Keane's lack of practice fails to worry Ferguson

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The Independent Football

Popular perception has Sir Alex Ferguson with a heart carved from flint, and yet as a player he has suffered enough rejection to understand what it is like to watch an FA Cup final in a suit.

Ferguson's first final was unbearably painful. He was 23 and was Dunfermline's leading scorer when in 1965 they faced Celtic in the Scottish Cup final. He was told 50 minutes before kick-off in the Hampden Park dressing-room that he would not be taking part. The first he knew was when the Dunfermline manager, Willie Cunningham, read out a list of 11 players with Ferguson's name absent. The centre-forward had to be prised away from his manager by the club chairman. He returned to the stands to see Dunfermline lose 3-2.

This will be the 20th final for which Ferguson has to tell players they will not be taking part and it is still something the Manchester United manager finds awkward. "To see players with suits on, not taking part even as a substitute, is very hard," he said. "There is no easy way. I have never just read out a team sheet or pinned it up on the board; I take the players aside and explain it to them because I've had the experience of being left out at 10 past two on Cup final day."

Sometimes, Ferguson said, circumstances could make his job easier. He dropped Nicky Butt and Jesper Blomqvist for the 1999 FA Cup final against Newcastle but was able to tell them they would certainly start against Bayern Munich in the European Cup final. Now, he conceded, he did not have that cushion.

For Saturday's final with Millwall, the great question is whether to risk his captain, Roy Keane, who has not played since the 1-0 defeat by Liverpool last month. Some Manchester United watchers, such as their former midfielder, Lou Macari, suggested that if Keane was to be fit for his sixth appearance in an FA Cup final, he would have to appear in the last Premiership game of the season, at Aston Villa.

However, all the indications from Manchester United's training ground at Carrington were that Keane would start, thus placing him behind only Arthur Kinnaird, who turned out in nine FA Cup finals for Wanderers and Old Etonians between 1873-1883. After three days of training, Ferguson reported no reaction from the Irishman's damaged hamstring.

Ferguson admitted he had "overprotected" his captain this season, pointing out that the defeats at Old Trafford by Fulham and Middlesbrough, in which Keane had been rested, had proved crucial to the outcome of United's season.

"On occasions like these, you want your best players in the team," Ferguson said of the final with Millwall which United are 10-1 on to win. "He is the captain, he has been there more times than anybody else and he is a great player. It is natural you would want him around. For a player of his experience, I don't anticipate his lack of match practice would be a problem."

However, as Ferguson mused: "Sometimes I pick the wrong team," although when asked to name an example he replied he had not lost that many. "There was a League Cup final replay when I was at Aberdeen against Dundee United. A young player had taken ill beforehand and I just could not get my head round it so I simply went with the same team that had played in the first game.

"Now for some reason I can't imagine, I had been suspended from the touchline, so I was sat in the stands. As the game kicked off, it was obvious I needed to send someone round to change it but all I could see was my chairman, who was then about 82 years old. Dens Park, where the replay was, is not the easiest ground to get a message through so I just sat and watched."

Aberdeen lost, 3-0, and that memory lay behind the dropping of his goalkeeper, Jim Leighton, from the FA Cup final replay between Manchester United and Crystal Palace 11 years later. Ferguson felt he had to shake his squad up in a way he had not done against Dundee United.

It destroyed the relationship between Leighton and his manager and so deep was the wound that Ferguson admitted he might not have repeated it with hindsight. "I dropped Steve Bruce from the 1996 final with Liverpool. He had a slight hamstring strain and Wembley is a tough pitch and I could not risk him."

Two years before he had a tougher decision, whether to give Bryan Robson a place on the bench in his final game for Manchester United, the FA Cup final with Chelsea. Instead, he chose Brian McClair. These days, he says, he would have gone with sentiment.