Old Trafford crisis: Has the knight had his day?

With his captain critically out of order and his team labouring to recreate old glories, Sir Alex Ferguson may just be entering the endgame
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The Independent Football

Football followers cannot be similarly deceived. No matter how much Sir Simply Red (that's the Old Trafford crooner, not the Manchester United-supporting Mick Hucknall) would like us to believe that he can achieve something similar, there is simply no pretence that the exhibitions we have been witnessing this season bear any relation to the bounteous days of the mid-Nineties turned early Noughties. Neither will they, you suspect; not without significant refurbishment of what has become the Roy Keane Theatre of Denunciation, played out to a gleeful audience in front of the curtain rather than behind the scenes.

Earlier in the week, Sir Alex Ferguson had attempted to stimulate his men with the words: "What they have got to pick up is the resilience and the substance of the past... We are the biggest club ever, on the planet, in the universe." It appeared borne of desperation rather than a declaration of faith. Today's representatives of that great club may still bear the club logo, and occasionally display some of the verve that once captivated even opposition followers, but this season it has not been the United the opposition once feared.

Today is 19 years to the day since Sir Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford. The debate over whether the 63-year-old will attain his 20th anniversary has inevitably intensified since that insipid Champions' League performance against Lille, a wretched addendum to the defeat at Middlesbrough; though you imagine the Old Red Devil would rather have that music in his ears than sympathy.

It is impossible not to speculate whether we are witnessing the crumbling of an empire or simply the emergence of some largely superficial fissures which merely require the attention of a couple of plasterers. Speaking of tradesmen, how long will the Glazers look about their expensively acquired glass house before they start hurling stones?

"It doesn't bother me. Not a bit," Ferguson protests, when asked about a week characterised by two defeats, in between which his captain, Keane, had counselled some of United's lesser mortals on the error of their ways. "It cannot bother me. If I allow it to bother me, then it manifests itself right through this club." It has to stop and start with you, though? "Of course," he says. "I'm a big boy."

Ferguson essentially attributes the downturn to a dearth of personnel, crucial injuries, and the inexperience of young players who have been forced into deployment as cover. "I am operating a small squad, and we'll get on with it," he maintains. "These young lads have done fantastically because they have never deserted their post. They may not be as voluble as experienced players. But make no mistake about it, they have the ability and they all want to play."

If Ferguson possesses one indisputable attribute, it is fierce protection of his players. Yet he will know thathe is deluding no one about the quality of the new generation, too many of whom have not developed from the same exceptional gene pool into which United have traditionally dipped.

Hence it scarcely requires an MRI scan of the malaise to present the probable diagnoses: the disintegration and waning powers of United's golden midfield quartet of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs (plus Nicky Butt), whose magnificent blend of pace, vision, physique and desire once cast fear into any opposition, and the failure of those who have followed, including Liam Miller, Alan Smith (playing out of his natural position), Darren Fletcher, Ji-Sung Park and Kieran Richardson, to emulate them. Only Cristiano Ronaldo can live with those illustrious names.

Ferguson correctly identifies injuries to key players as significant, notably those suffered by Keane, Gabriel Heinze and Gary Neville. The confinement of those players in the treatment room coincides with a loss of natural leaders. Ferguson does not dispute that fact. "I heard last week that somebody said Wayne Rooney has got to be the leader of the team," he says. "That's all very well. I would like to hope that is the case in terms of playing and ability, that he leads the way in many things because he is a phenomenal player, but you can't expect him to lead players around him when they are having bad spells in matches. Jesus Christ, the young player's trying to sort out his own game."

But all the manager's explanations cannot conceal the reality that not only have today's visitors, Chelsea, in the wake of the arrival of Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho, usurped United's traditional role of national supremacists, but even in Manchester they can barely boast superiority to a City where Stuart Pearce has quietly but effectively galvanised inferior forces to early success.

Despite new owner Malcolm Glazer's promise of a transfer splurge in January, suddenly Old Trafford is not the talent magnet it once was. Sure, Rooney was bewitched, as Rio Ferdinand had been. But those who spurned United in favour of Chelsea include Arjen Robben, Damien Duff and Michael Essien.

