What began as a casual reply slowly gravitated up through the scales of indignation, to a conclusion which revealed that Sir Alex Ferguson is all too aware that the sacrifice of a Premier League title by losing to Chelsea tomorrow would represent a capitulation of Devon Loch proportions.
It was not so much what he said but how much, when asked yesterday whether being known for all time as "the team that lost a 15-point lead" was in his players' minds, ahead of another season-defining match with Carlo Ancelotti's team. "I don't know how many points we were in front of Chelsea at any given time. It doesn't matter," Ferguson said, holding his questioner's eye. (It was actually 15 before United's defeat at Stamford Bridge on 1 March.)
"Where we are today is exactly where we are. It doesn't matter what happened last Sunday, four Sundays ago, four months ago, four years ago, we are where we are. We have three games left, three points ahead, same goal difference, playing at home, two home games and one away. That's where are. Nothing can change it."
Ferguson protested a little too much and in the Kevin Keegan household this weekend, there will surely be a sense of satisfaction that the Manchester United manager, who drove Keegan to don those studio headphones 15 years ago as United reeled in Newcastle's 12-point advantage, may be finding the boot on the other foot.
Ferguson, who said that Wayne Rooney "was OK" but did not offer a convincing sense that he would be fit to face Ancelotti's side tomorrow, did admit to some fear – about another of those Chelsea match controversies besetting this potential title decider. "That's definitely our big fear to be honest with you," Ferguson said, before breaking the Football Association rule about commenting on the choice of officials ahead of a game, when he described Howard Webb as "definitely the best referee in the country". Ferguson added that "we hope it's our turn for a little bit of luck" in the officiating department, though close analysis of the major decisions involving United this season actually reveals that nine have gone with them and six against.
The Premier League has taken all possible steps to ensure that football, rather than officials, dictates the outcome of a fixture which United lost last season after Didier Drogba's goal was incorrectly adjudged onside. Webb's favoured assistants, Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey, have only worked together twice since the World Cup final in Johannesburg because of the Football Association's desire to have the best officials spread around But the three are reunited tomorrow, just as they were in United's potentially combustible FA Cup tie at home to Liverpool on 9 January. Kenny Dalglish called Webb's decision to award a second-minute penalty for Daniel Agger's challenge on Dimitar Berbatov "a joke" but Webb did call it right.
United go equipped with the satisfaction of having beaten Chelsea home and away in the Champions League semi-final and the knowledge that a win means they are as good as champions. "We won't be going for a draw. Everyone knows that," Ferguson insisted. "Chelsea know that. Our fans know that. Everyone sitting in here knows that. There's no point in discussing draws." That mild indignation surfaced again. It was another sign that he feels United should not be in this position.
Yet the United manager feels he can afford to contemplate what a record 19th title would mean to a club who had accomplished only seven when he arrived, 24 years ago. "You don't [envisage it]," he said. "The aim was to be successful themselves. That was the target. Once we won [the title] the club took off. I couldn't envisage being here that long anyway. It's an exceptional period of time. You don't think at that moment the number of titles we have won. Getting the first was the target. I got it and since then the club has taken off."
United's Rub Of The Green
Decisions against United:
*Lee Bowyer's equaliser at Birmingham came after a push.
*Jamie Carragher was not sent off for a bad tackle on Nani at Anfield.
*No penalty at Newcastle after Danny Simpson tripped Javier Hernandez.
And those in their favour:
*Gary Neville not sent off at Stoke.
*Nani allowed to score after a hand-ball and confusion against Spurs.
*Neville not sent off at West Bromwich for a professional foul.
*Nemanja Vidic not sent off for a professional foul at West Ham.
*Wayne Rooney unpunished for elbowing Wigan's James McCarthy.
*No penalty after Evra fouls Ramires.
*Vidic not sent off against Arsenal for handball (which would have ruled him out tomorrow) and no penalty given
- More about:
- Didier Drogba
- French Football
- Javier Hernandez
- Juande Ramos
- Premier League
- Sir Alex Ferguson