Silvestre the man who won over Fergie

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The Independent Football

One day, Mickaël Silvestre might decide to share a few memories with his grandson. Photo albums will come out, medals be paraded and tales of glory with Manchester United and France recounted. But it is one particular story that may have to be told and retold. "That's right, son," Silvestre will boast, "I took on Sir Alex Ferguson – and won."

Not many – or is that none? – can make such a claim. A number of players have tried to get their way over the years, most notably Lee Sharpe, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince, but all suffered resounding defeats at the hands of the Scot. Ferguson's motto has always been: mention you are unhappy and you are out. So when Silvestre boldly went where few had dared go before and openly criticised his manager last November, many felt the young Frenchman had shown himself the exit door.

Silvestre maintains that the exact comments he made while at the Confederations' Cup with France in Australia were taken out of context, although he does not deny that he was unhappy at the time. "There was never a rift between me and the manager," he says, "and anything that happened is all forgotten. Of course, I did not enjoy sitting on the bench at the beginning of the season, but I am playing all the time now and hold no grudges whatsoever."

No matter that Silvestre might or might not have stated his views in a moderate tone, the fact remained that the 24-year-old had crossed swords with his manager and therefore looked to have played his last game for the club. Far from it. What happened next is something that will probably never be seen again while Ferguson completes what one assumes to be the last three years of his Old Trafford reign. Not only was Silvestre allowed to stay at the club, he was elevated to the first team as well.

The disagreement surrounded the continuing selection of Denis Irwin at left-back. Silvestre felt that, as the younger and quicker player, he was more suited to dealing with the weekly rigours of the Premiership and the Champions' League. His views might have appeared conceited, but he has since been proved right. Ever since the ageing Irwin was removed from the starting XI, United have looked far more secure defensively. Not that Irwin should be made to shoulder the entire blame for his team's calamitous start to the season. As soon as Laurent Blanc joined the club, following Jaap Stam's bizarre departure to Lazio, there should have been room for only one veteran in Ferguson's defence. Instead, both men were accommodated in the back four. Even when the Deportivo La Coruña manager, Javier Irureta, highlighted what he saw as United's Achilles heel before their Champions' League match last October, the Scot persisted with the ploy.

It was not until his team's home defeat by Chelsea, their sixth in the League at the time, that Ferguson decided to ring the changes. Gary Neville moved from right-back to partner Blanc in the centre of defence, Phil Neville was promoted to right-back, and Silvestre was handed the left-back berth. "It did make us more solid," Silvestre says, "but I think another important factor was Laurent's leadership. His placement, his vision, his serenity: everything he does is perfect. We may not be the same type of defenders, but that does not mean that he cannot help me. I am always looking to learn from him; he's the boss."

Manchester United's stunning run of just two defeats in the last three months has seen them regain the domestic initiative and consolidate their position in Europe. "I think we're just more confident as a team," Silvestre says. "When we looked down and out, everybody left us alone and we were able to deal with our problems as a unit. We worked hard and now we're reaping the rewards.

"I would say that we've turned the corner, but we can still be guilty of the odd lapse in concentration. The first goal we conceded against Nantes [during Tuesday's comfortable but not entirely convincing 5-1 win at Old Trafford] was really silly. Thankfully we went straight up the other end and equalised, but we know we cannot make those sorts of mistakes in the latter rounds."

Bayern Munich are the next visitors, on 13 March, when victory would guarantee United's passage to the last eight. Ferguson's men will have to be at their very sharpest defensively. United have no such concerns in the Premiership, where only the resurgent Arsenal, who they meet on 13 April, look suitably equipped to take the champions all the way to the finish line.

Today's visit to Derby County would usually be a formality, but the Rams have a new manager as well as a fresh belief that they can survive. "They are second from bottom and know they can no longer afford to drop any points at home," Silvestre says. "They are going to take the game to us, but that should suit us to the ground. We like open matches."

And Silvestre, it would seem, likes Fergie: "It's good that I'll continue to work with him," the Frenchman says. "We all expected someone new to be announced for the end of the season, but instead the manager told us he was staying. I'm glad he's going to carry on because I have improved a lot under his guidance. He was strong with me and did his job. That helped me a lot. My aim when I joined the club [from Internazionale in late 1999] was to play for the French national side and go to the World Cup. I'm almost there, so the manager must be doing something right."