Favourites but no certainties

The champions remain formidable, but also fallible - if United's rivals are good enough to take advantage
Click to follow
The Independent Football

There is something about a beard that bestows on its wearer an air of authority. Unfortunately, white beards do not quite lend the same effect. It's hard to be taken seriously when you bear a passing resemblance to Captain Birds Eye or Uncle Albert in Only Fools and Horses. Which is perhaps why Ken Bates, bristling with irreverent opinion, occasionally gives the impression that, as the self-styled sage of Stamford Bridge, he has undergone a partial credibility by-pass.

There is something about a beard that bestows on its wearer an air of authority. Unfortunately, white beards do not quite lend the same effect. It's hard to be taken seriously when you bear a passing resemblance to Captain Birds Eye or Uncle Albert in Only Fools and Horses. Which is perhaps why Ken Bates, bristling with irreverent opinion, occasionally gives the impression that, as the self-styled sage of Stamford Bridge, he has undergone a partial credibility by-pass.

Yet, as a wind-up expert, the Chelsea chairman possesses more knowledge than the average Swiss watchmaker. For a man who is frequently contemptuous of the media, he has a politician's instinct for manipulating it to his own, and his club's, advantage.

His pre-Charity Shield suggestion that "it will be good for English football if Manchester United win nothing this season" was such a case in point as he threw a large cauldron of oil on the fires initially ignited by Sir Alex Ferguson. (The Manchester United manager compared Bates to Chairman Mao in his recently updated autobiography, Managing My Life, which, in view of his criticism of others, including Arsÿne Wenger, maybe should have been retitled, Last of the Summer Whine.) Yet, while the observation could easily be dismissed as a typical piece of Bates' mischief, it is a relevant question to consider, together with the obvious addendum - how, precisely, do you actually prevent Manchester United winning something, if not everything? - as Ferguson's men prepare for their opening Premiership contest at home to Newcastle this afternoon.

Six titles in the eight seasons since the Premiership began - last season, lest we forget, their advantage was 18 points and their goal tally in the League was 97 - is, frankly, verging on the gluttonous. We may all admire, albeit in some quarters begrudgingly, Ferguson's ability to nurture the exceptional players who have emerged from their youth set-up. But there must be room for other guests on the top table, otherwise the banquet becomes a somewhat tedious affair, as we have witnessed in Scotland. At least there it is a table for two. Without hope, without dreams, the game at this rarified level will lose its unique magnetism.

Admittedly, although Liverpool enjoyed a similar pre-eminence in the old First Division, their supremacy was always considered to be assailable, even by Derby County. Fallibility, however, is a word that you do not readily associate with United, hence their championship odds of 4-5. Even when they were runners-up, to Blackburn and Arsenal, they could point to the absence for much of those seasons of the dynamic influence of, respectively, Eric Cantona and Roy Keane.

This season, if there are any favourable portents for the faithful of Bates' Chelsea, as well as Liverpool, Leeds and Arsenal to grasp optimistically, they lie in United's rearguard which is far from impregnable. Indeed, the fact that Ferguson's team conceded 45 League goals last season, more than any other top-six side, bodes well for rivals. Ferguson's close-season interest in Internazionale's Laurent Blanc, even though the Frenchman is approaching 35, and Tottenham's Sol Campbell, as potential partners for the admirable Jaap Stam confirms that the manager is dissatisfied with the strength in depth at the heart of his defence. Although the dependable Norwegian Ronny Johnsen has returned from a long-term injury, together with the gifted, but still relatively inexperienced, once England-capped defender Wes Brown, United look susceptible to the swift counter-thrust. That impression is not helped by the stylish, but error-prone, Frenchman Mikaël Silvestre. The same remark could be applied to Gary Neville. How Neville's brother Phil will emerge, in terms of confidence, from Charleroi and that late penalty he conceded against Romania, remains to be seen.

United's season, however, could hinge principally on the authority in the area, or otherwise, of Ferguson's only summer acquisition, the keeper Fabien Barthez. During Sunday's Charity Shield the enigmatic Frenchman was already attempting to emulate his most illustrious recent predecessor Peter Schmeichel by issuing severe chastisements to his defenders. At £7.8m and with a pedigree which boasts World Cup and European Championship medals he ought to be the answer to Ferguson's wishes, following false starts with Mark Bosnich and Massimo Taibi. He is acrobatic and his positioning is sound, but he is guilty of the odd aberration, evident when he conceded that unnecessary penalty against Spain in Euro 2000, and one suspects that it will require time before he forges an intuitive relationship with his defenders.

In midfield, United can continue to call on arguably the best quartet in England, in David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, whose diverse talents combine admirably. Even when they are not available, there are performers like the everimproving South African Quinton Fortune, who scored three goals from 12 appearances, including six as substitute, last season, pursuing a place.

Ferguson admits that his greatest dilemma before each match concerns his forwards. Who does he select from Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer? It remains the kind of problem every manager would like.

Ostensibly, apart from talent, the advantage that Ferguson holds over every other challenger is the continuity in his squad, which maintains an all-important spirit. "Stability is key for us," he said this week. "Unlike a big European club we keep the same players. Lazio, for instance, operate on a five-in, four-out policy during the summer. We have players who know each other." In truth, that can be a double-edged sword. All players, whatever their professed commitment to the cause, respond to the competition of incoming players. For that reason alone, it is somewhat surprising that United have not explored the transfer market more productively.

Last season, when Ferguson's purchases were also limited, he was proved correct in depending on his existing resources. However, this season, two of United's rivals, namely Chelsea and Liverpool, have been significantly strengthened and you suspect the examination for the champions will be considerably sterner.

The spoils of the Premiership, as we have observed before when Kevin Keegan lost it, in both senses of the expression, when manager of Newcastle, will go to the victor who possesses not only the greatest quality, but also the strength to do combat in psychological warfare. If there is another fissure in that Old Trafford bastion of excellence it is the United players' failure at times to control their emotions. It would be surprising if opponents did not attempt to exploit that.

Keane demonstrated that all too vividly in the Charity Shield with his dismissal, and Beckham might have received a red card if Wednesday's derby against Manchester City had been a League game and not a testimonial for Denis Irwin. In that respect, and particularly with the new laws on the harassment of officials in force, Ferguson will have to impress on his players the necessity to maintain a stoic indifference to provocation. Significantly, after last season's meeting between the Uniteds, Manchester and Newcastle, Alan Shearer indicated that the way to defeat Ferguson's men was to kick and intimidate them. However, Ferguson retorted: "I think that United players are always a target. It's part of the baggage you carry, being a member of a successful team." He added: "We're only interested in winning by playing attractive football. Anyway, people are expecting a toughening-up from the powers-that-be. You'd expect referees to clamp down on that kind of thing this season."

Even the FA, though, cannot prevent attempted playing of mind-games by managers and chairmen. Ferguson can expect himself to become increasingly a target. Bates' post-Charity Shield prank at Wembley, in attempting to present the United manager with a medal bearing the inscription "Lord Fergie, the best thing since sliced bread", was hardly a contender for great comedy moment of our times. It was the adult equivalent of flicking jelly and cream at the boy next door at the children's party and thumbing his nose.

Yet his gesture, huffily rebuffed by Ferguson, will be remembered long after Keane's dismissal. In doing so, Bates probably made himself one of the most popular chairmen in the country by attempting, and in part succeeding, to penetrate that armadillo-like Glasgow hide. The chairman who succeeds in denying Ferguson's team a third successive championship will receive even greater thanks... from the remainder of the Premiership.

Comments