James Lawton: Ferguson first for passion and judgement

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The Independent Football

Now everybody knows he is a spent force who lost the plot way back when he decided David Beckham wasn't exactly paying his freight at Old Trafford, surely we can afford to say a few nice things about Sir Alex Ferguson as he contemplates his 1,000th game in charge of Manchester United.

Now everybody knows he is a spent force who lost the plot way back when he decided David Beckham wasn't exactly paying his freight at Old Trafford, surely we can afford to say a few nice things about Sir Alex Ferguson as he contemplates his 1,000th game in charge of Manchester United.

Yes, let's give unto the cantankerous old Caesar what is his. We might start with his will to win. It is still so formidable it would be scary if it belonged to some tearaway from the streets of his native Glasgow. Ferguson is 62 and still arguably the least tranquillised major figure in all the game he has dominated for so long.

This is one of the two best things we can say about Ferguson, that ultimately he dignifies what he does with a passion and a care that, however roughly expressed at times, reflect a quite relentless desire to win not just for himself but also for his people. The other is that at a time in life when the sharp edge of ambition - and a man's best instincts for fulfilling it - is most at risk, his judgement in the most vital area of football management has just been gloriously confirmed.

In the last couple of years Ferguson has urged on his plc football club - the one his work enriched in value by roughly £900m in one decade - two utterly key signings, those of Ronaldinho and Arjen Robben. In his mind the deals were done. But then the people who know best these days, the money men, thought that the expressed willingness of the Brazilian and the Dutchman to come to Old Trafford was less a huge bonus than potential for negotiation.

Everybody knows the consequences now, and no one more than Ferguson. It cannot improve the mellowness of his mood when he takes a bedtime nip that Ronaldinho's transformation of Barcelona has made him the no-brainer favourite for European footballer of the year and that Chelsea's Robben is a strong contender to win the English equivalent.

Who indeed would have wanted to be a haplessly kickable cat in the company of Ferguson last Saturday when Ronaldinho filled the television screen with his magnificent play and demeanour as he led Barca to a superb victory over Real Madrid? This was double vindication for the master of Old Trafford. Not only did Ronaldinho dominate every phase of the action, but Beckham, whose sale provoked days of national criticism for Ferguson, once again failed utterly to make any impact for Real. He was withdrawn after 53 minutes, having scarcely kicked the ball while inviting new speculation about the length of his tenure as a deeply discredited galactico.

Above all, the Ronaldinho performance showed what the talent and the spirit of one great player can do to the overall purpose and style of an influential club, and how that effect can spread itself across a whole national game. Certainly it was striking to compare England's big game between United and Arsenal a few weeks ago with its counterpart in Spain.

No doubt, Ferguson's combativeness contributed at least to some degree to the bilious affair in Manchester. However, he wanted Ronaldinho as much as he had wanted any player, and what the Brazilian gave to the Nou Camp last Saturday was something he might have bestowed on Old Trafford a few weeks earlier. It would have been the example of a player on top of his game and brilliantly aware of its beauty and its reward.

However, it is not as though the old warrior is bereft of strength as he seeks to fight his way back in the Premiership and seeks to preserve his team's chances against Lyon of winning their Champions' League group.

The anarchy of Wayne Rooney in Madrid last week was no doubt bothersome, and certainly demanded powerful reaction at his club, but it scarcely dislodged the reality that in the turbulent young Scouser Ferguson has a potential talent of the ages.

Indeed, one moment at least in the triumph over Charlton Athletic was guaranteed to put some of the more hysterical reactions to Rooney's conduct in Madrid into perspective. It was when the teenager drove on goal with power and masterful control before sending the ball rolling into the path of the resurrected Paul Scholes.

That gave us the most encouraging flashback to arguably the supreme moment of Rooney's sensational contribution to last summer's European Championship. Remember the moment of football genius? Rooney, in a crowded area, readjusted his header in a millisecond when he saw that Scholes was in a better position to score.

Rooney has already convinced some of the hardest football judges that he can be one of the greatest players of all time and Ferguson must have been encouraged by the hint of contrition Rooney carried with him into the Charlton game. Ferguson may also have remembered that at roughly the same age Diego Maradona was dismissed from a World Cup game for calling a referee the "son of a whore".

It is not that Ferguson is the mastery of all football wisdom. His decision to announce his retirement prematurely was a catastrophic miscalculation to rival the one to dispute with John Magnier and J P McManus the ownership of the horse Rock Of Gibraltar. His paternal indulgence of his son Jason's operation as a football agent further eroded the sense that he was, in high maturity, picking his way faultlessly through the minefields of the game.

However, on this extraordinary milestone of the football life, we didn't come to bury Fergie but to praise him. Enough to say, maybe, that his status as a champion remains immense.