Home truth for Glazers: only the best will suffice
Ferguson needs impetus of fresh finance if he is to restore his reputation as a winner
Where to begin? On the assumption that football news travels slowly to Florida, true fans aware of United's Best traditions might have begun with the death of a sporting hero. The Glazers, their hearts less Red-blooded than Wall Street stony, will probably have started with a different sort of loss, namely Vodafone's withdrawal as shirt sponsors at the end of this season, two years before the end of a £9m per year contract. It was a painful blow, however much balm club officials tried to apply, not just in terms of the money that must be made up by a new backer but for the message it sends out to the wider, commercial world: the company no longer wishes to have its name on the shirt of a club second only to Real Madrid in terms of world recognition.
As for a goalless draw at home to a rather less glamorous Spanish club on Tuesday night, the Glazers will be quick enough on the financial uptake to appreciate the equally serious implications. Only if United now win away to a Benfica side they struggled to beat at Old Trafford two months ago can they guarantee those Vodafone chests being puffed out in the Champions' League knockout stage, clawing back some of the sponsorship losses.
Defeat by any margin and there could be footballing as well as financial repercussions. Previous promises that serious sums would be available to Sir Alex Ferguson in the transfer window beginning on 1 January might have to be reconsidered; which in turn, though he insists he is planning for the long-term and will be around next season, makes the manager's chances of restoring his reputation as a winner all the more difficult.
Even a triumph this afternoon at West Ham, which will not come easily against vibrantly confident opposition, will do no more than victory last weekend on the other side of the Woolwich Ferry at Charlton; that is, confirm that the squad still have it in them to see off middle-ranking domestic opposition. Europe, so often the club's greatest stage, is a different matter, and the tales acted out on it over the past 12 months would have had any West End production closed down.
Yet there is a strange paradox in the lack of goals currently undermining the cast. Just over a year ago, the leading men, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney, looked unstoppable and were earning rave reviews. The Independent's headlines last autumn would have decorated any billboard: "Rooney on the rampage to launch Old Trafford love affair" (United 6 Fenerbahce 2); "Van Nistelrooy trumps Rooney's trick" (United 4 Sparta Prague 1); "Ferguson out to eclipse Busby".
Compare some of last week's notices, after a failure to score for the seventh time in eight matches in the Champions' League proper: "End of the line?" - Daily Mirror. "Fergie walking a tightrope" - Daily Mail.
Having the misers of Milan bringing down the curtain on United's strikers last spring was one thing. For the strolling players of Lille and Villarreal to do so twice each in the new season was something else. Early in the season, Rooney and Van Nistelrooy scored eight times between them in the opening six games but the former, despite being moved to a more favourable attacking position as supporters have demanded, has not hit the target in the last half a dozen games. Thwarted by one good save early on against Villarreal, he managed three shots all night, which was three times as many as Van Nistelrooy.
As both had been in excellent form for the 3-1 win at Charlton, service must have something to do with it, which is why fingers are pointing at United's midfield. Roy Keane's reputation seems likely to grow from now on with every match he misses, and while the time-honoured chants of "ooh-ah, Cantona" reflect well on Ferguson, the man who signed him against the odds, the opposite is true of "Kean-o", now taking on the air of a mournful dirge.
The manager is deemed guilty of not finding any sort of replacement for his discarded captain while insisting that Alan Smith and Darren Fletcher can do the job. But for the existence of transfer windows we would surely know by now whether that belief is a genuine conviction or mere public loyalty to the players concerned. Even those supporters who admire Smith's commitment and Fletcher's perseverance know that such qualities are not enough for Manchester United. So, almost certainly, does Ferguson and in January he needs the financial backing to prove it.
Bayern Munich's Michael Ballack has been ruled out, as being too similar to Rooney and Paul Scholes (and probably preferring Real Madrid anyway). But United supporters will not be thrilled to learn that importing real quality may have to wait until the Champions' League has run its course next summer. As Ferguson put it on Friday: "I think we have two areas. January to give us more numbers, because we are lacking numbers at the moment and particularly in a couple of positions we could do with adding to that. But the longer period of the summer is probably more important for us in terms of the player we are interested in . . . or players." A long winter looms.
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