Can Ferguson rally the troops one more time?

Despite his team's unusually poor showing last season, it is way too early to begin thinking of the Manchester United manager in the past tense
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The Independent Football

He finished the season a morose old warhorse, chivvied, exposed and - some said - no longer capable of reproducing the trick that made him the most successful manager in the history of English football. Sir Alex Ferguson, a mound of circumstantial evidence suggested, was through. He couldn't get his players to perform in the old way. He couldn't fire their appetite to win, something that had long separated them from their closest rivals.

He was time-expired and, to a degree, that would have been staggering 12 months earlier when his Manchester United wore down Arsenal for a title that seemed to have been lost, discredited. Was it true? And now, most pertinently as Jose Mourinho builds one player resource upon another at Stamford Bridge, and the genius of Arsène Wenger - facing a fresh challenge now with the departure of Viera - is called upon to produce another campaign that, domestically at least, invades both the mind and the heart, does it remain so?

We will know soon enough and it will not be a provisional verdict conditioned by Ferguson's cagey strategy to land Wayne Rooney. We will know, by the way his team performs quite as much as his demeanour, whether the flame that burned more fiercely than any other has been re-lit.

Friends report that by the look of him, and his prevailing mood, it may just be so. He took a month in Cape Ferrat on the Cote d'Azur - his usual point of rehabilitation from the ravages of the season. He played back the most dispiriting campaign he had endured since re-establishing United as the major force in English football. He sat on the terrace of the Riviera Hotel, expunging one by one in the balmy evening air the demons that had so progressively haunted him.

Regrets, yes, he had more than a few. The greatest, no doubt, was his involvement in the war with John Magnier and JP McManus that had to be abandoned in failure, with the terribly inhibiting sense that he had lost not just an argument, but also much of his game-winning face. Revelations about the extent of his agent son Jason's profits from dealing with United, made public via the Irish affray, did not deliver a terminal blow but were part of the growing sense of his new vulnerability - and the sense that a legend was being dismantled piece by piece. Arsenal's serene progress to the title, expulsion from the Champions' League by the prancing Jose Mourinho and the relentless marginalising of Roy Keane's influence on, and off, the field, simply added to the accumulation of gloom.

The Rio Ferdinand affair, everyone agreed, had been handled bullishly and misguidedly. Signings that happened - Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson - were virtually stillborn and the one that didn't - Ronaldinho - lit up Spain's La Liga with a football dimension that at Old Trafford might well have changed everything.

By the time the FA Cup - ironically a trophy he had done so much to diminish by agreeing to abandon its defence in favour of the shoddily ill-conceived World Club championship in Brazil - was in his hands, Ferguson was displaying the reactions of a thoroughly baited bear.

As far as he was concerned, the celebratory champagne might just as well have been hemlock. But then, maybe, came the healing, the recurring renewal of the spirit of an old football man.

He arrived at Royal Troon for The Open golf championship ready, it seemed, to face the world again. In the company of Sir Bobby Charlton, he watched Tiger Woods and Ernie Els close up on the practice tee. Tanned and relaxed, he looked a different man to the one who had snarled back at his interrogators in the bowels of the Millennium in Cardiff in May.

The wife of an old friend of Ferguson's, strolling the grounds of Royal Troon, reported the warmest of collisions. "I got a hug and a kiss from the manager," she reported. "It looked like the old Alex."

A hint of encouragement here, maybe, for followers who worry that maybe the great manager has lost not only his touch but his desire. But then kissing the wife of an old friend is one thing. Can Ferguson, two years after revoking his decision to walk away from the game, deliver the old Glasgow Kiss to the rest of English football?

There are some reasons to believe it could be a better than an even bet and to unearth them you don't have to go too far into the past. Undoubtedly a pattern has formed in the rivalry between United and Arsenal. You might describe it as the revolving appetite factor. Last season it was Wenger's men - widely written off as a team who had revealed critical competitive shortcomings in the run into a championship they had earlier appeared to have annexed, who came flying out of the gate - and it was United who allowed themselves to be embarrassed by the likes of Bolton and Wolves. Too simplistic? Ferguson knows better than most that the most decisive factor in a season has usually been staring you in the eye - and for quite some time.

Three years ago he first started questioning the resolve and the hunger of his team and then, when it seemed that emotionally and psychologically he was joined to Keane at the hip, his lieutenant weighed in with even heavier critical shots. Keane talked about a culture of luxury and complacency. David Beckham went not because Ferguson believed he could no longer play - though some of his performances for United had been dismayingly irresolute - but because the manager wanted to strip down Old Trafford until he reached back to the core of the team's meaning. That had always been to care a little more, and fight a little more, than any of their rivals.

It was those qualities which disappeared so shockingly last season. So why might it be different in the coming weeks? The squad has been augmented only by Alan Smith, Gabriel Heinze and Liam Miller, all players of quality but none of them likely to single-handedly change the mood and the horizons of the team. No, as Ferguson was suggesting while the team left for pre-season honing on a tour of America, the season will not be shaped in their favour so much by new blood but a stronger running of the old.

If you delve among the debris of last season's failure there is one conspicuous point of encouragement. It is that in head-to-head matches they held the edge over their tormentors Arsenal: two draws in the League, games in which United performed with much of their old vigour, and a victory of some authority in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. There was the sense that Cristiano Ronaldo and Darren Fletcher were coming on to their games, a belief that was dramatically confirmed by the former in his splendid showing in the European Championship when, along with Rooney, he announced himself a major player of the future.

In September Rio Ferdinand, surely a wiser young player much less forgetful of his responsibilities, returns with an appetite that should not be in question. Ferdinand's presence should radiate some of the old security in defence, where John O'Shea is obliged to hit again levels that dwindled, at times markedly, last season, and if Ryan Giggs is moving towards his last Old Trafford hurrah, he will want to make it as memorable as any he has enjoyed before. No doubt, he still has the means.

In the end the issue will be simple enough and will revolve around that first question: can Fergie do it once more with the old feeling. Can the weary, dishevelled warhorse find his stride again?

That, and the possibility that after a year in which to settle down, players like Kleberson, a World Cup winner after all, and Djemba-Djemba can begin to put some flesh on the reputations that preceded them to United, may well ultimately prove more influential than even the most dazzling intervention in the transfer market.

It is in his ability to inspire and motivate that Ferguson's greatest strength as a manager has always resided. He cannot claim Wenger's brilliance in the market, at a success and economy rate that still makes the speculation of Chelsea seem like some grotesque lurching in a sweet shop of questionable quality, but he can say that, season in, season out, no one has ever more effectively reminded football players of what they need to do to win.

Whether he can do it one more time, you have to believe, is not just part of his personal crisis. It is the key to the entire season.