Bryan Robson believes Sir Alex Ferguson's man-management will be the decisive factor in the Premier League title race. Robson says Manchester United, now "definite favourites" to win the league, will benefit from their manager's unique ability to impose discipline and unity on the players.
"The manager has a massive influence on all the boys," said Robson, who captained United under Ferguson in the 1980s and early 1990s. "He has this winning mentality. He does man-management really well. That can be the biggest difference."
Robson contrasted the situation at the two Manchester clubs. Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli have both angered Roberto Mancini with their conduct this season, while Wayne Rooney was dropped by Ferguson after a night out in December, leaving United without him in a game they surprisingly lost 3-2 at home to Blackburn Rovers.
Standards of behaviour are higher at United, Robson believed. "Another little downturn for City is the little bit of negative publicity; the Tevez saga, Balotelli on a couple of nights out," Robson explained. "Those little things – Sir Alex Ferguson always keeps right on top of them and doesn't allow them to happen. Sometimes that is because he knows the character of the players and doesn't allow it to happen. If your character is like that, bang, you are out of the club."
The example of Ferguson's stance on Rooney, which arguably cost United three crucial points, shows one of their enduring strengths, said Robson. "The boss isn't interested in one individual," Robson said. "He is interested in the whole group. Not just his first-team squad, all the kids in the youth team, the reserve boys: 'I am not standing for that type of behaviour'. That is why he will always clamp down. When you look at certain managers, you ask whether they would have left Rooney out."
That placing of principles ahead of pragmatism was what made Ferguson so brave, said Robson, who was speaking ahead of the Soccerex European Forum to be held in Manchester next week. "They had a million injuries in that [Blackburn] game," Robson said. "He is fielding a depleted team and then he says 'I am not having him'. Wayne is left out. A lot of managers might have fined him but put him in because it was an important game and they didn't want to slip up. The boss saw the bigger picture."
At United, status clearly does not guarantee special treatment. "Does Wayne think he can get away with it because he is one of the top players in the world?" Robson asked. "The boss has shown no. It doesn't matter who you are: 'If you are in my team, you don't get away with that'. Beckham was supposed to be looking after the kids because he wife was ill. He has detectives all over the world."
The experience of having won so many titles would also benefit United. "The other thing in Man Utd's favour is that they have been there, seen it, done it, year in, year out for the last 20 years," Robson said, pointing to how the mentality has changed since United first won the league under Ferguson 19 years ago.
"Fergie's greatest win was his first, it took the shackles off," Robson said. "The players started to relax because it wasn't 26 years [since their last title, in 1967]. Everybody had the confidence to win. That was a big thing. With Manchester City, it is still going to take a bit of time. United have been there, seen it, done it for so many years. City are building.
"Once you have achieved it, the whole squad know what you have done and you get confidence from it. It makes it easier to win it again. When we won it in 1993, in 1994 I never felt so confident. We had a lot of top players. You look round the dressing room and think 'we won't get beaten'. That is why we won the Double."