There has been no need for any cold calling these past few months from the offices of ACF Promotions, the company established in Wilmslow to handle Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson’s business beyond football management. The interviews he has granted have placed him everywhere, even before the publication of his autobiography on Tuesday.
An uncompromising email to those who had not requested a place at Ferguson’s book launch landed yesterday lunchtime – digested, it read: “Too late. You’ve had it” – and the same goes for anyone who want to catch him for his appearance at Salford’s Lowry Theatre. They are describing ticket sales as their fastest ever sell-out – all 1,700 gone in four minutes. An alternative recreation for that evening could be a moonlit Ferguson tour, taking in the street that was named after him this week.
Everybody is terribly polite about all this but it actually feels a bit much, at a time when David Moyes is attempting to wrestle with Ferguson’s formidable legacy and impose his own identity on Manchester United.
Moyes’ seemingly obligatory reference to “Sir Alex Ferguson” came about four minutes into his press conference yesterday – when he extolled his predecessor’s virtue in persevering with goalkeeper David de Gea – and some extremely unscientific research suggests this was his 62nd public reference to the 71-year-old since July. But just as you hope that Ferguson will step back once his book is launched for the Christmas charts, it also feels like the moment for Moyes to help his own cause and put his predecessor in the past.
Though these are still terribly fragile times, with the imminent challenge being to beat a buoyant Southampton at Old Trafford this afternoon – Moyes has already earned the right to say that two very bright spots on the season’s landscape belong to him and him alone. Adnan Januzaj is the first of them and it was Moyes’ fatefully courageous decision to hand the 18-year-old his first Premier League start at Sunderland two weeks ago. The manager’s account yesterday of where the teenager fits in his own view of the players he has, suggested that the decision may have been easier than we thought. He bracketed him with the 16-year-old Wayne Rooney he had at Everton, as well as Charlie Nicholas and Paul McStay, with whom he came through at Celtic, and Everton’s Ross Barkley.
Moyes also listed the kinds of player Januzaj could be – “Arguably a centre-forward: he’s that good as well with his back to goal. He’s also very good coming off the left and off the right, maybe in the No 10 role when he grows with experience and gets better.” But all that aside, the 2-1 win at Sunderland was a fixture bordering on do-or-die after United’s previous defeat to West Bromwich Albion and it was the manager who reaped what he boldly sowed on Wearside.
Moyes said he sees Sir Matt Busby’s legendary comments on the wall, every time he is in the dressing-room area – “If they’re good enough they’re old enough’” – but he is also gambling with survival here. “I need to get results, like any other manager, and you people are writing plenty about that and I have to do that,” he said. “I’m not daft enough to know any different.”
Moyes’ positive noises yesterday about Januzaj’s father – who had “kept him the right way,” he said – were signals to the man whose cooperation United need if they are sign him to a new contract. That took us some distance from the way Ferguson would often speak about anyone in an entourage standing between United and a young player.
The greater patience Moyes displays is characteristic of a man just starting out down a road on which Ferguson had seen and done everything, and it has certainly transformed Rooney – bright spot No 2 – from the disgruntled, desperate soul who came to detest the previous manager. Rooney’s own words provide the sharpest picture of his relationship with Moyes. No one asked him about the United manager on Wednesday when he said: “David Moyes has come in, he’s playing me up front and I’m enjoying it.”
The big question is when Moyes will begin extracting the extra 10 per cent which Ferguson’s force of personality somehow brought out in lesser United players. Ryan Giggs provided a revealing, though generally unpublicised, interview during the international break in which he discussed what constitutes winners in football. They are “people who will go to the edge to make sure that you win the game; and that includes in the week as well, in training,” he said. “They would kick their team-mates; they would do whatever it took. It would ruin their day if they lost a five-a-side game; it really means that much to them.”
How sorely missing this component seems to have been, lately. Giggs also expounded the interesting theory to Performance that while “you need a group of seven or eight players who are going to be reliable week in and week out” the contribution of the other three did not concern him – the inference being that their unpredictability was allowable because of their match-changing capability. How United lack members of that group. Nani would fit into the bracket if he could only change games more often.
Moyes revealed that Marouane Fellaini, available today, will be strapped up to play for a while because of complex damage to ligaments in his left wrist. An operation, which would carry a four- to six-week recovery time, can be delayed for up to two years, though United will be opportunistic with their timing – possibly accelerating plans and getting Fellaini into surgery if he is facing a period of suspension.
You can see why the manager is reluctant to lose a player in whom so much of his own judgement, as well as the club’s money, has been invested. Some have doubted Moyes on Fellaini, just like they did when he starting saying in August that Rooney was flying in training. “I had to keep fighting you people who were telling me that it was different,” he said of Rooney’s form. “You people wanted to write and say different things. I found it difficult to say and prove differently.”
Moyes has proved a few things already and is ready to offer more of his own shaping and style to United. It would help him immensely if Ferguson – missed as he so obviously is by so many at Old Trafford – could step back and allow United to live in the present for a while, rather than linger in the past.
United-Saints: Memorable matches down the years
August 1969: Divine Davies
Sir Matt Busby was moved to describe Ron Davies, who died earlier this year, as ‘the finest centre-forward in Europe’ after the Welsh centre-forward scored all Southampton’s goals in a stunning 4-1 away win over his talented but ageing United side.
May 1976: Saints in heaven
Tommy Docherty’s young United froze at Wembley and Bobby Stokes raced clear with seven minutes to go to beat United goalkeeper Alex Stepney and claim the FA Cup for Second Division Southampton.
November 1986: Bye-bye Big Ron
Matt Le Tissier scored his first Southampton goals as a 4-1 League Cup win over Ron Atkinson’s struggling side at The Dell proved the final straw for the United board. As the song goes, Atkinson was sacked in the morning.
April 1996: Ferguson gets shirty
Big Ron’s successor Sir Alex Ferguson was now getting it in the neck from Le Tissier. He put Saints 3-0 up just before half-time at The Dell – not that Fergie was blaming the striker. The United manager decided his team’s grey away kit was at fault and they bizarrely reappeared after the break in blue – but still lost 3-1.
September 1999: Taibi’s howler
Le Tissier again as his shot from 25 yards rolled tamely toward Massimo Taibi only for the Italian keeper to let the ball through his legs as Saints drew 3-3 at Old Trafford.