Alex Ferguson refuses to count candles but can wrap up Premier League title
Birthday boy resists any complacency yet history suggests Manchester United already have unassailable lead
This is a morning for statistics at Manchester United. It is their manager's 71st birthday – an age Sir Alex Ferguson once vowed would see him retired – and they go into the new year with the kind of lead no club in the history of the Premier League has ever tossed away.
Bigger post-new year leads have been squandered – on Easter Sunday, United were eight points ahead of Manchester City with six games remaining while Newcastle were famously 12 points clear of United in 1996.
However, the fact remains that since three points for a win was introduced only one club, Arsenal in 1986-87, has reached the new year with as big a lead as United's and failed to be champions by May. George Graham's side were seven points ahead of Everton, the eventual champions, the exact advantage Ferguson now holds over City, following Saturday's 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion. Everton, however, had a game in hand. City do not.
Ferguson was, naturally, in no mood for premature celebrations. "It is important that we do not sit at the top of the table admiring our position," he said. "We would soon get a rude awakening. Congratulating ourselves on our Premier League lead doesn't mean a thing to me, it's winning the next game that counts." The next game is at Wigan, where in April, United began the slide that saw the title fall from their grasp.
This time, Ferguson plans to run few risks at the DW Stadium. His biggest players, Robin van Persie, Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Javier Hernandez were all rested on Saturday, although he was forced to call upon Van Persie when Albion's resistance became too dogged for comfort.
There are some at Old Trafford who sense that 2013, the 30th anniversary of perhaps his greatest triumph – taking Aberdeen past Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners' Cup – will be his last year in management. Only Ferguson knows and his self-imposed deadlines have been famously elastic.
After changing his mind about retirement in 2002, he announced a couple of years later that, unlike Sir Bobby Robson, he would not be managing a Premier League club at 70.
However, if as seems likely Jose Mourinho, David Moyes and Pep Guardiola are all out of contract in the summer, somebody at Old Trafford might have to gently tap him on the shoulder. That someone might have to take a very stiff drink first.
Ferguson is dismissive about talk of his age. He absolutely refused to discuss what it meant to be 70 this time last year and in the two volumes of diaries he kept in the 1990s, he refers directly to his birthday in neither. However, it says something about his longevity that he said he first got to know his opposite number on Saturday, Steve Clarke, "when he was a boy at St Mirren" – the one club where Ferguson tasted failure in management.
"I don't know if I would last until I was 71," said the Albion manager, who is a mere 49. "It would be great to think there would be someone like that in the future, someone who had that longevity. But the way the game has gone, everything is more short term now and it will be really difficult, if not impossible, to match his achievements and build a dynasty as he has done."
With Ferguson raging at referees into his seventies and slapping down men like the Newcastle manager Alan Pardew for displaying insufficient respect, he will never, like Robson, become a national treasure. However, that, to Clarke, is part of his fascination.
"I have met a few grumpy 70-year-olds and he is a typical grumpy Scot," said Clarke who was born at Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast. "He likes to go chasing.
"He hasn't lost his hunger or desire. I worked with Sir Bobby at a similar age and he was the same, if maybe not quite so aggressive, but with that same will to win."
NEW YEAR BLUES: CLUBS THAT LED AND LOST
* Arsenal 1987 Unbeaten at Highbury, and seven points clear, Arsenal became embroiled in a League Cup semi-final with Spurs that required three matches, and slipped to fifth by the time they lifted the trophy.
* Newcastle 1996 Everyone remembers the 12-point lead but that came later. They were four clear on New Year's Day – and when United lost 4-1 at Tottenham the gap was seven.
* Man United 1998 Five points clear of Arsenal but, with Roy Keane injured and Eric Cantona retired, United had no answer to 10 straight wins by Arsène Wenger's side.
* Man United 2004 It seems odd to imagine Wenger's "Invincibles" were not leading at midway. In fact, United were four points ahead of Arsenal, having drawn one to Arsenal's six.
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