James Lawton: Once beaten, twice shy... how Alex Ferguson keeps a winning edge at Manchester United

Ferguson had come with his best instincts restored and got his reward

Not even Sir Alex Ferguson's most fervent admirers can claim he has never made a mistake. But then what an enviable habit he has, as he pushes towards his 71st birthday with all of English football once again trailing in his wake.

The Ferguson trick is to so rarely make the same one twice.

It is a knack that can be described in various ways. Some might trace it back to the survival instincts acquired in the demanding streets of his native Glasgow. You might speak of that necessity to grow strong at broken places in a world which explores any sign of weakness day by relentless day. Perhaps more than anything it is a love of conflict, a passion to stay one step ahead because the alternative is to sink back into the crowd.

However you cut it, though, there is the recurring evidence of an ability to adapt successfully to even the most challenging circumstances – and learn from those mishaps which linger most powerfully in the bones. His victory over Manchester City on Sunday, with all the new possibilities of a psychological edge over rivals who so recently seemed to be an irresistible threat to an empire built over a quarter of a century, is surely one of the most compelling examples.

In almost every possible way it reflected Ferguson's most enduring strength. Above all, it represented that capacity to see precisely where he had previously gone wrong. In this case he had to go back no further than a little more than seven months. It was the night of Monday, 30 April, when he took his team to the Etihad Stadium in a self-betraying frame of mind. It was marked by unprecedented caution, a dismaying refusal to rely on all the old certainties despite the fact that his 13th Premier League title was surely in the balance.

In the aftermath of an appalling performance – one in which United failed to muster a single shot on goal – no one was more appalled than Ferguson himself.

He gave City the freedom to attack at will, as some of his most gifted offensive players sat on the bench. Park Ji-sung, a spoiling specialist but one who had seen very little recent action, augmented a five-man midfield.

Wayne Rooney, who a few months earlier had devastated City in an FA Cup tie on the same pitch, was dislocated and dispirited as the likes of Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck looked on.

On Sunday all the old building blocks of the United empire were put back in place, even to the point when Ferguson had every incentive to take a point from the team who had not lost on their own ground for two years. Instead, he sent on the still coltish but also refined attacking instinct of Welbeck in place of striving young midfielder Tom Cleverley. Ferguson had come with his best attacking options, Young and Valencia wide, Rooney sweeping through from behind Robin van Persie. He came with his best instincts restored and he got his reward.

Those who worry about the momentum of a man who for so long was the greatest threat to Ferguson could only reflect on recent events at Villa Park, when Arsène Wenger was faced with a similar decision near the end against opponents who formed only a fraction of the threat posed by a reanimated City. Wenger, who for so long represented all that was bold and self-confident in the coach's dugout, replaced his striker Olivier Giroud with the midfielder Francis Coquelin.

If that seemed like a gesture of despair, it was even easier to see Ferguson's as a reaffirmation of the most enduringly combative values English league football may ever have seen. This certainly is a message that has rarely been so dramatically re-enforced in moments of maximum pressure.

It may have been coincidental that Welbeck's harrying of Gaël Clichy created the circumstances of Van Persie's decisive free-kick. Alternatively, it may indeed have been a reflection of a certain state of mind – one that once again, and despite the fact that United have rarely had more reason under Ferguson to fret about the efficiency of their defence and creativity in the midfield, seems to have been given still another lease of life.

No one is saying that Ferguson cannot be out-thought from time to time. Only that second-guessing does appear to be an entirely different matter. In fact, the latest facts suggest it might be entirely out of the question.

For good of Test cricket, India must find more of Ashwin's competitive streak

It may be no cause for diluting pleasure in the superb resurrection of England in India, and especially the magisterial batting of their captain, Alastair Cook, but there is a worry. However deeply we bury our heads behind the barricades, it is hard to ignore the tragic potential of the crisis of M S Dhoni and his dishevelled team.

So recently the No 1 Test side, a wonderful mix of classic batsmanship and the most guileful spin bowling, India are now threatening to write a devastating parable about what can happen in sport when old values collide with unprecedented amounts of money.

India is the counting house of world cricket – a magnet for the great performers, home and abroad, as they pursue the lifetime financial security which accrues so quickly in the slam-bam arena of Twenty20.

Unfortunately, it is also the place where some of the heaviest blows have been dealt to the old aura of the most superior form of the game. In India, of all places, the Test game teeters at the gate of bankruptcy. Echoes this week of India's disintegration in the third Test can only accelerate the bleak process, which is why we must hope for more of a contest in the final Test.

With the great Rahul Dravid gone, and the iconic Sachin Tendulkar so plainly on his last legs, India are desperately in need of the competitive character shown in such poignant isolation by the unheralded R Ashwin.

In Kolkata he scored 112 runs, and with ridiculous ease in an undefeated 91 which shamed his alleged betters, and claimed five wickets. All of cricket will benefit this week from more of such rare defiance.

Or, you may say, a little wider evidence of a working conscience not yet in the hands of the highest and most opportunistic bidder.

The punch that turned lights out for Pacquiao

Was it the most withering punch ever thrown in a boxing ring? Passing exposure to the work of men like Mike Tyson, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, George Foreman, not to mention the weekend victim of Juan Manuel Marquez's short and murderous right hand, Manny Pacquiao, might induce a degree of scepticism but none of it, surely, emphatic.

Certainly, it is true that ringside commentary has rarely been quite as cheerfully prescient as that burst that rent the small hours of Sunday morning. "They are looking for closure," we were told, "and they want concussive closure."

The Mexican veteran delivered it most ferociously with a second remaining in the sixth round and there was huge relief, not least from Pacquiao's distressed wife, when the recipient regained consciousness after a minute.

When promoter Bob Arum was asked about the possibility of a fifth meeting between the men, Pacquiao having lost after two victories and a draw, he said, with eyes shining, "Why not?" Pacquiao's trainer, and former fighter, Freddie Roach was rather more circumspect. He said he would deliver his verdict after his man returned to the gym.

Roach may well have been thinking that while the punch switched off Pacquiao's lights for no more than 60 seconds, he may well feel it for the rest of his life.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing