Nick Townsend: Thanks a thousand to a shining knight

Landmark of a legend: Behind the desire and durability is now a vulnerability as Ferguson approaches magic mark
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When he arrived, appropriately enough at the Manor, for his first game on a November Saturday in 1986 he was perceived as a dour renegade from across the border, the antithesis of his predecessor, Ron Atkinson, a character whose jewellery box was perceived to be larger than Tutankhamun's. Then plain Mr Alex Ferguson, he wouldn't have even contemplated donning gold bracelets. But the then 44-year-old manager, who had travelled south following his championship triumph at Aberdeen, the granite city, no doubt reflected that life would have been a good deal easier initially if he had been bequeathed a Manchester United team composed of ostentatious riches.

When he arrived, appropriately enough at the Manor, for his first game on a November Saturday in 1986 he was perceived as a dour renegade from across the border, the antithesis of his predecessor, Ron Atkinson, a character whose jewellery box was perceived to be larger than Tutankhamun's. Then plain Mr Alex Ferguson, he wouldn't have even contemplated donning gold bracelets. But the then 44-year-old manager, who had travelled south following his championship triumph at Aberdeen, the granite city, no doubt reflected that life would have been a good deal easier initially if he had been bequeathed a Manchester United team composed of ostentatious riches.

United then were anything but, despite an FA Cup victory the previous season. Three wins from 13 matches had deposited them in 18th place in the old First Division. Even their opposition that day, Oxford United, were in a less embarrassing plight. It was not an auspicious beginning, either: a 2-0 defeat by a team managed by the most modest man in football, the late Maurice Evans, on the first day of what has long since stopped being an era, and has instead become an eternity, did not bode well.

But then this squad was decidedly un-Manchester United-like. It contained character, in the shape of Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran and Frank Stapleton, but boasted little of the exotica that were to be cultivated in the nursery in the form of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and the Neville brothers, or those of the calibre of Eric Cantona, purchased from outside. Together, these would be nurtured and allowed to flourish in the years that ensued.

A week over 18 years later and 1,000 games on - his remarkable landmark on Tuesday night, when United face Lyon in the Champions' League - Ferguson is eight Premiership titles, five FA Cups, one European Cup, a knighthood and untold financial rewards better off. He is lauded, albeit often begrudgingly and through clenched teeth, and has withstood the battering of countless verbal ripe tomatoes and rotten eggs in the process of confirming United as the world's richest club.

But 1,000 games... just think of it. That is just under three years of back-to-back match-days. From shipyard shop steward to stewardship of the Theatre of Dreams, "The Boss" of bosses has ascended to this summit of achievement with an approach which has never been designed to win "most lovable manager" contests. The bane of officials, the arch provocateur of rival managers, even ruffling the urbane Arsène Wenger, his demeanour is all about preservation - of himself and his team's stature. Within the club, the former union man may have retained a red political allegiance, but he would have little time for shop-floor democracy now; not this despot of the dugout.

On Friday, he was lunching with the country's sports editors, which for the Scot is akin to sleeping with the enemy. At best wary when interrogated, he will readily bar journalists who have, in his sometimes jaundiced view, crossed him. Their principal crime has been to quote views which he believed were "off the record", though sometimes there have been confusingly grey areas.

There is a certain resemblance with the chief prisoner officer, Mr Mackay, in the TV comedy Porridge, he of the catchphrase, "I bear grudges, Fletcher". Ferguson certainly doesn't forget. If he ever spied a suspended offender in the media throng, he would refuse to continue until that individual departed.

Friday's occasion was, by all accounts, an entertaining diversion for all concerned. The strange thing is that if you could make an incision with a surgeon's scalpel through that formidably tough pelt, you would discover, contrary to public opinion, a heart beating, its owner possessing an alter ego of considerable charm and fearsome wit.

Yet when one observes the gimlet-eyed Glaswegian, whose epithet "Fergie" appears a trifle too cuddly, there is always a suspicion that there are ulterior motives for his acts and pronouncements. Could this have beenan attempt to bring the sports policymakers of the print sheets "onside" at a time when United are, if not in decline, performing below the standards expected? Perish the thought.

Nevertheless, with the championship trophy all but under lock and key in a trophy cabinet situated in either north or west London, the second season in succession that it would not be paraded at Old Trafford, there is a vulnerability about Ferguson, a susceptibility to an assault on his leadership not witnessed since 1990, when he was rumoured to be one game from dismissal. There is not a chance of that this time, of course. He would walk first, under his own terms.

Conceivable successors include Celtic's Martin O'Neill, who regards Ferguson as "the greatest in the game". The former Northern Ireland international adds: "His record at Aberdeen for a provincial club, beating the Old Firm and taking the championship, was fantastic, and he has gone on to prove himself at United. People thought he was a game away from the sack with that famous game at Nottingham Forest, but he turned that around with an unbelievable reign."

Ferguson's No 2, Carlos Queiroz, who has returned to Old Trafford after a less- than-inspirational tenure at Real Madrid, would be another contender, though he skirts around such a possibility. Whether it is a refusal to tempt providence and give the appearance he is touting for the position, or merely that, after 35 years coaching, he no longer yearns to occupy the most coveted, but also the most uncomfortable, seat in football is not obvious. "The most important thing is to help him to perpetuate his legacy here," is all the Portuguese coach will declare on the issue of Ferguson's eventual successor. "That is the commitment I have for him and to the club. I have been with four national teams and 18 years as a top club manager. I am happy with my contribution to a mission."

When asked if Ferguson's fervour for the job had dimmed, he was more forthcoming. "I think he has more enthusiasm because he has responsibilities after becoming the first one to reach 1,000 games. It is a fantastic achievement, something which makes other coaches dream, and he is a role model for us. He does everything with the same youthful mentality. It is like a refreshed environment every time we talk and deal with him."

Is it a feat which will never be repeated? "I imagine most coaches think it important to have 1,000 days," replies Queiroz wryly. "That is a great achievement sometimes." This is the context in which Ferguson's durability must be examined. In today's management environment, three years can be regarded as a successful stint. Dario Gradi, down the road at Crewe Alexandra, came of age with his 21st anniversary earlier this year, though he has scarcely worked in the rarified atmosphere that Ferguson does.

Alan Curbishley, approaching a decade at Charlton in sole charge (13 years if his initial service in tandem with Steve Gritt is included) and Wenger are the only other Premiership managers with genuine claims to long-service medals.

Neither are comparable with the character who now should perhaps be known as football's longest knight.

>THE FIRST

8 November 1986 Oxford Utd 2 Manchester Utd 0

Unbeknown to Ferguson, predecessor Ron Atkinson had held a farewell party on the Thursday night, so it was more a case of a hangover than a takeover when the new manager arrived at The Cliff. It showed at Oxford, where Ferguson, without the injured Bryan Robson, Gordon Strachan and Norman Whiteside, was surprised at the fitness levels, and how jumpy his defence was. "We only relaxed when we were 2-0 down," he lamented, John Aldridge and Neil Slatter providing the sedatives. The players probably needed some medication, too, when Ferguson laid into them. "I made it plain that I meant to put an end to United's reputation of being as much a social club as a football club," he wrote in his autobiography Managing My Life. "To hell with soft-shoeing around such a major issue." The hair dryer had been plugged in.

THE WORST

23 September 1989 Manchester City 5 Manchester Utd 1

Mancunian derby 111, but for Ferguson the number might as well have been 666. City fans know this date off by heart, United's are still trying to live down what is known locally as the "Maine Road Massacre". The visitors began brightly, but after the match had been halted because of crowd trouble, United returned as strangers. No one more so than £2.3m defender Gary Pallister, at fault for two of City's goals and described by one reporter as "more expensive by the minute". "If you give away silly goals you haven't got a chance. It's like trying to climb up a glass mountain," Ferguson said later, his comments hiding desperate feelings. He went home, retired to bed and hid his head under a pillow until his concerned wife found him. City's manager, Mel Machin, was sacked two months later; Pallister would become one of United's greatest centre-halves.

