As a student of American politics, and an interviewee of David Frost, Sir Alex Ferguson will be aware of the killer line in the recent Frost/Nixon movie. Pressed on his role in Watergate, Richard Nixon utters his self-serving justification that reveals his megalomania: "When the President does it, that means it's not illegal."
Let's take that theory and apply it to modern English football. How do we know when a Premier League manager is acting with arrogance and contempt? When Ferguson says he is, of course. Or, when Ferguson spots an innocuous gesture from Rafael Benitez, whom he happens to despise, towards Sam Allardyce, who has proved his unwavering acolyte. That is Ferguson's Nixon principle: it is because I say it is. And how could we be so stupid as to argue with him?
In applying the Ferguson/Nixon principle on arrogant behaviour between managers, suddenly things become a lot clearer. For instance, there was no arrogance involved when Ferguson picked Paul Scholes for a Premier League game against Middlesbrough in September 2002, having first withdrawn him from Sven Goran Eriksson's England squad. It was by no means humiliating for Eriksson to be sat in the Old Trafford stand when this took place.
Anyway, Ferguson was never contemptuous of Eriksson, especially not when he mimicked his Swedish accent and stock answers in a magazine interview in 2003. "He sails along, nobody falls out with him," Ferguson said of Eriksson at the time. "He comes out and he says: 'The first half we were good, second half we were not so good. I am very pleased with the result.'"
Arrogant and contemptuous attitudes were right off the menu when Ferguson's players and staff were aggressive, hostile, abusive and provocative in a confrontation with Chelsea's groundsmen last April. That was not my description but that of the Football Association independent commission that found overwhelmingly in Chelsea's favour in December over that incident. Presumably the QC in question, Nicholas Stewart, had not applied the Ferguson/Nixon principle. What the hell was he thinking?
It is a talent peculiar to men like Ferguson, to see things exclusively their own way. When Ferguson described Benitez's "game over" gesture against Blackburn Rovers on Friday, he said it was "beyond the pale", as if the Liverpool manager had sneakily executed a Nazi salute in Sam Allardyce's direction. At most, Benitez just looked like a harassed supply teacher trying to restore order.
Remarkably, Ferguson claims that he spotted Benitez's gesture towards Allardyce himself, which must have taken a lot of rewinding and pausing of his Sky+ as he scrutinised Benitez's conduct for something that could be considered controversial. Not since Mary Whitehouse has the television age known someone so easily offended.
The more obvious explanation is that Allardyce told Ferguson about it, largely because Allardyce is a very enthusiastic disciple. Other managers such as Mark Hughes, Steve Bruce, Roy Keane – even yesterday's opponent, David Moyes – have sought to put some distance between themselves and Ferguson. They are well aware that however chummy, if Ferguson wants something – your best player for instance – then it will be business as usual.
Perhaps the most laughable aspect of Ferguson's justification for his attack on Benitez: that Allardyce was undeserving of it because of his sound work for the League Managers' Association, as if that organisation was – at that very moment – endeavouring to solve Africa's poverty and bring peace to the Middle East. Perhaps with Big Sam in the vanguard, uniting warring factions through lectures on ProZone stats and the necessity of having a club nutritionist.
The LMA doubtless does much good work, but membership of it does not alone necessarily confer righteousness. It has, like any professional organisation, its own self-interest. The great irony is that the serving England manager is given the honorary title of LMA president and when all the backslapping is done, that same LMA president has to fight against the LMA's leading members withdrawing their players for international friendlies.
It is not impossible to discern why a foreign manager such as Benitez feels an element of distrust towards the LMA, especially when it is used against him by Ferguson in arguments such as the one the United manager ignited on Friday. Ferguson may have a polite tradition of writing to every new young manager who joins the profession, but that avuncular style is not exclusive to him. In the only interview he has given since leaving Sunderland, Keane singled out Benitez as a manager who had been generous with his time.
Contempt, arrogance – these are every manager's stock in trade when the moment requires it. When Ferguson refused to shake the hand of Claude Puel after United's defeat to Lille in the Champions League in 2005, the French manager might well have regarded that as arrogant. Ferguson's dismissal of Manchester City this season – "still lingering in mid-table" – was not dissimilar to Benitez's "small club" jibe at Everton.
What Ferguson is attempting to do is to isolate Benitez because he clearly senses a hardening of feeling towards the Spaniard among his managerial cronies. It also suits him to do so as the season reaches its conclusion with Liverpool still very much in the running.
It is all the familiar mind games, the usual nonsense. But let's be clear about one thing: giving Big Sam a bit of stick does not make Benitez arrogant. Even if Ferguson proclaims it so.
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