James Lawton: How long will it take Ferguson to turn his boy wonder into a football man?

At Craven Cottage, Ronaldo was little more than a flouncing, pouting liability
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The Independent Online

It is entirely conceivable that Sir Alex Ferguson will use the two-week international break to re-make Manchester United into something resembling authentic pursuers of unprecedented glory. But how much time does he need to make a football man of Cristiano Ronaldo? Let's face it, more than he has – and this would be as true if he was back at that age when he was endangering his blood vessels on behalf of Rangers nearly 50 years ago.

Some people never grow up, even if they dazzle the world. That Ronaldo may be such a one is becoming a little more evident with each example of his inability to respond to the challenge of behaving maturely under almost any degree of serious pressure.

At Fulham last Saturday the officially anointed world's best player had the perfect opportunity to defy his critics and give back a little to the army of apologists who insist that his strengths so far outweigh his weaknesses. He didn't have to light up the north bank of the Thames with his most luminous talent. He didn't have to produce an outpouring of irresistible stepovers. He didn't have to bemuse the team who had been destroyed a few weeks earlier.

He had to play with thought and discipline. He had to reflect the degree of United's challenge after the crushing defeat inflicted by reignited Liverpool a week earlier. These, when you think about it for a moment, were not extraordinary demands. They were the basic requirements of a proper professional footballer, at whatever level he operated. That the reigning footballer of the year should find them so far beyond his power, that he should respond not with discipline and respect for the difficult situation of his manager, his supremely patient patron, and his team, but yet another full-blown eruption of petulance was nothing less than dismaying.

To say such a thing is to invite endless recitals of Ronaldo's great deeds, as though each new failure to meet his responsibilities is simply being stored up for fresh moments of redemption.

It is an absurd position because in football, as in life, the obligation is to give the best of what you have whenever it is called upon. At Fulham Ronaldo's demeanour was disgraceful. When confronted by his contempt, referee Phil Dowd had as much reason to dismiss Ronaldo as he had later when he sent off the incorrigibly irascible Wayne Rooney.

Under the gun, it seems Rooney can no more resist the red mist than Ronaldo can the apparent sense than when the world isn't handing him shining trophies it is conspiring to do him down. Both attitudes sit unhelpfully, and potentially disastrously, in the natures of two of the most gifted footballers alive, but in Rooney's defence it has to be said that his ungovernable temper is not at any odds with his willingness to slave, often unselfishly, for his team. Crosspatch he may be, but he is untouched by narcissism. Ronaldo seems ever closer to being consumed by it.

Sadly, we all know the flaws that so drastically curtailed the brilliance of Paul Gascoigne, chief among them a detachment from reality which reappeared again recently when he declared that the Ronaldo of this season is, despite the decline in his goals, superior to the one who shattered George Best's scoring record. Gazza said that Ronaldo's game had grown wider and deeper and that he was more consistently valuable to his team. At Fulham, on a day so crucial to that team's fortunes, he was a flouncing, pouting liability and when Ferguson's assistant Mike Phelan later appeared to be attempting to muddy the water by saying how control was desired in all players, he hardly obscured this reality.

A fly on the wall in United's dressing room at Craven Cottage, and at the Carrington training ground this week, could no doubt pass on assessments vastly more candid than those offered to the public by the Old Trafford command but what surely isn't in dispute is the pressure to impose both new discipline – and motivation.

If Ronaldo and Rooney were the most visible culprits, and Paul Scholes the most unwitting, too many performances did not register above the parapet – most notably that of Dimitar Berbatov, the man Ferguson saw as so intrinsic to the success of his widest ambitions.

With Liverpool's Rafa Benitez and his team currently performing as though scales have been taken from their eyes, and chains from their ankles, the imperatives facing United could hardly be more explicit. They have do dig so much deeper for their competitive roots.

They also have to pray that their key players can begin to match at least some of the honesty and the brilliant power now being produced by the likes of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. It was a point that screamed out in the wake of Liverpool's triumph at Old Trafford but at Fulham it had been reduced to nothing so much as a lament.

United have to find at least some of the best of themselves. And Ronaldo, indeed, has to grow up. The trouble is that right now you would have to give Michael Jackson and Peter Pan quite as much of a chance.

English cricket rushes towards ruin in pursuit of rapid rupee

Let's be grateful the England and Wales Cricket Board has not yet sent up welcoming flares around the Lord's helipad where Allen Stanford flew in with his chest of fake dollars. Still, the unbridled enthusiasm for the windfall of rupees promised by the emergency staging of the Indian Premier League surely represented another body blow to the idea English cricket has come to stand for anything more than the unbridled pursuit of the quick buck.

One irony in the rush to provide facilities for 59 games in 46 days, which would have required county teams like Lancashire and Surrey to be shunted away from Old Trafford and The Oval, is the recent umbrage at the decision of Middlesex and Kent to provide Ashes preparation for the Aussies Phil Hughes and Stuart Clark.

It cannot be lost even on those who believe that Twenty20 is a money-grabbing mutation which is bound to burn itself out quickly enough. Middlesex and Kent were chided for injuring England's competitive prospects; but the plan, less likely to happen now the IPL has discovered that come April in England it rains quite a lot, is to invite all of the world's top players, not just two, to burnish their skills on English soil two weeks before we host the World Twenty20. But, again, we are talking money.

The Somerset chairman, Andy Nash, could scarcely contain his excitement, saying: "Once the ECB are aware of the requirements they will move heaven and earth to accommodate this." Of course they would – and any number of old Test cricketers would line up to applaud the decision.

Why? Because it would bring money into the English game. Yes, money is the driving force of professional sport, but how is it serving English cricket when a first-class season was at risk of being shoved into the margins before a ball was delivered – and Test series against the West Indies and then the Australians were given the status of the cheese and the pudding after the feast of hit and hope?

The overall plan may not be to destroy English cricket, but then who can really tell? The job, anyway, moves along.

Lingering smell of hypocrisy of Chambers' critics

Lord Coe complains of an unshakeable odour whenever Dwain Chambers slips into the blocks, saying: "If you have a sanction and that sanction isn't a life ban, then you actually have to hold your nose and accept that people, within the laws of sport, come back." They do indeed and the marvel is that, given his delicate nostrils, the great man hasn't found it necessary to carry a basket of clothes pegs from one Olympic Games to another.

Admittedly Coe has the grievance that he was attacked in the disgraced sprinter's recent autobiography. However, the nag here is that if Chambers had taken his suspension, and not made so graphically the point that he would still be running free but for his own carelessness, he wouldn't carry so heavily the aroma of shame.

For some the decision of the international athletic authority not to punish Chambers for bringing the sport into disrepute is of some small relief. At least it spares us still another whiff of built-in hypocrisy.

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