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Premier League

Ferguson laments 'fragile' stars

Sir Alex Ferguson admits the toughest part of his job these days is dealing with today's "fragile" footballers.

The Manchester United manager has handled some of the game's hard men in his 23 years at Old Trafford, such as Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince and Roy Keane.

He has had famous run-ins with Andrei Kanchelskis and Jaap Stam, which saw them run out of club and country in swift time.

But he claims dealing with today's pampered superstars is much more difficult.

Ferguson said: "It's a different player character we've got today. The players are more fragile than players of 25 years ago. They are more cocooned today by their agents or the press they receive at times.

"They are less likely to hold their hands up and say they're at fault for things. If you go back 30 years ago you had a player who had a certain pride and responsibility in their own performance.

"They were less protected so they could come in and say 'Hands up, it was my fault, blah, blah, blah.' And that was good.

"But today they are very protected. They are more fragile than ever. That's a lot to do with the type of people who protect them, agents."

You suspect there are no football agents on Ferguson's Christmas card list. The very mention of their profession provokes an involuntary grimace of contempt.

He illustrates with a recent story.

"We had a young boy get in the England Under-21s," said Ferguson. "His agent phoned up the next day and said, 'I think it's time we sat down for a new contract for the boy.'

"In his mind he thought that demanded a new contract. I said, 'Let's see how he plays for Manchester United.'

"But that's the way the world is now.

"When you think they (agents) are conducting most transfers now, it's not right."

Ferguson was speaking at an inaugural dinner of the League Managers' Association Hall of Fame 1000 Club, celebrating the 18 men to have managed more than 1,000 domestic league or cup matches, including Sir Matt Busby, Brian Clough, Alec Stock and Sir Bobby Robson.

Of the 14 surviving members 10 were present at the Hilton hotel in London and as well as Ferguson there were Dave Bassett, Steve Coppell, Brian Horton, Lennie Lawrence, Harry Redknapp, Denis Smith, Jim Smith, Graham Turner and Neil Warnock. The four missing were Alan Buckley, Dario Gradi, Joe Royle and Graham Taylor.

For success and longevity no-one, however, comes close to Ferguson whose managerial record at East Stirling, St Mirren, Aberdeen, Scotland and Manchester United stands at 1,928 games, of which he has won 1,104, drawn 468 and lost 356, a win percentage of 57.26%.

He notched up another rare defeat, however, when his £55,000 bid for a modern painting in a fund-raising auction was blown away by a £65,000 offer from Table 28.

Not that Ferguson looked overly bothered as he embarked on a frothy question and answer session with Tottenham boss Redknapp.

Redknapp told of the day West Ham's Paulo Futre demanded the number 10 shirt at Upton Park, instead of his squad number 16, because he believed he was in the same class as Pele and Maradona.

Ferguson told of how he had started in management at East Stirling with eight players and no goalkeeper two weeks before the start of the season, And promptly went out and signed his first player, George Adams, who cost £100.

"I overpaid," chuckled Ferguson with a charm which demonstrated the other side of the 67-year-old who last week was banned from the touchline for two matches and fined £20,000 for calling referee Alan Wiley "unfit".

The opinions flowed like the red wine he adores.

On the press: "The Press today have a very difficult job. They are trying to compete against Sky television, against the internet. Some of them are in an impossible situation.

"They have editors who demand they have to have copy that sells the newspaper. They are under unbelievable pressure."

On fans: "There's a book called United Unlimited and there's a fantastic photograph in it of Manchester United v Leeds United back in the Sixties and there's absolute mayhem in the middle of the pitch.

"The players are fighting and scratching. Denis Law having lumps pulled off him. Jack Charlton there. In the background there's not a bit of emotion in the fans.

"See the culture of the fans today. They are over the fence, screaming and bawling. It's a different time. You can understand why chairmen react quickly and get rid of their manager."

On the title: "My experience tells me two teams break away towards the last part of the season."

No names, but no doubt either he meant Chelsea and United.

On his worst signing: "Ralph Milne. I only paid £170,000 but I still get condemned for it."

At which point Ferguson remembers one he has tried to forget - Eric Djemba-Djemba.

"So good they named him twice," grinned Ferguson, who revealed his misfiring former midfielder, now with Odense BK, had just come in the top four for the Player of the Year in Denmark.

Not perhaps one of the fragile ones, after all.