Manager faces fight he dare not lose

Keane's mutiny spells ultimate confrontation with the godfather of Old Trafford, says Sam Wallace
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Ferguson has won them all over the years. He enters any disputatious situation like an undefeated welterweight, vaulting the ropes and beating his gloves together. His string of knockouts includes managers, players, chairmen, too many reporters to remember and lately the BBC.At his wedding reception back in 1966, someone parked their car in the spot a 24-year-old Ferguson had identified as his first choice so, naturally, there was only one thing for it. Ferguson had an argument with the driver in question and only the intervention of his brother, and best man, Martin saved the new groom from beginning married life with a scuffle in a car park.

Like every great empire, Ferguson's Manchester United have thrived on conflict, and then victory. Even two months short of his 64th birthday, he retains a remarkable ability to face down a room full of journalists with just the projection of his mood.

Few of his past skirmishes, however, will compare with this latest one with Roy Keane. Somewhere in Ferguson's office at the club's training ground sits the tape of MUTV's now infamous interview with Keane in which the United captain, 34 years old and with 12 years' service, lambasts the state of the club: an invective so harsh it is understood to name Kieran Richardson, Alan Smith, Darren Fletcher, Liam Miller and John O'Shea as unworthy of playing for the club; an affront to the authority of Ferguson and United so savage that a decision was taken by Ferguson and the club's chief executive David Gill to prevent its broadcast. A one-man mutiny. In short, a very good reason for an argument.

If the manager can never lose an argument, then this is surely the title fight to end them all. Ferguson has, in the past, claimed that internal club affairs should be kept private, that a stray boot kicked in the dressing-room is no one's business but his and his players'. The issue of Keane's MUTV interview is one that has to be resolved in public.

Keane has seven Premiership titles and a status that is incomparable among United fans. Those supporters who claim to represent the soul of the club have always viewed him as detached from the hyperbole and addicted to the single most important aspect of United's existence: winning. This is, after all, a player who once said he would rather receive the FA Cup in the dressing-room than go through the hassle of the presentation.

It is a status reinforced by Ferguson's view of Keane, too. No one doubts that they have fallen out on countless occasions - not least when the captain expressed his dissatisfaction with the pre-season training arrangements in Portugal this summer - but they have always maintained a public unity. The manager has backed his captain's judgement time and time again and, now he finds himself in such fundamental disagreement, there can be no alternative but to take Keane on.

Ferguson versus Keane. It is a conflict that promises to inflict much damage on the institution that these two men have done so much to build. There is a well-grounded fear at Old Trafford that Keane, thwarted by the spinelessness of MUTV, will take his complaints about United elsewhere. Given the current state of United, 13 points behind Chelsea and humiliated by Middlesbrough on Saturday, he will find a receptive audience among a disillusioned support. He has established himself as a renegade, a teller of the truth, and his words will have so much more weight now that they have been suppressed once already.

Ferguson must either extract a promise that Keane's one-man crusade against Old Trafford's failings will cease or, most likely, he will cast him out. The January transfer window is two months away and Keane will be six months from being a free agent - even if he has not recovered from a broken toe by then there would be no shortage of suitors.

It would be the end of one of football's great partnerships, one that began back in the Ferguson family home in 1993 when Keane, considering a move from Nottingham Forest to Blackburn Rovers, visited to discuss a transfer to United. The two played a frame of snooker which, Keane revealed in his autobiography, he let his prospective boss win. Something tells you that their latest disagreement will not be settled on such amicable terms.

Rose-tinted TV hides scoop of year

The subscription channel MUTV takes such pride in its image as a loyal purveyor of the club line that it once ran adverts featuring a pair of rose-tinted spectacles accompanied by the line: "See Manchester United through Paddy Crerand's eyes."

The Glaswegian, part of United's 1968 European Cup-winning team, is MUTV's main pundit and rarely finds fault with any United performance. The well worn defence has long been that, as an in-house channel, it has no choice but to behave itself.

But in fact United own only a third of the channel, along with BSkyB and Granada. One can only wonder what those two shareholders made of the decision to throw away one of the greatest scoops of the year when MUTV bowed to the club's decision to drop the Keane interview on Monday night.

MUTV is understood to have made a small profit last year but it has in the past been eaten up by the players' pool - around £500,000 a year in return for their interviews - an arrangement that is now "under review", according to sources at the club.

Sam Wallace