James Lawton: Ferguson must call off media vendetta or risk being portrayed as embittered and battle-weary
Saturday 12 March 2011
This surely is the time for Sir Alex Ferguson to step from behind the spineless failure of the Premier League to demand the end of his barnacled vendetta against the BBC. It is also a good time to remind us who he is and what he represents.
There is, certainly, a perception that the old trigger finger may not be as ferocious as it was. It is one he needs to disrupt as pungently as he likes. This may not commend him to the serried ranks of polite football society – especially those who duck an argument when a few platitudes will do – but he might just be surprised by the results.
What, after all, has he got to lose but a propaganda war that he surely knows is doomed anywhere outside of Old Trafford, and most certainly so if he continues to wage it in such spasmodic fashion? He has a wavering team, one of dwindling achievement, and there has never been a greater need for his trademarked rejection of the possibilities of defeat.
It is a requirement that cannot be met while operating in the shadows.
He is, he should remember, buttressed by staggering levels of achievement. Nor, surely, can the irony at the heart of the United news blackout he imposed last weekend after defeat at Anfield have escaped him.
While the TV cameras showed the empty place where he or someone representing his club should have been standing, Liverpool's Jamie Carragher was waiting to apologise for the outrageous tackle which, we learnt yesterday, will keep Luis Nani out of football for a month.
So Ferguson missed the chance to point out that, for a second time in a few days, quite appalling refereeing had significantly worked against his team. Again, though, this is not the central point.
It remains the fact that with time running out the United manager continues to paint himself, consciously or not, as a besieged, embittered figure, seeking out obscure media outlets beyond these shores to snipe back at his critics. Some are even claiming that he has wearied of the battle.
He should be bolder than this, a whole lot bolder. At the age of 69, he is involved in a gruelling exercise, certainly, but the real phenomenon lies in the fact that he is about it for a fourth time, which is to say draining the last drops from one championship team and re-making still another.
In the formative stages of his Old Trafford regime, he coldly broke the nerve of his most adventurous and promising challenger: Kevin Keegan at Newcastle. Pitilessly, he stared down the contender.
Does he retain such ruthless certainty about his own motives? The best place to answer the question is in front of the people, a place where, if he is in the mood, he can thrive with a wry authority.
Oddly enough, the United manager is pinned down in the same foxhole as his ultimate rival, Arsène Wenger, at Old Trafford this evening. Both are charged with unacceptable criticism of match officials, yet both, give or take some degree of stress, have stated only what should have been obvious to any objective eye.
The absolute toleration granted to Chelsea's David Luiz at Stamford Bridge in the match against United was in the starkest contrast to the complete lack of it extended to Robin van Persie in the Nou Camp. So here we had the most striking examples of refereeing inconsistency shifting from one huge match to another. Yet it is Ferguson and Wenger who are assailed from all quarters.
Yes, it is true, the subjectivity of both managers can grate on the nerves but they are impassioned and profoundly committed men, who always played some of the best of football while building a combined total 44 trophies won in four countries.
Who can really claim they have been in serious error in recent days? Ferguson may have crossed a line when he impugned a referee's integrity as much as his competence but he was speaking, as Wenger was a few days later, from the rawest feelings. There was a core of truth at the roots of their frustration.
True, Ferguson reacted with initially manic defensiveness to the outrage over Wayne Rooney's elbowing of Wigan's James McCarthy but soon enough he conceded that his player was lucky to appear in the next game. Not a statesmanlike performance, perhaps, but neither was it as detached from reality as so many of the reactions of FA and Uefa officials.
What Ferguson most owes himself is a stage on which he can celebrate rather than retreat from a situation which has been created by unrivalled stamina and consistent achievement. Yes, he has a desperate battle to keep his side on the rails; today it is Arsenal, deeply wounded Arsenal, next week Marseilles and then there is Chelsea coming to Old Trafford perhaps while surging along the rails.
He needs to be seen to be facing today's challenge rather than fighting yesterday's war. The real enemy is not the BBC or any other pesky media. It is the unlikely idea that he has lost the will to fight.
How Ajax great Cruyff put Shankly on the defensive
There is no hardship here in acknowledging that when you make a lunge at historical perspective, even in the playpen of sport, it is not quite the same as taking a walk in the park.
Hence the legitimate complaints that two seriously fine teams didn't find their way into yesterday's protest about the rush to anoint Barça as the greatest club team in history.
Some of the claims on behalf of a team who are no doubt worthy of the highest admiration are palpably absurd, and most who believe this tend to advance the claims of the marvellous Milan team of the late Eighties along with the legendary Real Madrid.
However, the European Cup hat-tricks of Ajax ('71, '72, and '73) and Bayern Munich ('74, '75, '76) are also entitled to more than a passing mention in any final analysis.
Apart from producing revolutionary football and superb players like Johan Cruyff, a candidate for anyone's list of the top five performers of all time, Ajax also provoked one of the most memorable Shanklyisms. After losing a European Cup tie 5-1 on a foggy night in Amsterdam in 1966, the Liverpool manager said: "We never play well against defensive teams."
As always, there was a nugget of truth in the Shankly madness. One of Ajax's goals had come from the 19-year-old Cruyff, who some years later beat England at Wembley while rarely crossing the halfway line.
Bayern had Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller and Paul Breitner and, like today's Barça, provided the foundation of a World Cup-winning performance, in their case against the largely Ajax-supplied Netherlands.
Give Barça their due as today's Caesars, but let's not forget they are still in the ante-room of the football gods.
Out of touch with the rest of humanity
We shouldn't be too arch about these things, I know, but it was unfortunate the other day to note the juxtaposition of rugby star Ollie Barkley's sneering account of his time in an NHS hospital and some harrowing film of the nightmarish conditions faced by victims of the Libyan Government's assault on its own people.
Nor did it help that the body of another bomb disposal hero was being flown home from Afghanistan at roughly the same time.
Sport is a constant and quite often wonderful distraction from real life but there are times when the squirm factor is simply too high.
Sometimes you have to wish that some of those who benefit most from inhabiting the bubble of celebrity and huge reward were just a little more in touch with the rest of humanity.
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