Ferguson may be the man for just one more season

Game of catch-up but Sir Alex insists self-imposed exile is not on agenda
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The Independent Online

When Sir Alex Ferguson decided a few years back that a diversion or three was required to take his overactive mind off a round ball occasionally, his choices were horseracing, fine wines and learning French. It may yet be that in 12 months' time, the most successful manager in English football history is ready to contemplate spending far more time chatting to the natives in a box at Longchamp over a vintage red, but ahead of Man-chester United's match at home to Newcastle today he has made it clear that self-imposed exile from Old Trafford is not yet on the agenda.

When Sir Alex Ferguson decided a few years back that a diversion or three was required to take his overactive mind off a round ball occasionally, his choices were horseracing, fine wines and learning French. It may yet be that in 12 months' time, the most successful manager in English football history is ready to contemplate spending far more time chatting to the natives in a box at Longchamp over a vintage red, but ahead of Man-chester United's match at home to Newcastle today he has made it clear that self-imposed exile from Old Trafford is not yet on the agenda.

On the back of another failure to challenge significantly for either the European or the domestic championships, a fifth successive undistinguished Premiership performance at Everton last Wednesday, only one of which brought a victory - and that a scrappy one at home to Fulham - has prompted discussion about how much longer the reign begun in November 1986 might continue.

The argument has ignored such inconvenient statistics as the one that tells us United had previously won 10 and drawn one of 11 League games, including a scorching 4-2 victory at Highbury, but it is the sort of speculation that will prove right one day.

This time, Sir Bobby Charlton and then Ferguson himself were straight out of the blocks at the end of last week to deny that the time is right for either regicide or abdication. Indeed, the diary in the manager's office at United's Carrington training centre has a number of key days inked in for some months to come. First are the five remaining League dates, offering the possibility of overhauling Arsenal's four-point advantage (effectively five points because of goal difference) to pip the old enemy to second place in the Premiership. Ferguson has opted to play the chances down, suggesting: "Even if we win our five games we may not make second place anyway. We need Arsenal to drop five points."

Unlikely as that may be, four of United's matches, including today's against opposition they beat out of sight on neutral ground in last weekend's FA Cup semi-final, look eminently winnable. The other one, a fortnight on Tuesday, may well have a red ring round it, marking as it does the visit of the new enemy Chelsea in a match Ferguson would dearly love to win. Then there is the little matter of the assignation in Cardiff 11 days later, when Ferguson can emulate Arsène Wenger in achieving the surprisingly rare feat of retaining the FA Cup - Tottenham's Bill Nicholson and Keith Burkinshaw are the only other managers to do so in the past 50 years.

It is the Cup that has cheered United in an otherwise miserable couple of months, producing 13 goals against one in four ties with Premiership opposition, which entitles Ferguson to a measure of bewilderment. Only in a tendency to use Wayne Rooney deeper than might be expected, at a time when Ruud van Nistelrooy was struggling for goals, and in keeping some of his big-hitters on the bench at places like Crystal Palace and Norwich, has he left himself open to legitimate criticism. "We are going through a period where we are just not putting the ball in the net in League games," he admitted. "We are going to have to face that and I just don't understand it myself. I have said time and time again this season, we have the players who can score goals. In the Cup we have been scoring well, so it is a strange situation."

The point was emphasised in defeat at Goodison, a ground on which his team had strolled to a 2-0 Cup victory in mid-February. But today, with Ryan Giggs back in harness, offers a perfect opportunity to prove they can break down defences when points are at stake. Newcastle's defenders are among the most generous around, and that glugging noise on Tyneside is morale sinking into the river.

Whatever the outcome of the two challenges to Arsenal - who looked like their old selves, even without Thierry Henry, in the first half at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday - Ferguson is already planning further ahead and checking that diary again. Conscious that an overcrowded pre-season and stuttering start proved too costly (United were 10th in the table after five games), he insists: "Next season the players are going to start earlier than this season, much, much earlier. We are going to start on 27 June, and that will make sure we are ready to start the season, because it's looking to me as if you're going to have to start better than normal. Normally we make steady progress through the season until we get to the turn, but it doesn't look as if we can afford to do that now."

The difference, of course, is the Chelsea factor. Like Wenger, Ferguson knows that whichever of them returns to the Millennium Stadium to contest the the Community Shield game with the new champions on 7 August, Jose Mourinho will have another two or three formidable additions to his squad. The bar, he concedes, has been raised formidably high, but is not out of sight. "We've got a young team. We will improve, there is no doubt about that. We have the squad, we've got the desire and the ability."

They have the manager, too. Not forever and perhaps not for too much longer. But Longchamp can wait.

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