Fergie relishes return of 'fantastic' Rio

United on tour: Fighting talk from manager reinvigorated by new signings, fledgling talents and an absent star
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There is a full fortnight until Manchester United's opening Premiership game at Chelsea - of all places - but do not try telling the players and management as they stagger red-eyed off the charter plane home from the United States today that their season's work has not yet begun. Goodwill games in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Jersey are behind them (two players having flown 3,500 miles each way to take part in the last one), and ahead are spurious Vodafone Cup matches at Old Trafford on Tuesday and Thursday, the once prestigious Community (Charity) Shield tussle with the League champions in Cardiff next Sunday, and a Champions' League qualifier at either Dinamo Bucharest or Slovakia's MSK Zilina three days after that. Oh, and then the Premiership begins with a gentle opener at Stamford Bridge, after which international players disappear all over the world for midweek games.

There is a full fortnight until Manchester United's opening Premiership game at Chelsea - of all places - but do not try telling the players and management as they stagger red-eyed off the charter plane home from the United States today that their season's work has not yet begun. Goodwill games in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Jersey are behind them (two players having flown 3,500 miles each way to take part in the last one), and ahead are spurious Vodafone Cup matches at Old Trafford on Tuesday and Thursday, the once prestigious Community (Charity) Shield tussle with the League champions in Cardiff next Sunday, and a Champions' League qualifier at either Dinamo Bucharest or Slovakia's MSK Zilina three days after that. Oh, and then the Premiership begins with a gentle opener at Stamford Bridge, after which international players disappear all over the world for midweek games.

Injuries are already biting and half a dozen of the squad are currently unavailable, including one of the club's two new signings, the Argentinian defender Gabriel Heinze. With Euro 2004 over for only a month, it was an unrecognisable team who played the first tour match, against Bayern Munich, which led to criticism from press and public. Defeat by Celtic followed in the one game United really wanted to win.

All in all, did it perhaps cross Sir Alex Ferguson's mind at 30,000 feet that he could by now have been enjoying a gentle and lucrative retirement on the racecourse, the golf course and the after-dinner circuit? If so, only fleetingly. And the first time he steps on to the training ground at Carrington this week, such thoughts will be contemptuously dismissed. It was 30 years ago this month that he set out on what would become a momentous path as a football manager with East Stirlingshire, but there is life in the 62-year-old grandfather yet. Enough life too to believe that the return of Rio Ferdinand in September and the back-up supplied by Alan Smith and Louis Saha to Ruud van Nistelroy will mean United will push unbeaten Arsenal and mega-rich Chelsea harder this season than last, and that a new generation of youngsters - several seen on this trip - can eventually replace the home-grown element in the squad as the Butts and Beckhams move on.

To test whether the fire and fervour are still there, get him going on any perceived injustice to his beloved club, such as Fifa's insistence that Heinze must go straight from the Copa America to the Olympic Games without passing Go or Old Trafford, but collecting a lot more than £200 of United's money along the way: "We don't get him until 13 September. So we've paid his wages from 1 July until 13 September without him actually taking part in a training session. It's crazy, you know. A guy from Fifa has come out and asked what were we bleating about, we knew about the [Olympic] competition. But we didn't know about Heinze playing. He got called up at the last bloody minute. He wasn't even a full international until the summer."

Ferguson sees the Argentinian, "robust, powerful, doesn't panic", as a left-back, which opens up the possibility of John O'Shea moving to central midfield. By autumn the defence should certainly have a more solid look, once Heinze is bedded in and Ferdinand returns from his eight-month suspension for failing to take a drugs test. The manager believes that if his centre-half had not opted to begin his suspension voluntarily in January, United would have held on to their lead in the Premiership significantly longer. The only consolation in the whole sad saga is that Ferdinand has impressed the people who matter at the club even more with his subsequent demeanour: "We were top of the League, four points clear of Arsenal, best defensive record in the League. That moment when he walked off the field at Wolves our season turned.

"I've never been more impressed with Rio than in these last eight months. From the minute he's been suspended he's seemed to have put the whole affair out of his mind and really concentrated on only one thing - proving himself. He's been an absolutely phenomenal trainer. In the eight months he's missed about four sessions. He's never once asked for a day off.

"The thing is that before the ban he was improving all the time anyway. Walter Smith said to me when he came [as assistant manager] that he couldn't believe how good a player he is. It's only when you see somebody at close quarters that you appreciate what they are as a footballer. Walter was amazed by Rio's technique for a defender, his ability to take the ball in tight areas, the way he passes forward, running out with the ball, things like that. As a young player he always had a reputation, sometimes port- rayed as casualness in terms of his character. But if you really know him, you know the real person. You see the development of the player now, it's fantastic. I'll be delighted to have him back."

It sounds like the sort of bargain, at £30m, that would encourage a manager to offer a similar sum to an impoverished club for their star teenaged striker, if he had just made a huge impression at the European Championship. Question: The Rooney issue keeps coming up, Alex. Is your spending over for the summer? A mischievous smile, then: "Well, you never know. You never know who you'll bump into walking down a busy street. But I'm not going into that."

He has watched the market all summer with an interested eye, above all Senhor Mourinho's investments, and is not averse to keeping the pressure on the man who ended United's Champions' League hopes in March: "Oof, the kite's up there and it cannae come down, you know. But it makes it interesting. Especially interesting for the opening day of the season, when we're up against them."

In fact, red-eyed or not today, the old boy seems to be quite looking forward to the prospect.

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