Early Friday morning and, as he descends from his office at Manchester United's Carrington training centre, clad in the club's former change strip of all black, ready for the training pitch, Sir Alex Ferguson bears a jovial countenance. He cannot resist quoting a Bernard Manning put-down he heard recently directed at an associate: "Eh, there's no way you'll live to look as old as you do now."
The United manager joins in the chuckles, but the laughter lines on those rubicund features do not fully disguise the overriding sense of trepidation as he prepares for Tuesday's Champions' League opening second-phase game against Bayern Munich.
Not that defeat by his old adversary, Ottmar Hitzfeld, a man who has been mooted as his possible successor at Old Trafford, would be greatly significant in the long term. Probably not, with 10 points likely to guarantee qualification to the knockout stage and Nantes and Boavista representing United's other rivals in Group A. But Ferguson needs a convincing victory, or at the very least a satisfactory draw, now that the shareholders and supporters are displaying evidence of revolt.
Admittedly, those followers of all but the élite will find it amusing that one shareholder, Keith Thorpe, at Thursday's annual meeting should refer to the club's displays over the last 12 months as "shocking", adding that fans might stay away if the slide continues.
It was language more appropriate to the fate over the last year of a Stockport County or a Halifax. Certainly, chief executive Peter Kenyon pours scorn on such utterances, assuring the AGM that "our will to win is no less now than it was 10 years ago".
Nevertheless, the depth of feeling within some quarters will not be exorcised by any number of declarations from executives. Never mind the seventh title in nine seasons back in May and reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions' League. Such vociferous critics are more concerned that United have lost 12 games in the last 29. Everything is relative, and three Premiership defeats already, before yesterday's game, and some dismal defending and goalkeeping in European fray, has left Ferguson and his team vulnerable to increasing condemnation.
Disconcertingly for the manager, Hitzfeld's Bayern appear to have acquired even more potency since securing last season's Champions' League. In qualifying comfortably, they scored 14 goals, more than any other team, and were undefeated, a feat achieved without having many of their best players.
Cynics might suggest that it may have something to do with them currently only fielding two German players (Thorsten Fink and Oliver Khan). Whatever the reason, Ferguson is impressed. "I've watched them quite a lot this season, and they've certainly improved from last year," he says. "I would think they're the strongest side in Europe at the moment. Real Madrid's form in the Champions' League has been fantastic, but they haven't married it with their league form the way that Bayern have done."
In contrast, Ferguson is candid about his side's fitful performances. "No, I don't think we're playing well at this moment," he concedes. "At least, we're not playing as well as we can. Some of the performances attacking-wise have been fantastic – the number of goals tells you that – but in our overall performance level, we're still trying to get there."
Many of United's woes can be attributed to the idiosyncratic goalkeeping of Fabien Barthez and his effect on the defence. Despite the overall quality of squad that he boasts, the sale of Jaap Stam has left the rearguard looking particularly fragile. Ferguson sees it slightly differently: "I don't want to make a big issue about it, but when you keep making individual mistakes it does erode a lot of the work that's been done. Many people tell me when we play them that our football is unbelievable. So, we've got to persevere with that element of our game and hopefully eradicate the silly things."
The supporters' sense of frustration has been exacerbated by the manner in which their team acquiesced so obligingly against Liverpool a fortnight ago. That sore has been left to fester, and Ferguson admits that, given the chance, he would have liked to play again the following day.
He stresses that it had not been an occasion for issuing the kind of reprimand that might sear the dressing-room walls. "I didn't need to say any words. They know, don't they?" he says quietly. "That was the one game that disappointed me. Manchester United should not be going into a game against Liverpool and being second best in terms of hunger and fighting ability. It's not generally a problem – but once is enough. One thing you have to remember, though, is that the motivation was strong for Liverpool to beat United because we're the best."
United will need to be on Tuesday. They will also need to rediscover the fortitude that left Bayern distressed and bemused in the 1999 final rather than suffer from similar failings that contributed to defeat both home and away in last season's quarter-finals. "We'll have to reach a performance level we showed against Olympiakos, or against Deportivo – if you take away the four minutes at the end," declares Ferguson. "That would be fine for me. I know we're capable of it. I've got the players to play on the big stage, no doubt about that."
Much depends on the participation of Roy Keane, who is expected to be fit enough following an injury just below the knee-cap. The Irishman played in the Republic's first- leg qualification game against Iran last Saturday, but did not travel for the return. Ferguson insisted that, had Ireland's cause been desperate, he would have allowed him to fly out to Tehran.
"We were praying that Ireland would get the result that would allow us to pull Roy out," says Ferguson, who agrees that Keane would have "probably" played in the second game if Ireland had not won the home leg, "though that would have depended on his knee, which was stiff anyway". However, Ferguson describes talk of an operation as "utter nonsense". He adds: "Roy's been getting treatment and responding to it. I'm pleased, because his presence on Tuesday will be vital."
So, too, will be that of David Beckham, who, having virtually carried England across the line on his back to ensure World Cup qualification, is on the short-list for Fifa's World Player of the Year award. Runner-up to Rivaldo in 1999, the England captain this time competes with the Real Madrid's Luis Figo and Raul. "I think his performance against Germany will have done that," reflects Beckham's manager. "That 5-1 win will have done enough to persuade the judges. I think it was a fantastic performance."
Whether that entitles him to be regarded as world-class remains to be seen. "Well, world-class players have got to do it on a world-class stage," says Ferguson, preferring to temper the tendency for over-adulation. "That's always been the case. But I think he's got the temper-ament for that. I think he enjoys the big games."
He might have added that another contribution of the same colossal proportions that Beckham gave for England against Greece and Germany will do his cause – and that of his manager – no harm whatsoever.Reuse content