Bad luck cannot conceal truth of United's decline

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The Independent Football

The nagging suspicion that Old Trafford will this season bear witness to the end of an era hardened as Manchester United slipped out of the European arena on Tuesday night. Notwithstanding the lateness of Porto's winner, the linesman's error which denied United a two-goal advantage, and the prospect of FA Cup success, there is clear evidence of decline.

The nagging suspicion that Old Trafford will this season bear witness to the end of an era hardened as Manchester United slipped out of the European arena on Tuesday night. Notwithstanding the lateness of Porto's winner, the linesman's error which denied United a two-goal advantage, and the prospect of FA Cup success, there is clear evidence of decline.

It is not just that United's play lacks the swagger of old. Porto were manifestly the better side over two legs and United's equal on Tuesday. Yet they are not of Europe's first rank and are unlikely to reach the Champions' League final.

It might seem premature to write off a club which continues to generate a greater income than any in the world, which contains players central to the national teams of England, France and the Netherlands, and is overseen by one of the game's most successful managers. But in football, as in life, empires are rarely as solid as they appear. United fans have only to look down the East Lancs Road to see that.

When Liverpool lifted the title in 1990 it was their 10th championship in 15 years. Only once in 18 seasons had they finished lower than second, and that was in 1981 when they may have been distracted by winning one of four European Cups they claimed in this period. The thought then, that in 2004 Liverpool would still be waiting for another title, and only twice finished in the top two in the interim, would have been inconceivable.

The seeds of Liverpool's decline were sown at Heysel and Hillsborough. The former tragedy robbed the club of European competition, with its income and allure, the latter inflicted on Merseyside the suffering felt in Turin. Both incidents dented the club's self-confidence and imposed a huge strain on individuals. Two years later the toll became apparent when Kenny Dalglish walked away for the sake of his health. Liverpool were thrown into turmoil and have not won the championship since.

United have not been involved in such seminal events, their decline is the stuff of Greek, rather than actual tragedy. The central figure is Ferguson. It is a staple of classical drama that a person's strength becomes their weakness. Just as United's rise has been driven by his indomitable will so might their fall be precipitated by his bloodymindedness.

With the departure of Martin Edwards, who for all his faults was prepared to stand up to the manager, Ferguson utterly dominates Old Trafford and absolute power has not become him. The once approachable Scot has appeared increasingly arrogant and his belief that the world is against him borders on the paranoid. This has been evident in the selling of David Beckham, the dispute with John Magnier over Rock Of Gibralter, and the club's mis-handling of the Rio Ferdinand affair.

Each of these incidents have damaged United. Beckham, sold because of a personality clash rather than for footballing reasons, has been missed, both for his technical ability and his capacity to change games. The Magnier dispute occupied Ferguson's attention at a time when he needed to concentrate on his team and created uncertainty over the club's ownership and governance. The high-handed response to Ferdinand's failure to take a drug test was the biggest error. Had the club admitted he was at fault the case would have been considered earlier and, in all probability, a lighter sentence delivered. Ferdinand might even be playing before the end of the season.

Either way Ferdinand's absence has been as crucial as the loss of Eric Cantona through suspension in 1995 and Roy Keane with injury in 1998, both occasions in which United surrendered the title. Once again the squad was not strong enough, in personnel and mentality, to overcome the loss.

All of which begs the question why Ferguson failed to sign Gareth Southgate either in the summer or in the transfer window after Ferdinand was banned. Not that this is his only misjudgement in the market. Of his summer signings only Tim Howard has been a success although players from different cultures, such as Kleberson, often need a season to settle while it should be remembered Cristiano Ronaldo is still a teenager.

Ferguson has also been unfortunate with injuries, notably Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's as the Norwegian was inked in as Beckham's right-flank replacement while Ronaldo settled.

The latter's arrival showed Ferguson was aware that the team needed regenerating. By introducing players such as Ronaldo and Darren Fletcher he aimed to rebuild without suffering a transitional phase. Ferguson might have got away with it in the domestic game but for two external factors. Roman Abramovich's purchase of Chelsea means United are no longer the wealthiest club in Britain, the consequences of which were made clear when Arjen Robben went to Stamford Bridge. Meanwhile Arsenal have taken their football to a new level, one presently out of United's reach.

