James Lawton: Ferguson haunted by absence of character in the Keane mould

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The Independent Online

John Nance Garner, or Cactus Jack as he was known in his native Red River Valley, Texas, was so underwhelmed by his election as vice-president of the United States he said it had the inherent value of a "bucket of warm spit". There is a hunch here that Sir Alex Ferguson may be offering an equally disparaging assessment of the World Club championship if, as he must fear, it proves to be any kind of disruption to a season which so far has already caused at least as much pain as joy.

Heaven forbid Ferguson is in any way inconvenienced at White Hart Lane this afternoon. If it happens, every mile of the flight to Japan, where the assembled might of Adelaide United, Osaka, Al Ahly of Cairo and LDU Quito await his Manchester United, will surely build a little more of the angst that has plainly been growing within the great man for the best part of a week now.

One bold football reporter provoked a little more of it yesterday when he suggested that there might indeed be a little substance to concern that the vertical collision of Wayne Rooney's boot with the prone body of Kasper Risgard was maybe just something a little more sinister than a slip of the foot.

The reaction was classic Ferguson. It was all the creation of "you press guys". He added, "You're not getting anything at all from this club on Wayne Rooney. That's it, finished."

As always in such moments of contention, he provided at least a handful of the reasons why no one would cheerfully back against his ability to recreate the power and the authority which marked last season's surge to victory in the Premier League and the Champions League. There it was, all of it: implacable belief in his cause and his own people and an absolute refusal to see any picture but the only one it suits him to paint himself. Cornered wolverines have surely questioned more seriously their chances of survival.

Still, it is hard to imagine more unfortunate timing for a journey to the other side of the earth for a tournament which has about as much in-built gravitas as a kick-around at the back of the Pig and Whistle.

The fact is that the conquerors of Europe, the winners of a battle against Chelsea in Moscow that inspired one awed Spanish observer to say, "There is so much pace and power in this game – it could only come from the Premier League", so far just haven't happened, not with the expected force, not with that free-wheeling confidence which is supposed to flourish on the back of great triumph. Rooney remains trapped between the sublime and the dangerously cantankerous. Cristiano Ronaldo, plainly, is on a journey of his own, one which appears to be most serene when he is collecting trophies from the past rather than providing groundwork for those of the future.

Dimitar Berbatov has yet to ignite Old Trafford. Up to now he is £30m worth of refined promise and around about two-penny worth of the passion which he claimed had driven him to Old Trafford with a force of its own. United may claim they are merely gathering their strength for the big post-Christmas push.

It scarcely looked that way, however, against the Sunderland abandoned by Roy Keane last week. Then, we had one of the ironies of the season, United struggling for a spark of momentum against a team so recently managed by the man who had so often filled Old Trafford with the stuff. The trouble, maybe, is that if Ferguson has assembled an attacking force of bewitching potential – one so potent that it is only in the honesty of his flesh-and-blood presence and heart that the selection of Carlos Tevez makes any kind of football sense – he has one failure which must increasingly haunt him.

It is that, for all the growing touch of Michael Carrick, Keane has simply not been replaced, not in his influence, not in his ability to impose his will on any challenge. It is a problem only intensified by the increasing presence in the margins of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs.

As United prepare to fiddle with inconsequence in Tokyo, the haunting possibility is that they have a surplus of pure talent and a critical shortage of that quality which truly fashions the spirit of a team. It is of course character and in all his years at Old Trafford, Ferguson has nourished it with a life-giving passion.

So often he has needed to visit the reality of such strength only as a passing point of reference. Bryan Robson, Keane, Eric Cantona, Scholes, Giggs, have provided in different ways a thread of leadership which might have been made from steel wire.

It might seem odd to say after the heroics that came beside the Moscow River in the spring but the fear must be that, somehow, it has snapped. Certainly Ferguson has too many points of pressure at the moment to permit the most serene of journeys to the Orient.

He has to wonder again about his, or anybody's, ability to control the ungovernable in Rooney. He has to yearn for evidence that Ronaldo has more than the sketchiest concept of what constitutes a football team of growth and unity. He has to draw on his investment in the beautiful talent of Berbatov.

Ferguson might scowl, or more probably laugh, at such conjecture. We should not, however, expect him to be any cheerier than Cactus Jack when his team collect the World Club Championship. He knows, better than anyone, that the significant battles have scarcely been engaged – and still less won.

McIlvanney part of the pantheon

Lennox Lewis's election, at the first time of asking, to the American Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, is welcome confirmation of a superb career often seriously undervalued in this country.

No less a matter of celebration for those of us who inhabit on this side of the Atlantic the jaded old vineyard of sports writing, however, is that Lewis will be joined by the greatest of his generation, or any other you care to mention, Hugh McIlvanney.

Even for someone so laden with recognition and silverware, the man from Kilmarnock, whose columns for the Sunday Times continue to display the vigour and the eloquent power that marked his arresting arrival in Fleet Street for the Observer in the sixties, the latest honour is surely particularly satisfying.

Boxing, and supremely, his reporting of the career of Muhammad Ali, has always represented the core of his work. If it is also true that so many of McIlvanney's pieces displayed the strength and the depth that made his journey to Canastota inevitable, his summation of the tragedy of young Welshman Johnny Owen at the hands of Lupe Pintor in Los Angeles 28 years ago was especially unforgettable.

As Owen lay in the hospital where he died six weeks later, McIlvanney wrote: "Our reactions are bound to be complicated by the fact that it was boxing that gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of expression. Outside the ring he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he became astonishingly positive and self-assured. He seemed to be more at home there than anywhere else. It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language."

McIlvanney's own articulacy was never more apparent, or memorable, than at that tragic dawn.

England produce their best to dispel 'fainthearts' notion

Cricket, everybody said, would be in the margins when England played India in Chennai this week. And so it remains to a large extent. Still, it would be churlish not to recognise the excellent performances of a team that in more relaxed circumstances had been swept aside by India before the outrages of Mumbai.

The stubborn batting of Andrew Strauss and the fine spin bowling of newcomer Graeme Swann (below) have given England an unexpected edge over the team that recently thrashed the world champion Australians. In an extreme situation, the cricketers of England have done more than content themselves with providing a mere presence in an embattled land. They have worked in the most unusual circumstances to produce the best of themselves. It is an example that, surely, will not be easily forgotten. Two weeks ago they were described in one editorial as "fainthearts". Yesterday they did what they do best, they played cricket with fight and distinction. Their hearts beat strongly and so, surely, did those of all who watched, safely, at home.

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