James Lawton: Ferguson's feud with Madrid at odds with clubs' real traditions

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The Independent Football

In case we had forgotten, Sir Alex Ferguson has reminded us of his viperous tongue. He can make the invective of even, say, Jose Mourinho seem like the petty effusions of the chattering class. The coach of United's Champions League opponents Internazionale has his moments, of course, but when you are wounded by Ferguson, well, you stay wounded – just ask Kevin Keegan.

Ferguson is the nonpareil of insult. His sound bites are so often laced with poisonous intent, and magnificent scorn, they sometimes seem to constitute nothing less than a river of venom. However, he will do well to improve on the barb he fired at Real Madrid this week.

"I wouldn't sell them a virus," he declared after the latest suggestion from the Spanish capital that Cristiano Ronaldo's move there next season is a done deal.

In Ferguson's world there are no shadings of affiliation. You are either a friend or an enemy and even in the jungle of football nothing is more capricious than either status. But then who can blame him for levelling his disdain at Real Madrid and their president Ramon Calderon?

In the Ronaldo affair Real have behaved with about as many scruples as the pickpockets who used to infest the alleyways around the Plaza Mayor. They have coveted a player belonging to another club and they have gone for him with a shameless lack of propriety. You have to wonder who they think they are. Manchester United, perhaps.

Of course the Ronaldo business has been disgusting in what it says about so many modern clubs and modern players and maybe what was so striking, and in its way, shocking about Ferguson's outburst was that it perfectly illustrated the chasm that now exists between how football is today and how it used to be.

This is underlined most graphically by the fact that recent exchanges between the two clubs, whose histories are so superbly entwined in the development of the European game, would have filled with horror the men who did most to make them what they were and what we like to think they remain today.

In this we need to travel back 50 years to the palatial office of Real Madrid's legendary president and former player, Santiago Bernabeu.

He is receiving a visit from a great rival and friend who cannot walk without the help of a stick and whose face reflects not only the ravages of near-death experience but the loss of young players he had come to regard as sons.

His name, of course, is Matt Busby. He explains to Bernabeu the extent of the crisis at Old Trafford following the Munich air tragedy. Not only is the place racked by the deepest grief, there is also the more practical fear that, with paltry insurance and slender financial resources, United, for all their prestige and romance, might go under. Busby is in Madrid to plead for help from the club who had set all the standards in European competition. Could Real come to Manchester to play a friendly game that would not only raise vitally needed funds but also serve as a gesture towards an uncertain future?

Bernabeu says: "Matt, you are my friend and whatever help you want you need only ask."

Real Madrid played a series of friendlies with United over the years, they brought the great players Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas and through them a new generation of United players were reacquainted with the football greatness that had been shed so tragically on the snowy airfield in Munich.

Nobby Stiles recalls, as though it was yesterday, the night he eavesdropped on a fierce row between Di Stefano and Puskas as they came out of their dressing room for the second half of a match in which the Hungarian's commitment had been less than that desired by his Argentine team-mate.

Stiles says: "The match was at Old Trafford in 1961, one of a series arranged between the clubs. Busby used the games to familiarise United players with the level of performance that was required if we were to get back to the standards that were being achieved before Munich. They were friendlies in name only. They were really a test of how far we had come, and how far we might go. As the club was being rebuilt, Real Madrid seemed to be the measuring stick – and here was Di Stefano, one of the most admired players in the world, saying that every match mattered, every time you went on the field you represented so many more people than just yourself."

Perhaps, though, the most damning reflection of the meaning of today's relations between arguably Europe's two most important clubs comes in another memory, this time of Sir Bobby Charlton. It is particularly relevant to the question of Ronaldo and the body language that has said so relentlessly that he would rather be some place else. Charlton felt at least a breath of Real's interest in the early Sixties, reporting: "I had reason to believe that Real Madrid might try to persuade United to let me go. Santiago Bernabeu, the president, was always very friendly when I saw him and he sent a present when Norma and I were married in 1961. Given the aura of Real, and all they meant to me as representatives of beautiful football, it was extremely flattering but the Old Man [Busby] knew better than anyone that my vows to United, in the context of football, were as strong as the ones I had made to my wife."

Imagine that. Imagine a time when the greatest young players of the day happily bought a virus called loyalty and respect. Tough, isn't it?

Would Allardyce be given more time had he been a gentleman of Verona?

"What if I'd been called Sam Allardicci?" the new manager of Blackburn Rovers once mused. Better still, what if he'd been called Capello or Ferguson or Stein? Bolton Wanderers might now be European champions, with Newcastle barking at their heels.

One of the older truths of football, of course, is that it never permits you to live on the back of past deeds. In the context of Bolton, Allardyce (right), no doubt, did a superb job. He missed a beat at Newcastle, as did his predecessor at Blackburn, Paul Ince, and in all of sport these days nowhere are forgiveness and faith harder to find than in a Premier League club threatened with the financial oblivion of relegation.

This is the reality facing the big man as he seeks to restore his reputation. You do the job at a faster rate than any generation of football managers has ever done before or you go. It's not pretty, it might not even be fair, but it is how it is. You take the money – and what money – and your chance. The old scribe Bill Shakespeare had it right. With the right results, a thorny old rose of a manager would smell as sweet at Ewood Park by any other home come the spring.

Kilburn fills Yuletide with sweet breath of summer

Anyone looking for good companionship in the Christmas bunker, should consider the company of Brough Scott, the late J M Kilburn and Jonathan Wilson.

If you were looking for jolly company in a cricket press box, Kilburn of the Yorkshire Post was probably not your man. In fact, a better bet was the dinner table of the nearest Benedictine monastery. However, when he was stonily ignoring the questions posed by the garrulous freelance Dick Williamson – "nar then, nar then, who was the only Yorkshire skipper to tour Australia without playing a Test match?" (see below) – he was writing the most beautiful prose. The best of it has been gathered together in Sweet Summers: The Classic Cricket Writing of J M Kilburn (Great Northern Books, £16.99), and continues to sparkle like rocks of carefully spooned ice.

Brough Scott's amiability would, of course, grace any corner of sport, as the constable who encountered him while he was in a dinner suit and a merry condition riding a bike over Chelsea bridge will attest, and his Of Horses and Heroes: A Racing Tribute (Highdown, £20), sees him at his passionate best. The beautiful animals stride off the pages.

Jonathan Wilson may not be Albert Einstein and he may not have surpassed the theory of relativity. However, in Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics (Orion, £18.99), he has come impressively close, writing a book on the history of football tactics which not only doesn't pitch you into a coma by the second page but manages to be both warm and fascinating.

Quiz answer: No, it wasn't Norman Yardley. It was Captain James Cook.