James Lawton: Veteran campaigner wages psychological warfare to win allies in fight against last enemy

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The Independent Football

If there is ever a small piece of psychological warfare, even a breath of it, left unused by Sir Alex Ferguson, be sure it will have no more value than a vice-president of the United States once attributed to his office. It was, he said, worth no more than a pitcher of cold spit.

Clearly in a much higher category, the manager of Manchester United decided, as he made a Premier League title-winning speech that a less bold spirit might have considered worryingly premature, was the need to put Newcastle United on their toes before the game with Chelsea.

Ferguson, straight-faced, said he hoped Kevin Keegan's team would be at least as brave as his friend Alan Curbishley's West Ham had been in subsiding to a 10-man United by 4-1 – and, you have to add, with a combative spirit that in a time of war would surely have led to 11 courts martial.

There was scarcely a glint of mischief in Fergie's eyes when he took us back 12 years to the time he reduced Keegan to incoherent rage and emotional meltdown – on national television – by speaking of the need for competitive honesty by the opponents of a Newcastle who were threatening to run away with the title. Naturally, Newcastle then found out they were required to face the footballing equivalent of the Vietcong for the rest of the season.

All Ferguson is asking for today is 90 minutes of similar application from the victims of one of his first and most lasting examples of how to work away at both the brain lining and heart-strings of a vulnerable rival.

In 1996, Keegan was pushed into telling the nation that he would "love it" if his team maintained their lead over United. Duty and a major confirmation of the progress he has made since a hellish reintroduction to his old job will be motivation enough for a rousing team talk at St James' Park this afternoon.

He may not love all the consequences of a successful war cry, including still another title for Ferguson to work away at the wound that surely still festers over his own loss of a 12-point lead 12 years ago, but he knows by now that living under the Scotsman's shadow is not so much a burden as a professional obligation.

In the spring sunlight all was not quite perfectly ordered in the world according to Ferguson, but enough of it was to warrant the triumphal flourish. The players had been fantastic, he assured us, and who could argue after Cristiano Ronaldo, running like a fox through a chicken coop, scored the two league goals that took him past the club record mark of Denis Law, who with Jimmy Greaves will always be ranked as arguably one of the two most natural goalscorers ever produced in these islands?

Ronaldo still has a worrying tendency to put down his best form when the opposition are most formidable but West Ham's makeshift – and essentially shiftless – team might have been a snack served to him on a shining silver platter.

It is also true that a failure to beat the bad teams had some devastating consequences before United last season reasserted their belief that they were the best and most talented team in the land, and in the penultimate stride toward a second straight title it was hard to overstate how much the blazing skills of the Portuguese have been an antidote to successful ambush attempts by the riff-raff of the league.

Ronaldo's claims to be the star of all seasons still have be substantiated on the banks of the Moscow river later this month, but it was certainly hard to argue with Ferguson's celebration of consistent effort from his dressing room.

In the absence of the injured Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez reminded his old West Ham team-mates of the burrowing application and aggressive instinct that were unquestionably the reason why they were on duty at Old Trafford rather than somewhere like Scunthorpe or Colchester.

Tevez kept the Hammers alive last season, and when he sent a scorching drive past Robert Green it was another indicator that when the challenge of an apparently recharged Chelsea is faced in the Champions League final, Ferguson will be looking for this kind of energy and commitment.

He will also want the example of a forward who is willing to track back 30 yards or more to regain lost possession, who plays with an even rage to win on any terms and not just his own.

Paul Scholes, the match-winner against Barcelona, is another who embodies the best spirit of Ferguson's latest roll-call of champions-elect. On this occasion he didn't produce a mule kick of a volley. He simply played with the wise eye of a veteran and the heart of a born fighter.

Ferguson has said Scholes would play in Moscow if only for sentimental reasons, but it is an unlikely story, one indeed to consign to that pitcher of cold spit. What Ferguson needs most in Moscow is warm, competitive blood, and right now no one is supplying more of it than Carlos Tevez and Paul Scholes.