Stam was author of downfall on pitch

Literary conceit counts for nothing in Ferguson's book. Like Australia's cricket captain he judges men by contribution and commitment to the cause
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The Independent Online

Jaap Stam is blaming his autobiography, Head to Head, for his sudden removal from the Old Trafford stage. Unquestionably, he is kidding himself. Indeed, there is surely an echo here of the Hemingway hero who, after being told by the object of his tragic passion that they might have had a great affair but for his unfortunate war wound and her predilection for spending whole days locked in a hotel room with a young matador, remarked, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

As Stam starts a new phase of his career with Lazio it is no doubt much more agreeable to pretend that his literary brushstrokes, rather than a measurable drop in his efficiency as a central defender, are the reasons behind Sir Alex Ferguson's rumoured move to replace him with the French veteran Laurent Blanc.

However, reality tells a sharply different story. Ferguson's discontent with Stam has been one of the game's worst-kept secrets for some time. That, and the United manager's admiration for Patrick Vieira, a fact which brings us swiftly to the most damaging aspect of Stam's memoir from Ferguson's point of view.

Stam wrote that Ferguson had made illegal approaches for him when he was still a contracted player of PSV Eindhoven, an allegation which was also made elsewhere in the matters of another Dutch acquisition, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and the interest in Vieira. Stam's other autobiographical outrages were to suggest that the Neville brothers have a tendency to whinge and that David Beckham is unlikely ever to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

None of this was likely to lose Ferguson much sleep, no more than did the controversy surrounding his own book, Managing My Life, some of whose victims are still nursing their wounds. What concerned him was his mounting belief that after three extremely good years, including a major contribution to the European Cup win, Stam was no longer a source of great defensive authority. That Lazio were ready to pay £16m – and provide a profit of £6m – for him, on top of Blanc's availability, was no doubt a clinching consideration for Ferguson.

But revenge for a literary atrocity? Forget it. That might make some kind of sense in a London salon. In Ferguson's world a centre-half could combine the language of Henry Miller and the intellectual depth of a Jeffrey Archer potboiler as long as he still made the important tackles and created the right aura. As was clear in United's opening game against Fulham this was no longer the case with Stam, at least in the Old Trafford defence as currently constructed.

Is Blanc the short-term answer? For Ferguson, scheduled to leave the stage next spring and planning to do so in the middle of another European Cup win celebration, it is the only relevant one. He is working on the last page of his Old Trafford legacy now and if Blanc has been riding the bench somewhat at Internazionale, if his last major football chore was winning the European Championship for France last summer, the great Legionnaire of Honour seems certain to bring several trunkfuls of resolution from San Siro.

Ferguson's ultimate passion is for the committed warrior, hence his devotion to Roy Keane, and if Blanc has retained the basic workings of his magnificent game, the whole hugely publicised Stam affair, on reflection, would permit the simplest explanation. It is that Ferguson simply lost faith in Stam's continued ability to do the most vital of jobs and that in the last year of active career he had the chance to work with a player of vast success on the international and club stage and someone he had long held in the deepest respect.

Stam may well interpret the circumstances quite differently, and for his own psychological convenience. But he should know, for example, that Keane could have written a wall-scorching exposé of every Ferguson foible and yet remained the first name on the United team-sheet. The United manager, we should know by now, has one abiding priority, and it will never be found on a written page. The vital judgement will always concern what happens on the field.

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