Ferguson pits wits against his protg

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The Independent Online

The last thing Sir Alex Ferguson probably needs, after the defeat at West Ham on Saturday which put Arsenal back in charge at the top of the Premier League, is to encounter a manager who is privy to more of his methods than most in the game. But Alex McLeish, who brings a Birmingham side likely to scrap hard to Old Trafford today, has never been afraid to ask his old Aberdeen coach about management and Ferguson has obliged.

"Even in his early years as a manager at Motherwell and Hibs, he [McLeish] was always phoning me and asking me why I made certain changes or about training programmes," Ferguson said. "He would come down to games all the time, whether it was European or other big nights. So Alec was always a certainty to become a good manager. He was a very intelligent boy and I'm pleased for him."

McLeish has also known the rough edge of Ferguson's tongue. Some of the players from those Aberdeen days remember Ferguson, in his first season, singling out a 19-year-old McLeish for criticism when they lost a league game days after the players, against Ferguson's better judgement, were allowed out on the town following a European match in Dsseldorf.

But their relationship runs deep McLeish has told how, when his own father died unexpectedly in his early forties, Ferguson "assured me he would take my dad's place as much as he could in keeping me up to scratch". And when Birmingham came calling after Steve Bruce left for Wigan last month, it was Ferguson whom McLeish called up.

"He was on to me all the time about [moving to England]," said Ferguson, who expects to have Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick back today after missng the Upton Park game with a stomach bug. "He was always saying that he wanted to have a go at it and the Scotland situation gave him the bug more than ever. The euphoria and the success of the Scotland team in that campaign gave him the bug to try England.

"There had been two or three attempts over the last few years to bring him down here. He asked me about Birmingham and I told him that I always think if you're going to make a big step like that, it's got to be to a club with history, tradition and potential." Ferguson is biased: his own father, also Alex, supported the club before the Second World War.

Despite promising beginnings for McLeish a 3-2 win at White Hart Lane results have been mixed since, with defeats at Newcastle and Bolton to go with the victory over Middlesbrough. With Chelsea and Arsenal up next, McLeish seems less sentimental about the touchline reunion than his old manger.

Asked if today's game represents a long-cherished chance to test himself against Ferguson, he said: "It's not a level playing field to measure myself against Sir Alex when you consider the quality he has at his disposal. He can rotate players and it doesn't make much difference to the strength of the team. He has riches beyond my wildest dreams."

McLeish is intent on doing more than stopping United, although he hinted at a defensive outlook by declaring that he did not intend "to go and play attacking flowing football and leave myself open to lose by a few goals".

United, for whom Tomasz Kuszczak continues in goal while the Brazilian midfielder Anderson could earn a recall, might have the West Ham defeat to put behind them, but the Upton Park result reminded McLeish of a favourite Ferguson message from his Pittodrie days. "I know, having played under [him]," McLeish said, "he always went on about not losing two in a row, not dropping more points. So it doesn't make it any easier for us."