Glorious triumph for Alex Ferguson, a man who has set his face against the world
Manager's latest success follows a season of unprecedented challenges which he has tackled in typically aggressive style
It has always been him against the world – "there is terrible amount of jealousy towards this club," Sir Alex Ferguson once said – but not since football was writing his premature obituaries in 2006 has he set his face against it quite like the past nine months. It has not quite been like the Aberdeen training ground – "Minus 18, freezing your knackers off," as he once remembered that bitter place – but it must have felt like it at times.
The missiles were flying in, even as he prepared for the win which saw Manchester United accomplish the magical 19th title and make good on the promise he once made that "life will change for Liverpool and everybody else – dramatically" once he and United got going. Even Ferguson did not foresee the FA's decision to charge him for praising a referee and your correspondent must admit to some unintended complicity by putting it to him 10 days ago that: "You must be pleased to have Howard Webb as your referee?" Yes, Ferguson replied, rather blandly. The writers who drifted away down the Carrington staircase that day did not reflect that they had some Ferguson gold-dust to sprinkle on the back pages. Ferguson has technically breached rule E3, though, which governs attempts to influence referees, and it means yet another of those meetings behind closed doors with his indefatigable compliance adviser Graham Bean.
We can expect him to draw down the blinds yet more, increasingly convinced as he is that the newspapers are setting traps to help them scoop the rolling TV sports news. It has been a diminishing band of writers sitting before him on Friday mornings this season, with newspapers banned for ever decreasing slights. The suggestion that Wayne Rooney was rushed back too soon last season was one. The reporting of comments before last November's Eastlands derby prompted a one-month blanket ban, though the exact offence still remains unclear.
It was the season which brought Ferguson up against his own, too; that febrile week in October when Wayne Rooney let it be known he would not sign a new contract and then told the world United lacked "the continued ability ... to attract the top players in the world" delivering one of the most severe tests of a manager whose striker seemed to bear out the notion that Glazer debt was draining United dry. What a performance Ferguson gave that week, as he reminded the world of his capacity to bend the back pages to his will. First came the pre-match press conference of 29 October, when he drew out a single A4 sheet of pre-prepared notes to read out about Rooney, and then casually dispensed with it – suggesting there was spontaneity in a delivery carefully calibrated to win what was becoming a media battle. Rooney's representatives responded publicly and it was with the clock ticking towards 10.45pm in an Old Trafford conference room on 20 October that Ferguson delivered half soliloquy, half oratory. "Sometimes you look in a field and you see a cow and you think it's a better cow than you've got in your own field," he said. "And it never really works out that way. It's probably the same cow, or not even as good as your own cow..."
Baffling, rambling, captivating. He was saying "the grass is always greener" and, though money talked the next day when Rooney's signature was secured for another five years, those present had been privileged to snatch a glimpse of the powers of persuasion which had been doing their work.
One fire was out but others burned because this was not a virtuoso United side. The champions were the least flawed of those among the elite; the Ferguson side least befitting the name "champions" – as we saw in a bleak 45 minutes on the Fylde coast in midwinter. Blackpool were destroyers for 45 minutes at Bloomfield Road that night, 2-0 up at the break and Charlie Adam running rings around Darren Fletcher. Luck played a hand in what happened next; there was plenty of that in this historic title. Luke Varney was denied a penalty to take things to 3-0. Dimitar Berbatov scored a goal from offside. But the revival was so breathtaking, breakneck, that the championship trophy seemed to be glinting on the horizon even then.
"If United do take the symbolic 19th title in May then their extraordinary night is the one that will be remembered," was this correspondent's assessment. Ferguson had played his own huge part – his introduction of Ryan Giggs after the break transformed the game utterly – and the need for his direct interventions has been a trend since last August. By April, he had made 140 substitutions, 20 more than in the previous campaign. He has also taught them all to know, like never before, that United quality of never being beaten. There's been a touch of 1994 about 2011. "The 1994 team had mental toughness," Ferguson once said. "So many of them. Real tough bastards."
Forces beyond his control have worked, too, for the man who once said "God works in mysterious ways." Ferguson was the last person to imagine that £6m Javier Hernandez would turn into the buy of the season. But this trophy, secured by relative mortals, has been engineered by an immortal. His unexpected press conference at Ewood Park on Saturday was prefaced by a warning that he would leave if asked about the latest FA charge. Ferguson against the world, from beginning to glorious end.
For the record
* When Alex Ferguson took over at Old Trafford in November 1986, United trailed Liverpool by nine league titles, with seven to Liverpool's 16. It was 18-7 before Ferguson won his first league title with United in 1993.
Manchester United title wins (19)
1907-08, 1910-11, 1951-52, 1955-56, 1956-57, 1964-65, 1966-67, 1992-93, 1993-94, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2002-03, 2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11.
Liverpool title wins (18)
1900-01, 1905-06, 1921-22, 1922-23, 1946-47, 1963-64, 1965-66, 1972-73, 1975-76, 1976-77, 1978-79, 1979-80, 1981-82, 1982-83, 1983-84, 1985-86, 1987-88, 1989-90.
Most league wins in England
19 Manchester United
7 Aston Villa
4 Chelsea, Newcastle, Sheffield Wednesday
3 Blackburn Rovers, Huddersfield, Leeds United, Wolves
Most league wins in Europe
54 Rangers (Sco)
42 Celtic (Sco)
32 Benfica (Por)
31 Real Madrid (Sp)
30 Ajax (Neth)
27 Juventus (It)
22 Bayern Munich (Ger)
21 Barcelona (Sp)
19 Manchester United (Eng)
18 Internazionale (It), Liverpool (Eng), Milan (It)
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