The football landscape has altered significantly since the start of the century, and United could be accused of not res-ponding to a new star appearing from the East in Abramovich. The Russian got his man, Mourinho; he tends to get his men. All potential Old Trafford captures know that United's manager, for all his stature, has a limited "use-by" date. And then who succeeds him? Uncertainty, not aided by the departure of Steve McClaren and the installation of Carlos Queiroz as Ferguson's assistant, will not inspire confidence in prospective newcomers such as Bayern Munich's Michael Ballack, who could be a charismatic successor to Keane, a resource so surely a priority for United.

There are those of us who warned way back in February 2002, when Ferguson, having the previous year turned out his his demob suit, then volunteered for continuation of duty, about the potential consequences of such action. In politics, in business, in sport, it has a tendency to destabilise. Only in showbiz can you get away with umpteen farewell concerts. Right, Frank? The effects have been gradual, but ultimately tangible.

Meanwhile, Mourinho, that impudent interloper in Ferguson's territory, has had the temerity to take both Porto and Chelsea there and depart unbeaten. A continuation of that sequence, the Chelsea manager was reminded earlier in the week, would not only finally render United's championship challenge impotent but possibly contribute towards Ferguson's premature dislodgement from his post. It had clearly never occurred to the Portuguese that he could be "The man who shot Fergie".

"If United beat Chelsea on Sunday, he will be responsible for finishing our 40-match unbeaten run," he retorted. "It was never Mourinho against Ferguson. It was Porto against Man-chester United. Now it's Manchester United against Chelsea. He does his work; I do my work."

Mourinho does not have the additional influence - malign or benign, depending upon whether you regard him as perennial provocateur or philosophising professor - of a Keane. The United followers hailed the Irishman in Paris on Wednesday. The problem is that one man's legend is another man's liability. Ask Mick McCarthy. On Friday, Ferguson rebuked the former Ireland manager, without actually naming him, over his observations of certain players in that "censored" MUTV interview. Publicly, Ferguson may condemn Keane; but privately, the Scot may not be too dismayed that his captain has fingered one or two inflated egos, and particularly that of Ferdinand. Nice cop, Keane cop.

"Every player I have had, it doesn't matter who it is, has all got a breakable point in terms of their confidence," responds Ferguson, without referring directly to the England centre-back. "Every player has to be encouraged along when they have bad spells; that is what management is."

But will his own management style be sufficient to arrest this decline? Ferguson is unabashed. As he would presumably emphasise to today's younger rival: every which way, Jose.

FALL OF UNITED

Six landmark factors in a spiral of decline

1: FAILURE TO REGENERATE

There is no evidence that the venerated midfield of Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Giggs, a magnificent blend of pace, vision, physique and desire, is being effectively replenished, either through the academy or lavish purchase.

2: IMPACT OF INJURIES

Particularly to captain Roy Keane, the conscience of United. Not the force he was, but still a huge motivating influence. Rearguard seriously weakened by the loss of Gabriel Heinze and Gary Neville.

3: UNCERTAINTY OVER FERGIE

It's that familiar we-know-he's-going-but-when-will-he-quit question, as potentially destabilising in football as it is in politics. The Scot's volte-face, having announced his retirement, was not the wisest of moves.

4: ROYAL DAVID'S CITY

Departure of David Beckham (above) deprived United of one of the world's best crossers and dead-ball executioners, not to mention a talismanic figure who contributed hugely to the financial clout of the brand.

5: FORGETFUL RIO

Ferdinand's drug- test fiasco and the lengthy ban that followed proved costly. Rio has since riled United fans with protracted contract negotiations and failing to justify extravagant claims by his advocates that he is the world's best defender.

6: ROMAN'S ARRIVAL

Abramovich and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea created a behemoth in opposition. Suddenly Old Trafford was not a magnet for world talent. It's doubtful if the Glazer take-over will have a similar impact.

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