Sir Alex Ferguson's mind games have been famously effective on Kevin Keegan in years gone by, but yesterday, when the Manchester United manager was given a perfect platform to niggle his Manchester City counterpart ahead of tomorrow's derby, he declined.
He was asked what he thought of Keegan's current uncertain situation at City, a club Keegan has already admitted he will leave no later than the end of next season. "I'm not going into that," Ferguson said. And with that, he ended his pre-match press conference.
One interpretation of this silence is that Ferguson, after a Premiership start that has been faltering by United's standards, feels insecure himself. Another is that he still feels some residual guilt for his role in arguably the most public meltdown of a fellow manager ever seen on British television. Another is that Ferguson feels mind games are simply not needed when it comes to playing City at Old Trafford.
Insecurity is unlikely. Few managers, if any, are as secure in their posts as Ferguson, whose track record has made him virtually untouchable. Few managers, certainly in the top flight, are in shakier positions than Keegan. Jacques Santini, for one, seemed more settled at Spurs before his shock decision to resign yesterday.
The bookmakers make him the 2-1 favourite to be the next Premiership manager to leave his club. He himself said last week that he is "coming to the end of (his) time as a manager in this country", in reference to not wanting a contract extension beyond next season. (Gary Megson paid with his job for making a similar statement about his position at West Bromwich Albion).
Keegan has been showing signs of being increasingly unhappy. He has said in recent days that some of his older players do not seem to be performing for him. Yesterday he learned that he had been fined £8,500 by the Football Association for an uncharacteristic outburst of abuse at the referee, Steve Dunn, following City's defeat to Newcastle on 24 October.
Results have also been less than spectacular, which will worry City's board. And, perhaps most significantly, history has shown that Keegan prefers to leave jobs on his own terms. He has never been sacked as a manager but has walked out on Newcastle, Fulham and England.
Guilt can be dismissed as an option for Ferguson not playing mind games yesterday. Though Keegan's "I'd love it if we beat them" explosion on Sky TV in April 1996 was unprecedented in its heart-on-sleeve angst, which even shocked Ferguson, the United manager said it did not leave him feeling guilty.
In a season when Manchester United overhauled a seemingly unassailable 12-point lead built by Keegan's Newcastle, Ferguson had implied that some clubs tried harder against United than the North-easterners, and he was concerned that Leeds, who were about to play Newcastle, might do likewise. Keegan's outburst came after Newcastle beat Leeds, and he later said that Ferguson's psychological ploys were at "a level to which I would never stoop".
In his autobiography, Ferguson admitted there was "substance in the suggestion" that he played mind games, but said his comments on that occasion had been aimed at Leeds, not Keegan. Yet Ferguson still added of Keegan: "One would have thought that he would have felt more secure." They are hardly the words of a man who feels any guilt.
So the likeliest reason for Ferguson not baiting Keegan yesterday is that he felt no need. History suggests he is right, both in terms of City's history at Old Trafford and Keegan's managerial record there.
City have not won on their rivals' turf for more than 30 years, since 27 April 1974, when a goal by the former United talisman, Denis Law, settled the match. It was a poignant day not just for United, who were relegated, but for Law, who retired from league football that day.
In the intervening years, City have played at Old Trafford 24 times. One game ended in a League Cup defeat and three more saw FA Cup defeats, including one last season. In the 20 league fixtures, City have drawn nine and lost 11.
For all the joy that City brought to fans by beating United at home in the last two years, Keegan's record as a manager against Ferguson, on Ferguson's patch, gives no reason to believe City's 30 years of Old Trafford hurt will end tomorrow.
As the Newcastle manager Keegan oversaw two defeats and a draw at Old Trafford while as the Fulham manager his only game there ended in an FA Cup defeat. With City he has lost twice at Old Trafford and drawn once.
Despite an injury crisis, Keegan was not entirely downcast yesterday. He is without the services of Joey Barton, Claudio Reyna, Jon Macken, Sun Jihai, Ben Thatcher and Trevor Sinclair, who seems likely to miss the rest of the season because of a leg fracture. "The onus is on United to come forward and maybe we could benefit from that," he said, looking for a bright side.
Mostly, he emphasised the gap in success between the clubs. "They have lost once in 15 games, some of which have been against top-class opposition, both in the Premiership and the Champions' League," he said.
"The crisis at Man Utd is being nine points off the top of the league; our inconsistency comes down to the fact we can't win two games on the trot. Nevertheless, if they have aspirations of winning the title, they have to win."
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