In Europe the signs of decline have been more obvious. Despite spending vast sums on Ruud van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and Ferdinand United have been unable to follow up the 1999 European Cup win. A lack of coaching support has been a factor. United's football has stagnated with Ferguson's failure to replace Carlos Quieroz, just as it did in 2002 after Steve McClaren left.

It remains a bold move to call time on Ferguson's United. As Gary Neville said: "We know people will say it's been a disastrous season for Manchester United. Suddenly we are a shambles but seven weeks ago we were clear in the Premiership and had the best defensive record in the League."

He added: "Rio Ferdinand's suspension is a factor but you should be able to cope with things like that. What you can't legislate for is losing so many players in the same position at the same time."

Neville, though, admitted the team lacked form and belief. He is convinced they will recapture both and, given a couple of judicious signings, and the return to fitness of key players, United could yet mount a last hurrah. In the long term, however, the sands of time are running down on the club's golden age.

THE SIGNINGS WHO HAVE YET TO DELIVER...

LOUIS SAHA

Age 25. Cost £12.8m from Fulham, January 2004. Barely two months into his United career it is far too early to pass judgement. And yet in the two Champions' League matches he played against Porto, Saha looked hopelessly lost, a worrying sign for one who cost more than Thierry Henry.

CRISTIANO RONALDO

Age 19. Cost £12.3m from Sporting Lisbon, August 2003. You cannot call a boy of 19 who possesses enormous promise a failure. Nevertheless, he was given the famous No 7 shirt and as yet he is not in the class of Best or Beckham. United paid double the amount offered by any other club.

KLEBERSON

Age 24. Cost £5.93m from Atletico Paranaese, July 2003. Sir Alex Ferguson boasted that he could afford to lose Seba Veron because in Kleberson he had his equal. Kleberson, left out against Porto, has suffered, as many do, from the transition between the English and South American games.

DAVID BELLION

Age 21. Cost £3m in a tribunal payment to Sunderland, July 2003. The Frenchman's pedigree was exceptional. However, his record in a Sunderland side that was the most ineffectual in last season's Premiership should have set alarm bells ringing. Twenty-four games, one goal.

ERIC DJEMBA-DJEMBA

Age 22. Cost £4.2m from Nantes, June 2003. He idolised Eric Cantona when growing up in Cameroon but, despite the first name, he has not made quite the same impact at Old Trafford. Porto was his first start for United since November and he proved no replacement for Roy Keane.

DIEGO FORLAN

Age 24. Cost £6.9m from Independiente, January 2002. Sadly, you don't get goals through hard work alone, otherwise the Uruguayan would be in Van Nistelrooy's class. He has scored three times in the Champions' League and they have each come against relatively minor clubs.

...AND THE PLAYERS WHO LEFT OR GOT AWAY

JUAN SEBASTIAN VERON

Age 29. Sold to Chelsea for £12.1m in July 2003. The Argentinian was supposed to be the final piece in United's transformation into a European style side but he rarely lived up to his billing. The board's need to reduce the wage bill meant they took a £16m loss on the fee they paid Lazio.

DAVID BECKHAM

Age 28. Sold to Real Madrid for £23m in June 2003. Perhaps his personality was never compatible with Ferguson's but he was still the best crosser of a ball and taker of a free-kick in Europe. Beckham is proving at the Bernabeu he can adapt to central midfield, a role Ferguson was reluctant to find for him.

RONALDINHO

Age 23. Sold to Barcelona for £21.25m by Paris St Germain. July 2003. The fact that the world's wealthiest club attempted to get Ronaldinho on the cheap was punished by the Brazilian's departure to Catalonia where he has inspired Barcelona's run of seven successive victories.

DAMIEN DUFF

Age 25. Sold to Chelsea for £17m by Blackburn, July 2003. The shy, talented Irishman should not have been too difficult a capture for Manchester United. Quite simply, Ferguson considered him overvalued, although Claudio Ranieri claimed Duff's passes have already set up 11 Chelsea goals.

ARJEN ROBBEN

Age 20. Sold to Chelsea for £12m by PSV Eindhoven, February 2004. Once more when it came to spending as big as they talked Manchester United failed to come up with the cash and one of the most talented young attacking midfielders in Europe went elsewhere.

GARETH SOUTHGATE

Age 33. Remained at Middlesbrough. Ferguson has been good to Steve McClaren. First he signed Forlan and then he did not buy Southgate who would have been an ideal stopgap centre-half to nurse a team through the hole left by Rio Ferdinand's suspension.

By Tim Rich

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