Ferguson's keen appetite restores normal service

Manchester Utd v Newcastle Utd: One knight pays tribute to another as loyalty and continuity reap rich dividends
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The updated edition of Roy Keane's autobiography concludes with the characteristically self-critical verdict: "Season 2002-03 can only be regarded as a qualified success. Must do better next year." Although Sir Alex Ferguson was not consciously echoing his captain's words after Manchester United's victory at Bolton last Wednesday, it was interesting that he emphasised: "As a team we are getting better collectively."

One of the many core beliefs shared by the two men is collective endeavour. Keane refers to the staff and playing squad at Old Trafford as "an exceptionally close group of people", which is why it infuriates him so much when a single one of them allows standards to drop, resulting in the slightest degree of underachievement. He also believes that the loyalty emanating from having had so many of them coming through the ranks together offers a significant advantage not available to either Arsenal or, especially, Chelsea.

It was a thought worth bearing in mind over a week that may come to be seen as decisive when Keane and others write the story of the current season. The 2-1 success at Bolton - in a local derby against opponents who had recently won at Stamford Bridge and then deservedly held Arsenal - put United three points clear at the head of the Premiership. After Arsène Wenger's team did their best to bridge the gap yesterday, United have the possibility of extending it again in terms of points and goal difference with a home game this afternoon against Newcastle United.

Just as significantly, they have completed such a turnover in relation to Chelsea that many observers already believe the championship chase to have reverted to its usual status as a two-horse race. After losing 1-0 in west London on 30 November, United were four points behind Claudio Ranieri's side, whom the bookmakers immediately installed as title favourites for the first time. Seven weeks later, investors foolish enough to accept odds of 5-6 about Chelsea have been left cursing the latter's collapse as United, with six subsequent straight victories, have moved seven points ahead of them - an 11-point turnaround in less than two months. Who will back the outsider of three now?

Predictably, there was no crowing to be heard around the United training ground at Carrington on Friday. Ferguson, while delighted with the current run of eight successive wins in all competitions, was more concerned with expressing sympathy for his fellow knight Sir Bobby Robson over the injuries that blighted Newcastle's start to the season. There was an element of solidarity too with a revered colleague perceived to have been criticised recently by his chairman despite a sequence of 11 games with only one defeat.

"There's nothing you can do if you have injured players," Ferguson said. "It's never taken into account by the media or directors. I don't know how you can expect to get your best results. They got a great result against Southampton [3-0 in the FA Cup], that's for sure, after changing the system, with Kieron Dyer playing off Shearer at the front. But Bobby handled it [the criticism] well.

"His experience gets him through these type of things. They wanted someone with experience, character and strength to right the ship, and he did that. Then the next phase of it was very good, bringing in young players. So you have to see the big picture. Now I think Newcastle or Liverpool will get that fourth place in the table. Liverpool's form is maybe starting to pick up, and there's little to choose between the two."

On the second Saturday of the season United won 2-1 at St James', when Ferguson unnecessarily and expensively lost his cool on the touchline; Keane, backing up his words with deeds, was masterly; and Ruud van Nistelrooy reached his 50th Premiership goal in 68 games. He is currently on 62, and a total of 98 for the club, on course to reach a century faster than anyone in the modern era - Shearer included. Two more goals in the next nine games will do it. While playing 127 club matches in two-and-a-half seasons, the Dutchman has avoided any sustained periods of injury, and it is that possibility that has been occupying Ferguson's thoughts most as a window of opportunity opens for new signings. Celtic, Fulham and PSV Eindhoven are all understandably upset at the prospect of losing men to United, but they also know that once a player's head has been turned, half the battle has been lost.

PSV's winger Arjen Robben was given a guided tour of Carrington last week, to the annoyance of his club's chairman, Harry van Raaij, and although well used to Ferguson's, shall we say, unusually direct negotiating methods with other clubs' players following the transfer of Jaap Stam and Van Nistelrooy, PSV can do little other than talk up the price. They have made a negotiating point of their own in declaring that United's suggested fee of £5m might just buy a signed shirt of Robben rather than what goes inside it.

Celtic were in no position to demand any sort of fee for Liam Miller, the young midfielder Ferguson likens to Brian McClair rather than Miller's fellow Corkman Keane. A pre-contract has been signed, though the deal will not be completed until the summer as he is out injured for some weeks. The manager has insisted there will be no increased bid for Fulham's Louis Saha, while claiming that it was the London club who first made it public: "We sent a letter to the club marked 'private and confidential'. They gave it to the press." Saha, suddenly desperate to leave, claims to have been offered a four-year contract by United, Ferguson having handed the matter to the club's managing director, David Gill.

Meanwhile United are reaping the benefit of having slowly integrated five summer signings into their squad, as opposed to Chelsea's 11, only the goalkeeper Tim Howard having become an automatic choice. After that defeat at Stamford Bridge in November, Ferguson had said: "I'm quite pleased Chelsea are top. It's good for the game. People were getting fed up with us and Arsenal always being top of the League." Tiresome or not, the football public may have to become reacquainted with the idea once again.