Football:Ferguson's values find rich reward

Premiership decider: Manchester United's manager instils the confidence to complete first leg of the triple crown
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The Independent Online
AT THE end of the most open and enthralling championship battle in the short existence of the FA Premier League, the players of Manchester United reclaimed the title yesterday afternoon. Not surprisingly, they looked nervous. Now they set off on the second leg of what may, by the middle of next week, have become a triple crown that would set them above any team in the history of English football. As Gary Neville had said last week, the first match would be the most important, the key to unlocking the confidence necessary to tackle the two cup finals to come.

United greeted their success with a joy that spoke most eloquently not just of their proprietory feeling towards the Premiership trophy but of their particular pride in depriving Arsenal of a second consecutive title. Unlike the other clubs who have briefly challenged United's hegemony since the early Nineties, the North Londoners are in it for the long haul, and have earned a special respect.

For Alex Ferguson, five championship titles in seven years represents an astonishing feat, particularly so in an era when many English clubs are influenced by the Continental practice of issuing coaches with short- term contracts, along with a matching place in the scheme of things. Ferguson, with 13 Old Trafford seasons under his belt, is an old-fashioned British manager who runs every aspect of the football side of his club. The tributes paid to him by his home-grown players this week were of an unusually appreciative warmth, and no wonder. They owe not just their medals but their maturity as men to the care with which he has supervised their lives.

It was fitting that yesterday's equalising goal should have been the product of outstanding teamwork by three of the players produced by the United youth scheme, which Ferguson rebuilt from the ruins of the Busby system. Paul Scholes won the ball in midfield and gave it to Ryan Giggs, who raced down the left wing and measured a return ball. Scholes in turn spotted David Beckham arriving at the far corner of the penalty box, and struck a perfectly weighted pass which invited Beckham to run on and score with a cross-shot off the far post. Grit in the tackle, speed of foot, speed of thought, high skill, utter unselfishness and perfect timing went into the move that brought United back into the match.

By contrast, the winning goal was a reward for shrewd investment. Andy Cole was purchased with the same gambler's instinct that brought Eric Cantona to Old Trafford, but the result was very different. Not until Cantona left the club did Cole begin to show his quality, and even now he is still growing into the role. His goal yesterday, his 24th of the season in all competitions, was the product of a beautiful piece of delicate control and an exquisite finish, as well as a predator's positional instinct.

Dwight Yorke, with 29 goals, received the league managers' player of the year trophy from Ferguson before the game. This may suggest that managers know more about football than either players or journalists, two groups who gave David Ginola their versions of the award. Ginola, a pretty player who goes missing on big occasions, lasted five minutes of yesterday's match. He was replaced by Jose Dominguez, whose ineffectual scurrying appeared to be a loyal attempt to make the Frenchman look as if he had deserved his laurels.

Ferguson has no dislike of artistic players, but it is impossible to imagine Ginola on his team sheet. Or Tim Sherwood, whose sulky indolence deprived Spurs of momentum in the link between defence and attack. United's players, being human, sometimes play badly, but never without spirit.

Any team capable of seeing off Arsenal's late surge deserves to hold the trophy, but there will be sympathy outside the precincts of Highbury for Arsene Wenger's inability to add to the club's silverware this year. Despite the World Cup commitments of some of their squad, they played even more attractively than in their Double season, with Nicolas Anelka and Nwankwo Kanu providing a clutch of memorable goals. Kanu, indeed, achieved as much in half a dozen games as Ginola managed in the entire season.

Aston Villa, the season's pacemakers, gave us the pleasurable mirage of an all-English team dominating the world's most cosmopolitan league, while Chelsea briefly flew the flag for the opposite philosophy. For a while, all four clubs seemed to be in with a shout. But the sight of the final stages eventually being fought out between two teams symbolising the integration of inherited and imported virtues should be the cause for special satisfaction. And, thanks to the vision of their present managers, Arsenal and Manchester United are built to last. Before long the Jonathan Greenings and Wes Browns of Old Trafford will do battle with the Jerome Pennants and Jeremie Aliadieres of Highbury, to the entertainment of everyone.

The present, however, belongs to Manchester United, and to a manager who, a decade ago, was within a single bad result of dismissal. At the final whistle yesterday Ferguson dashed across the pitch to embrace his captain, Roy Keane, who will miss the European Cup final, and Peter Schmeichel, who had just made his last appearance in the stadium. It was a moment for affection and gratitude. Today's thoughts, however, will be all about the historic tasks that lie ahead.