Fergie: I'll be back next season

As United manager endures turbulent end to season, Liverpool claim third place to hint at a power swing
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The Independent Football

If Sir Alex Ferguson wanted his team to do the talking, for once his side lost its voice at White Hart Lane yesterday. The fans were in full cry in his support, but the fact that the players barely broke into a jog in their manager's hour of need confirmed the prevailing sense of unrest on Millionaires' Row.

If Sir Alex Ferguson wanted his team to do the talking, for once his side lost its voice at White Hart Lane yesterday. The fans were in full cry in his support, but the fact that the players barely broke into a jog in their manager's hour of need confirmed the prevailing sense of unrest on Millionaires' Row.

A 3-1 defeat to Tottenham, United's traditional whipping boys, was not quite the gesture of solidarity the former shipyard trades union spokesman was expecting. The smart money ­ and the bookmakers refuse to take any more of it ­ suggests that Ferguson will not be in charge for the start of next season.

If that is so, and truth is a commodity not much merchandised around Old Trafford, then the matching bookends of Ferguson's 15-year career barely reflect the success that has come between. In November 1986, in his first match in charge, Ferguson sat through a 2-0 defeat at Oxford United which confirmed his worst fears about the dilapidated state of the club he had just joined. Only time will tell whether defeat by Tottenham, coming at the end of two months of rumbling discontent at Old Trafford, is a sign of a shift in the balance of power or a mere irrelevant blip in the steady upward drive towards world dominance.

Ferguson confirmed yesterday that he intended to honour his contract at Old Trafford to the end of the 2002 season and that he was looking forward to "regrouping" with his players and winning a fourth successive championship, which effectively ruled out speculation that he might take up the managerial role at Barcelona. "The players here are good enough, don't worry about that," he said. Nor, significantly, did the United manager rule out taking another job as manager when he walks out of Old Trafford for the last time.

"To be honest, I don't know what I'll be doing," he said. "I might take up painting. There's lots of things I can do. But I want to go out with my head held high. I'm not going to let all the stuff that goes on at every football club destroy what we've achieved. But I'd just like to clarify my position.

"I'd hoped there would be a role for me at Old Trafford, an ambassadorial role. But that's gone now. I'm finishing at the end of 2002, I've closed the door. Jason [Ferguson's son] has been speaking to Peter Kenyon [United's chief executive] for some months now. It's disappointing, but I made a statement about it because I wanted people to know that I'll be working next year."

For all their desultory recent form, United still won the Premiership title by a handsome 10 points. But Liverpool's quadruple ­ three cups and a place in the Champions' League qualifiers confirmed by a 4-0 victory at Charlton ­ has brought unexpected pressure to bear on United's hegemony and, by inference, on Ferguson's continued ability to motivate his side for an assault on the major domestic and European trophies in potentially his final season in charge.

The thought of Liverpool, the old enemy, breathing down his neck might well have triggered the demands for transfer funds which has led to the current breakdown in relations between Ferguson and his board. How much money would be left in the coffers to strengthen the squad is still the unanswered question. Ferguson had hoped that the £19m purchase of Ruud van Nistelrooy was the beginning, not the end, of his summer spending spree.

Ferguson's appearance in the directors' box yesterday prompted an immediate and telling response from the United fans gathered in the southern corner of White Hart Lane. The chant in support of their manager rolled on and on, each refrain a reminder to the United board that the propaganda war has already been lost on the streets. By half-time, the tone had become more assertive. "Fergie must stay," they sang, a message which the powerbrokers will ignore at their peril.

United plc v the most successful manager in the club's history ­ and a blue-collar affiliate ­ is a PR battle not even Max Clifford would win. Ferguson, though, did not remain upstairs for long. He has always been a man for the touchline, a commoner not a lord, for all his titles. For the second half, with United determined to end their season on an upbeat note on the field, if nowhere else, the United manager joined Steve McClaren, his assistant, on the bench. That made life easier for the posse of photographers who had been thwarted before the start. McClaren's potential move to West Ham as a replacement for Harry Redknapp has provided a neat sub-plot to the major theme. Only insiders would know whether the handling of the issue has been malicious or, as one suspects, blinkered and clumsy.

United have had long enough to contemplate the future and can draw on Sir Matt Busby's unhappy departure as a prime example of bungled planning. Ferguson, for his part, comes to the negotiating table with his son and agent, Jason, acutely aware of the humiliation which accompanied Jock Stein's final days as manager of Celtic. Offered the job as marketing manager ­ in those days, a menial job organising the matchday raffle ­ the Big Man gruffly declined and walked away. Ferguson's days as a union activist in the Govan shipyards has always shaped his view of industrial relations and he would certainly not be inclined to allow his future to be dictated by the money men who have been the object of his suspicion since boyhood.

"It's a matter of principle," Ferguson said after emerging from long talks with Peter Kenyon, United's chief executive. "But pride comes into it as well." McClaren is the more likely of the two to be leaving Old Trafford.

His credentials were given a glowing reference by his boss yesterday. "He's honest, he makes a decision, he doesn't curry favours, he's a terrific coach and he has good observational qualities. Steve's his own man and has to make up his own mind."

Match report, page 4

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