James Lawton: Ferguson shows the difference between winners and losers

Manchester United face a huge task but now is not the time to doubt the leadership qualities of the greatest British manager of his generation
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Warmed-over allegations of favours he did for his agent son Jason, and charges that he put his head in the noose with his battle plan for the first leg of the European Cup semi-final, will no doubt further accentuate Sir Alex Ferguson's famous sense that the football world is never happier than when building his funeral pyre.

But then what delight there is in kicking away the sticks. Certainly the usual rules apply for anyone preparing to light the match on Fergie's embattled dream of returning to his native Glasgow and scoring a second triumph in the world's greatest club competition. Chief among them is recognising the absolute folly of discounting the essential element in all of Ferguson's success.

It is not about tactical genius, as even some of his admirers noted privately after the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford which requires United to get out the grappling irons tonight at the Rhineland pill factory stadium where Bayer Leverkusen have a habit of persuading some of the mightiest names in the game to take a powder.

Indeed, it is almost as if the tactics are Ferguson's concession to vanity, and thus his weakness. At times they have certainly nullified something much more visceral, and effective, in his football nature. It is not enough, you have to suspect, for Ferguson to trade on the force of will, and competitive honesty, which has made him the greatest British manager of his generation by such a wide margin. It makes him tinker with the classic verities of football which have been the basis of all his success: honest, basic defence, width, and an unbroken desire to run and pass creatively.

The vanity runs deep, however. How long did it take him to revise the plan which had Ruud van Nistelrooy alone up front and Paul Scholes uncertain about his function, and his worth, for the first time in a professional life so lovingly nurtured by his manager? Almost to the point of ignition of a pyre built by Ferguson himself.

With Ferguson, though, you are never far removed from a reminder of the statement of a rumpled hero of a James Baldwin novel, who declared: "You take the best, so why don't you take the rest?" The rest of Ferguson is a spiky mix of passion and paranoia and sometimes even a hint of irrationality. Why last week would he have Ryan Giggs operating almost everywhere but wide on the left where his running is more or less guaranteed to terrify the sturdiest defensive heart? Maybe it is indeed that urge to do something different, to reject the obvious, but the cost can, as the fear now must be, involve the giving up of some fundamental strength. Much is still made of Ferguson's jettisoning of Jaap Stam, but, given the Dutchman's form at the time of his exit, some argue – persuasively enough – that a deeper hazard was always going to be the manager's commitment to a drastically revised game-plan.

Beyond all of this, however, is the need for caution in all those preparing burial rites for Leverkusen's BayArena. Yesterday's news that Roy Keane is likely to play, and that Bayer's rival one-man force Michael Ballack is doubtful, is the kind of spark which could provoke a rival to two of the more remarkable explosions in recent European Cup history.

Both were produced by Ferguson's men. The greater of them, in pure competitive terms, was the resurrection inspired by Keane at the Stadio delle Alpi, when Juventus, two goals up, appeared to be sailing into the final which Manchester United would win with that astonishing late burst against a Bayern who for 90 minutes had looked the more coherent team. Keane carried United in Turin and with his absence on the Nou Camp field there was a dawning sense of despair. But it was shaken loose and driven away. Why? Because, it is reasonable to believe, of something that Ferguson has, uniquely, brought to his team and his football life.

It is the quality of moral courage, which may sound a little airy until you begin to compare, for example, the records of United and the team most likely to usurp their domestic empire this season, Arsenal. If Arsène Wenger's men take the double, as logic says they will, no one can deny the quality of their football over the season. But what about the lack of a hard edge in the years since 1998, when they last won the double? What about the surrenders in Europe? And if, now, they are about to spit away some of the dust they have inhaled at the heels of Fergie's army, what is United's current business? It is, once again, to fight for the highest ground in European football.

As they do so, no one can be in any doubt about their greatest asset. It is a long, hard education in the most vital difference between winners and losers, which has never been about one man's tactical innovation. It concerns having good players in their natural positions who have been bred to believe as much in themselves as the familiar way in which they play. That has been Ferguson's great gift to United and it remains as viable as ever tonight. It would help, though, if Giggs just happens to skin Bayer along the left.

Time to give fans freedom

The news of impending traffic chaos in Cardiff for Saturday's Cup Final is a bleak reminder of the plight of the British sports fan.

So often he is obliged to contemplate not a simple pleasure but a draining ordeal. The point was underlined for anyone who happened to attend Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix on the outskirts of Barcelona.

A riveting specatacle it may not have been but nor was it Silvestone every year – an invitation to mass nervous breakdown. A new road system linking the Circuit de Catalunya to the motorways meant it was possible to park up in the centre of Barcelona, despite the paseo of Sunday night revellers, precisely an hour after leaving the track. The experience was positively heady for someone who once listened to an entire BBC radio play while moving six car lengths across the Silverstone in-field.

The radio drama made the whole experience particularly excruciating in that its theme was prison life. When, you wonder as fiercely now as you did then, is the British fan of almost any major sport going to be set free?

Reciprocal loyalty: what a quaint idea

A few weeks ago a television reporter was dressed down by Patrick Vieira for having the temerity to ask about the player's long-term future at Highbury.

Vieira said that despite the comments of his agent and his own sudden social visit to Madrid, speculation that he might want to leave in the summer, perhaps, who knew, for Real, was entirely the creation of the media. Now the Arsenal vice-chairman, David Dein, says: "If a player wants to be difficult invariably he gets his move – but we don't want it to happen here. There will be a conversation with Arsène [Wenger, the Arsenal manager] and Patrick – and I'm confident the player will stay with us, but you cannot say 100 per cent."

No, of course you cannot. You just dribble on with the double-speak, hoping that the people who pay for it all, the fans who go to the grounds and stump up their Sky subscriptions, continue to support a system in which the concept of reciprocal loyalty becomes ever more quaint. What Dein does not entertain now, any more than he did when Nicolas Anelka headed for Madrid, is the sensational idea of reading back to the player the terms of his contract, and then letting him stew in them. In the Anelka case that would have cost Arsenal the vast profit of more than £20m.

That, plainly, would be unthinkable in today's football. But what about tomorrow's? Today's moral act could be tomorrow's stab at survival, of the integrity of a contract and the dignity of a football club whose marble halls once spoke of real values. Meanwhile, it would be good if someone like Patrick Vieira did not take us all for complete fools.

* In this column of 26 March, when I referred to the approach of the Leeds United chairman, Peter Ridsdale, to the Woodgate and Bowyer affair, I did not mean to suggest that Mr Ridsdale had acted dishonestly and I am happy to make this clear.