Business as usual as Ferguson takes pacemaker in his stride

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson was wearing the same fawn sweater he sported in December when he told journalists he had been treated for an irregular heartbeat. Much else, however, had changed.

Then, Manchester United were about to seal their place at the top of their Champions' League group with an emphatic victory over Stuttgart and were comfortably placed in the Premiership. Now, the European Cup has gone, the gap with Arsenal might be a dozen points by tonight and Ferguson has a pacemaker fitted into his heart.

Outwardly, the Manchester United manager was bullish. He had chosen to reveal the news to spike the guns of a tabloid newspaper which had received leaked details of last week's operation at a Cheshire hospital. The board were supportive and the club's chief executive, David Gill, had been kept fully informed.

"This was an option for me from when I went in for an operation last December about my irregular heartbeat," he said. "The advice I got was that I should get it done because it is simple, easy and controllable. It would not affect my job. There are no long-term concerns and a million and a half people have got them anyway. I must say, I feel much better."

Ferguson's heart complaint is nothing like as serious as the hours of life-saving surgery endured by Gérard Houllier in October 2001 or the triple by-pass operation undergone by another Liverpool manager, Graeme Souness, a dozen years ago. Bobby Robson was told that he had cancer of the face and should never work again. That was in August 1995, since when the indefatigable Robson has managed four leading clubs. Houllier was away from Anfield for five months, Souness did not properly return for four. Ferguson will oversee the Manchester derby tomorrow.

However, although Robson joked he could conceive no better way to go, the image of Jock Stein, a man Ferguson had loved deeply as a mentor, collapsing on the touchline at Ninian Park beside him will never quite go away.

In December 2001, the Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce, and his then counterpart at Leicester, Dave Bassett, agreed to wire themselves to heart monitors to measure levels of stress during a Premiership game. In the first 20 minutes at the Reebok Stadium, Bolton were reduced to nine men and fell two goals behind, when Allardyce's heart was racing at 160 beats per minute, four times his usual resting rate. When Bolton recovered to equalise, Bassett's heart began beating irregularly and his blood pressure rose to unacceptable levels.

John Barnwell, chairman of the League Managers' Association, who endured enough strain when he ran Wolverhampton a quarter of a century ago, remarked: "What has escalated in football management is the intensity of the job, which has become claustrophobic. It is with you seven days a week and there are dangers in that because managers are so consumed with their work they don't look after themselves."

As he prepares for one of the most emotive fixtures in his calendar, the Manchester derby, Ferguson's future seems hemmed in to a degree that would have seemed unthinkable when he lifted his eighth Premiership trophy at Goodison Park in May.

Until the arrival of Walter Smith at the beginning of the month, this was the last occasion on which he had an assistant to share some of the burdens, both intellectual and physical, of managing one of the two highest-profile clubs in the world. Someone like Jaap Stam could not conceive how Ferguson could begin to run training sessions unaided.

He was, he said, on his mobile more and had less time to himself than any man he had met. This season the Rio Ferdinand affair and the ludicrously ill-advised legal campaign against John Magnier, both to an extent self-inflicted wounds, have drained his time and energy still further.

Yesterday, he was at United's training ground at Carrington, defending the club he built up from accusations of decline while ensuring he has 11 fit footballers to take to the City of Manchester Stadium tomorrow.

"Every year when we lose a series of games the stories of empires crumbling appear," he said. "That's part of being Manchester United but we've all enjoyed those expectations in the past when we've met them."

He did not take the comfortable option and argue that this might have been expected to be a difficult season given the number of new, often very raw, players bought to replace David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron. "Is this is a season of transition? Not at all," he said. "We are always looking ahead, that was part of the plan last year. We want a team that is going to be there for a few years, rather than for just one more. We still have players with good experience and character. But I think it was a critical moment when Rio Ferdinand took his suspension."

Ferguson has published two volumes of diaries - a third, The Final Furlong, was scrapped when he decided to take his family's advice and postpone his retirement two years ago. This was a pity since they remain one of the finest insights into what managing a big Premiership club is like.

If you select a week at random from one of them, say March 1997, you have a taste of Ferguson's schedule. Monday, he speaks at the North Wales and Chester branch of the Manchester United membership club. Tuesday, he deals with the Crown Prosecution Service over racist remarks allegedly made to Ian Wright by Peter Schmeichel. Wednesday he drives to Hillsborough to watch Sheffield Wednesday play Sunderland. Thursday, he takes his wife, Cathy, to Cheltenham to celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary. Friday, he takes the 7am train from London Euston to deal with pre-match press-conferences in Manchester. Saturday, United play Sheffield Wednesday. Sunday, Champions' League briefing. The weekend done, he flies to Oporto.

This is quite apart from his duties overseeing training and other club business. Then Ferguson was 55; now he is 62 and the greatest manager of his generation can no more turn back time than Canute could turn aside the waves.

Messages of support

I can feel for Sir Alex. I know with the job there is so much pressure and you can have heart problems. A pacemaker is not a major deal any more and he knows that. That is why he has reassured his fans. He said he can do the job as normal and I believe that is right ... I am obviously supportive of him, because he was so supportive of me when I had my heart problems. I wish him good health and that he keeps doing his job. Gérard Houllier, the manager of Liverpool

While I don't wish him any luck in a footballing sense on Sunday, in life I hope whatever he has to do, he enjoys the best of health because I like him a lot. Kevin Keegan, Manchester City's manager

I think Alex is too old to change, whether he has two or three pacemakers ... I don't think there is any more stress in league management than in any other job in most walks of life. The difference is how you cope with the pressure of public criticism, the letters, the chairman and certain sections of the media. David Pleat, Tottenham Hotspur's director of football

I would think that the modern technology would see Sir Alex going on for another 10 years in management if he wanted to - or even longer Alex McLeish, manager of Rangers