Presumably because it would be bad for his image, Ferguson is not as esteemed as highly for his intellectual qualities as for his growling temper and demanding standards. There are hundreds of coaches who growl; growling has not made Ferguson a great manager. There are hundreds of coaches who are disciplinarians and physical fitness fanatics and they are pale imitations of him. Where Ferguson has beaten most of them is in the brains department.
Ferguson's legendary temper, erupting from that ruddy face, has been an instrument that communicated fear, frustration, passion. Thus he became the big daddy and the players his children whose only desire was to please him - and shut him up.
What of Ferguson now? When last week's humiliation at Middlesbrough was followed by a Champions' League loss to Lille in Paris on Wednesday night, the only word to describe Manchester United's performance was "feeble", a word that would have been unthinkable when they were laying waste to the opposition in England and Europe.
Until recently, Ferguson has seldom been exposed to the public in a vulnerable position, where he wasn't in complete command. But times change.
In management, when he is unlikely to possess the energy or the desire of his great days, Ferguson's first duty is to save himself. Because without his leadership, United would be left with the problem of transition that could prove as prolonged and painful as that which followed the end of Sir Matt Busby's reign at Old Trafford. The feeling held here is that Roy Keane wasn't entitled to rip publicly into team-mates whose performances of late have been lacking in determination and pride. It is not his responsibility. But it was clear that his criticism won the favour of United fans who chanted his name in Paris. Playing with their old gusto, United would have made short work of a moderate Lille team, but where there was certainty there is now confusion.
Coaches try every device imaginable, and some unimaginable, to stoke hotter and hotter fires in their players. They believe that the only way to get professionals to practice and play at a proper level of intensity is to bang a drum loudly and constantly. But where is the pride in an athlete who needs that sort of stimulation? And the character? The only sure way to get a footballer to perform at or near his peak is to surround him with good players and a good coach and a good organisation that will pay him well for his trouble.
The Manchester United players who felt the hot breath of Keane's wrath included Rio Ferdinand who is said to earn in excess of £100,000 a week. Where is his pride in performance? As one toiler in this vineyard put it this week, "Manchester United are marching to a different drummer." Again, then, how much of the blame for United's dismal performances rests with the policies favoured by Queiroz? If injuries to key players - both full- backs, Gary Neville and Gabriel Heinze have been missing along with Ryan Giggs - have unsettled United, there seems to be a general air of dissatisfaction with the system being employed. Against Lille it brought only two genuine attempts on goal.
Looking back, people remember the rip-roaring style Ferguson promoted, the deadliness of United's counter-attacks, rampaging wingers, clinical finishing. The game changes with the times but not enough to make United's old style obsolete. In this team, however, it appears that most players are so preoccupied with themselves and their fears that they really have no conception of the big picture of the team or the game.
"The medium," said the philosopher Marshall McLuhan, "is the message." And sometimes the message that filters through the medium of television is all too clear. Last Wednesday night was such a time. It was that United have lost their way, trying unsuccessfully to shape a team fitted for both the Premiership and the Champions' League and lacking in some positions. Ferguson had called for a revival of the old cavalier spirit yet the tactics, presumably influenced by Queiroz, remained sterile.
Chelsea's domination of the Premiership has concentrated Ferguson's thoughts on emulating Liverpool's improbable feat of conquering Europe after an indifferent League season. Wednesday's defeat has put that in jeopardy. And Manchester United in crisis.Reuse content