Ken Jones: It would be fun to see Ferguson silence the jackals

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The Independent Online

If there is one thing to be learned from the troubles presently besetting Manchester United, it is that nothing more emboldens sports critics than the scent of a wounded football manager who has not gone out of his way to make their lives easier.

Now, the word is on many lips, shaped by Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to call time on his tenancy at Old Trafford; no more of the withering, hard-eyed stare, the harsh responses to ills, real and imagined, the intolerance that has made enemies in the field of communication.

By Ferguson's admission, two more League defeats and it will be practically impossible to sign off with a flourish in the Premiership. Considering the challenge coming from Spain, another European Cup looks unlikely. And not even Fabien Barthez's catastrophic errors at Arsenal on Sunday obscured problems raised by Ferguson's stubborn persistence with a system of play that is clearly alien to the instincts of key players. So the saliva drips. Now is the time to go for him.

I know Ferguson but not intimately. I have never sat down to eat with him, visited his home, got to know his family. I don't have his home telephone number. We have mutual friends but I am not greatly influenced by their assessment.

But, whatever fault can be found with Ferguson, however pernicious the envy of United's towering achievements under him, it does not begin to justify the rampant glee generated by evidence to suggest that his final season will end in disappointment.

In London's Evening Standard this week, some remarks about Ferguson were passed by a part-time sports columnist (a breed known in the trade as non-sports writers) Matthew Norman, who shares with the Sun writer and BBC Radio presenter Richard Littlejohn an affiliation with Tottenham Hotspur and a talent for smart-arsery.

Anyway, in splenetic mode, and doubtless comforted by the knowledge that face-to-face encounters with Ferguson are not on his agenda, Norman expressed pleasure in the United manager's predicament, writing: "It would be tremendous fun to watch his [Ferguson's] last season as manager dribbling into failure and then to count the years until this petulant monomaniac finds the humility to admit that selling Jaap Stam was not just a rash decision but one of the most grievous mistakes a Premiership manager will ever make."

After many years, a golden rule here is never to question the judgement of football managers without being in full possession of the facts and careful scrutiny. It may or, may not, be recalled that Stam's performances for the Netherlands during the 1998 World Cup finals caused some critics to suppose that the big Dutchman might struggle in the Premiership. With advantages of pace and strength and because, like Bobby Moore, he stayed on his feet, Stam proved them wrong.

However, after the first two games this season, especially when isolated and outpaced by Fulham's lively attackers at Old Trafford, it must have been clear to Ferguson that Stam was no longer the player he had been before a debilitating injury. Quickly getting rid of Stam was less of a mistake than supposing that an ageing Laurent Blanc could marshal an inadequate defence.

As this becomes more obvious, Ferguson hears the jackals closing in. People conveniently forget that he has long since proved himself one of the great football managers, not only with United but at Aberdeen, where he successfully took on the dominance of Celtic and Rangers. They see only his foibles, his intimidating presence.

Without those foibles, would Ferguson have achieved so much? I doubt it. And, of course, he is not the first to hear a grinding of sharp teeth at the first hint of weakening.

When Stan Cullis was the all- powerful master of Wolverhampton Wanderers, players and reporters alike walked in fear of him. A summons to Cullis's office at Molineux jellied the strongest legs. A waning of Cullis's health and strength made heroes out of cowards.

To paraphrase Norman, frankly I think it would be fun to see Ferguson turn things around. Not for the sake of Manchester United but to see him earn the opportunity of saying: "I've been here all along. Where were you?"

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