THE TURNING POINT

7 January 1990 Nottm Forest 0 Manchester Utd 1

United were 15th in the First Division, rated an unflattering 16-1 to win the FA Cup, and Ferguson's obituaries were being written. On television, Jimmy Hill even criticised the way the team warmed up, such was the sense of doom that hung over this third-round tie. To make matters worse, Neil Webb, Bryan Robson, Paul Ince and Lee Sharpe were injured and Forest, semi-finalists in the previous two seasons, were possibly the best cup team in the country. Yet Ferguson had the confidence to place a bet at those odds, and won handsomely. Ferguson had spent a then-massive £13m to assemble his team of seeming misfits, but it was a young player who had cost nothing, Mark Robins, who got the goal. United won the Cup thanks to a goal in the final from another unknown, Lee Martin; saviour Robins was transferred later to Norwich.

THE MOST FIERY

20 October 1990 Manchester Utd 0 Arsenal 1

Those who believe antipathy between these clubs is a recent thing can think again. Keown versus Van Nistelrooy? This game had 21 players in a mass brawl, with only David Seaman not involved. Not for the only time in his career, he moved too late. The seeds were sown two years earlier when Nigel Winterburn goaded Brian McClair over a missed penalty, so when Anders Limpar, the scorer of the game's only goal, and Denis Irwin squared up after 59 minutes, anger erupted into a fracas. Punches, kicks, mayhem; but, amazingly, only two men, Limpar and Winterburn, were booked. The FA were not as lenient as referee Keith Hackett: Arsenal were deducted two points, United one and both clubs fined £50,000. To what effect is debatable, because the Gunners still won the title and United collected the Cup-Winners' Cup.

THE MOST BIZARRE

25 January, 1995 Crystal Palace 1 Manchester Utd 1

"I didn't see it." It is the manager's get-out clause, but in Ferguson's case he genuinely did not know what Eric Cantona had done when the Frenchman brought new meaning to "over the top". "People will doubt that I could have stayed uninformed for so long. 'He must have been told,' they'll say. They are wrong. I was still enclosed in my other world." It was not until 5.30am when a sleepless manager viewed the match on video to discover Cantona had not merely been sent off for the fifth time as a United player but had launched a karate kick at a Palace supporter. "I couldn't believe what I saw," he said. Ferguson missed the kick that launched a thousand seagulls but counted the cost. Cantona was suspended for eight months, was given 120 hours of community service and United won nothing that season, missing a Double by three goals.

THE BEST

26 May 1999 Bayern Munich 1 Manchester Utd 2

This is the apex of his career, but if the referee had blown the whistle at 90 minutes the Champions' League final in Barcelona would have gone down as Fergie's Folly. Bereft of the suspended Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, he played Ryan Giggs on the right, David Beckham through the centre and Jesper Blomqvist on the left, and was rewarded with tactical confusion. Bayern took the lead through Mario Basler and hit the wood-work twice. Then, on what would have been Sir Matt Busby's 90th birthday, two goals arrived after what record books will put as 90 minutes. Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored from two Beckham corners, and the Munich colours that had been tied to the trophy were hurriedly torn off. Fergie should have been speechless, but was succinct: "I can't believe it. Football. Bloody hell."

Guy Hodgson

ROLL OF HONOUR

Games played: 999. Won: 567. Drawn: 242. Lost: 190. Goals for: 1,782. Against: 944. Honours: Premier League 1992-93, 1993-94, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2002-03. Champions' League 1998-99. European Cup-Winners' Cup 1990-91. Super Cup 1992. FA Cup 1990, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2004. League Cup 1992. Charity Shield 1990, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2003.

Personal: Knighted 13 June 1999.

Premiership Manager of the Year: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2003.

Leading scorers: Brian McClair 126; Ryan Giggs 123; Andy Cole 121; Paul Scholes 116; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mark Hughes 115; Ruud van Nistelrooy 110; Eric Cantona 80.

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