - which most tangibly amounted to the 1964 FA Cup and the 1965 European Cup-Winners' Cup, but were more significantly manifest in West Ham's cultured style of play - Greenwood tends to get overlooked in most people's top 10 lists of British managers.

That's partly because as England manager himself he is associated in the collective memory more with indecision - especially in the matter of whether Peter Shilton or Ray Clemence should play in goal - than with success. But it is also because he is not perceived as having been a great "character", at least not in the conventional sense of the word as someone who leaves an imprint of their personality wherever they go.

The same is true of Matt Busby and Bob Paisley, who belong not in the top 10 greatest British managers of all time but the top five. Yet they were characters in different ways: when Paisley met Mark Lawrenson at a Liverpool city-centre hotel to complete the player's signing from Brighton & Hove Albion, he was still wearing his slippers. And it was nothing if not force of character that enabled Busby to rebuild Manchester United following the Munich air disaster.

Brian Clough, Bill Shankly and Jock Stein, three more managers who would feature in everyone's top 10, were characters in that more conventional sense, who built clubs in their own image. Martin O'Neill comes from the same uncommon mould, and yesterday was warming up rapidly as favourite for the England job. Mind you, what do the bookies know? I'm told that you can get shorter odds on Ant and Dec becoming joint-managers of England than you can on Ron Atkinson, and while both scenarios are a shade unlikely, I suspect that if the top 1,000 candidates were bumped off, Atkinson would have more of a shout.

Another man building a club in his own charismatic image is Mourinho, which takes me back to where I started. What makes a great manager? According to my friend James Nesbitt, the actor, the answer to the question is not one word but two: Alex Ferguson. Admittedly, Nesbitt is a little partisan, being a fanatical Manchester United supporter, but there are plenty of United fans these days who, while only too happy to acknowledge Fergie's greatness, would quite like to see him pensioned off.

A couple of weeks ago Nesbitt chaired a question and answer session following an Andrew Flintoff benefit dinner. On the stage with him were Flintoff, Michael Vaughan, Bryan Robson and Ferguson. "And at the end of it, I asked all of them, although the question was really aimed at Alex, about the difficulty of motivating themselves and setting new targets after achieving so many goals.

"Flintoff and Vaughan both spoke brilliantly. They said it's all about the Ashes, even now, in fact much more so. Bryan spoke about trying to keep West Brom up again this season, and though he's not the most articulate, there was something pure about his desire.

"Then Alex spoke, and spoke beautifully. At the end people stood up and applauded him. He spoke about what he'd done, where he came from, and said that what he wanted most was another chance to rebuild. It was a little cri de coeur, and I loved him for it. I know he's been ill-advised in his time, and he's unquestionably got a temper, and he mistrusts the press. But because he won't talk to the press they jump to conclusions which rebound on him. He's a brilliant man, a fabulous man. His players adore him. And he can talk film, art, wine, in the same way that he can talk football. I love the man. And the influence he has over the club is extraordinary. For anyone else to manage United, at least for the next few years, is unimaginable."

Whether the same conclusion has been reached in Florida remains to be seen, but either way, Nesbitt has convinced me that the media's fascination with Mourinho is misplaced. Ferguson is much more interesting.

Who I like this week...

Paul Merson, who responded to his sacking as Walsall's player-manager in a heart-breakingly dignified manner, and even recommended David Kelly as the best man to replace him. It wasn't that it didn't hurt - he said that he'd woken up the next day and for the first time in 22 years didn't know what to do with himself - but he also said, of the 5-0 drubbing by Brentford that hastened his departure, that it was right for him to take the rap. "My fault. Blame me. No team of mine should ever lose 5-0. Never," Merson said. "But I have no regrets. How can a man with my past have any regrets about what I've done at Walsall?" Indeed. I wish him luck in the job market.

And who I don't

It has to be Chelsea's Arjen Robben, for his despicable theatrics in getting the Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina sent off last Sunday. There were some who said that Robben's fantastic goal in the FA Cup drubbing of my team Everton on Wednesday represented a kind of redemption, but actually it did the opposite - it made the theatrics seem even more pathetic, because a man who can play football like that cheapens the game by treating it with such contempt. If the Premier League suits had the guts, they would have looked at the footage and banned him for a match. The Everton match, ideally.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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