James Lawton: Fear of bowing out second best keeps Ferguson in ring

Click to follow
The Independent Online

As the pressure mounts on Sir Alex Ferguson, as each new swig he takes from a bottle that once seemed to be filled with a fine and unending vintage tastes increasingly brackish, an inevitable question comes to the surface. Why didn't he walk away when he could?

As the pressure mounts on Sir Alex Ferguson, as each new swig he takes from a bottle that once seemed to be filled with a fine and unending vintage tastes increasingly brackish, an inevitable question comes to the surface. Why didn't he walk away when he could?

Heaven knows, he has not lacked opportunity to do it with the kind of pomp rarely available to even the greatest football men. If he had done it in 1999, with the Treble won, with his place alongside the European Cup-winning Sir Matt Busby secure, the tunes of glory would have been incessant.

He could have gone last spring with another Premiership title hauled in, another stunning example of competitive will marked against his name. But again, at 62, he didn't do it and it was for the most persuasive of reasons. He wasn't ready. It is quite possible that he will never be so.

A comparison with the great fighter Sugar Ray Leonard is far from exact, but it came to mind on Sunday while watching Fergie suffer the thousand cuts of defeat by Manchester City - a few months after his team had contemptuously overrun Kevin Keegan's side at Old Trafford.

It so happened that I asked the same question of a Leonard far past his best that is now being put to Ferguson by some of his fiercest admirers. Why didn't he quit when he was so far ahead of all the goals he could ever have set himself in his first scufflings as a manager at East Stirlingshire and St Mirren?

Leonard was working in a gym in New York's Seventh Avenue. He had looked better in his time, and the mood in the gym was as bleak as in the street, where the snow fell in great wet flurries. "Why do this?" I asked the great champion. "Why risk your health, what more do you need to prove?" Leonard's eyes flashed defiance and he said: "Why do you do your job? I guess it is because it is the best thing you do, and what would you do if you put it away? Sit at home all day thinking about the past? Well, that's how it is with a fighter. As long as he can do it, he will do it because it is the thing he wants to do most."

A few days later he was cut to pieces by Terry Norris in Madison Square Garden. It wasn't just a heavily punishing defeat. It was as though the young, stronger man was dredging up all Leonard's old glory, including the unforgettable first fight with Tommy Hearns and the epic larceny he had performed against Marvin Hagler, and tossing it aside. Leonard had nothing else to give.

Has Ferguson? It isn't a physical matter as it was in the Leonard case, of course - though Ferguson's friends and family must worry, despite the knowledge that the recent fitting of a heart pacemaker is now a routine medical procedure, that he is plainly heaping huge strain on his own extraordinarily competitive nature. No, it is much more to do with the psychology of a man who needs to win, and keep on winning, as so many of the rest of us need to breathe.

We ask "Why doesn't he quit?" in the same way that I asked the question of Leonard. Perhaps it would suit us, our neat memories of great achievement, and our sense of what is appropriate. But then we are just spectators to the dramas of a football manager or a fighter. We can see that they do the right thing, and move on to other heroes and villains. Meanwhile, they have to live out the rest of their lives.

One shrewd recent guess - and perhaps it is more than that - is that Ferguson cannot abide the idea of going out with the taste of defeat in his mouth, and for him to go finally, he must again hear the roar of the crowd and know that he has chosen to leave the arena in his own good time. Of course Ferguson would want that. Even yesterday, when his team, though ill-served by a 4-1 scoreline, were plainly so far from the standards he has set so relentlessly down the years, Ferguson was talking about some passing failure of defensive technique and attitudes. There was no hint that he was grappling with the possibility that for the first time in so long this is a squad of players who have reached the limit of their powers, and it is one that can no longer be guaranteed to gather in the great prizes.

The smoothness of Arsenal's passage through the season, the fact that they are one game away from equalling Leeds United's record of going 29 matches without defeat in top-flight English football, that a player like Edu has so seamlessly become an integral part of a brilliant team, is no doubt a source of additional pain.

As long as this imbalance exists between the two great English teams of the last decade or so, it is impossible not to believe that Ferguson will sweep away any idea of retiring. It would be synonymous with living the rest of his life in defeat.

Rational observers wouldn't see it like that, of course. They would say that a great football man had decided to pass on the baton, and that few football men had ever done so with more reason for personal pride. But they would be speaking for Ferguson, and even his harshest critics would have to concede they do not have that right. The only mercy is that the ageing champion doesn't have to go 12 rounds in Madison Square Garden.

Scandal could force football to grow up

In all the dreary squalor of the Leicester City affair, there is at least the possibility that at last something has been learned. It seems that the game - and an individual football club - may have realised that a point of no return has indeed been reached.

Leicester, having got their players out of Spanish cells and back into training, were at pains to say that the course of their future defence against charges of "sexual aggression" was now entirely in their own hands.

The umbilical cord which classically joins a football player and his employer appears to have been severed and, who knows, this might just signal a time when players have to think and act as individuals rather than as an endlessly spoon-fed herd.

The overall effect is of a new sense of responsibility. While Leicester City have pointed out correctly that the criminal charges being faced by their players in Spain have to be resolved in a court of law, which means Frank Sinclair, Paul Dickov and Keith Gillespie are innocent until proven guilty, the club has made no attempt to disguise its disappointment at the lack of professionalism displayed by many of their squad in Spain.

It seems we might just be entering an era of new accountability in football. If so, who can say it is not in the very nick of time? Perhaps, on recent form, only the Professional Footballers' Association.

Comments