Smiling in the face of adversity

It has been a traumatic summer for Alex Ferguson. So how is the Manchester United manager feeling about the season which starts today? Glenn Moore found him in confident mood
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It is early morning in Alex Ferguson's spartan office at The Cliff, Manchester United's training ground. The telephone is ringing. This is a familiar sound. It is the fourth call in the last 10 minutes.

Only now it is getting ridiculous. There are two telephones on Ferguson's desk and he is already talking on the other one. The callers are dispatched then, leaning back, the Manchester United manager rips both telephone lines from the wall. "Now, where were we?" he grins.

Five minutes later his mobile telephone rings. It is an agent, from Italy, touting a player. "Amazing," said Ferguson. "How does an Italian agent get that number? I have only had the phone three weeks."

There is no escape for Alex Ferguson, especially not now. Not after a summer when most of the biggest names at the club have either left, or threatened to do so. Four months ago he was one goal away from becoming the first manager to secure three successive titles. Now his ability to manage this huge club is being queried.

Though he is busy, he does not look under pressure. He has been meeting challenges since he was a teenage shop steward in the Glasgow shipyards and there have been tougher ones than this - notably in his third winter at United when everyone tipped him for the sack and he half expected to get it. Then, said Ferguson, "I became analytical of myself, I was asking the question, am I wrong?" There is no such self-doubt now. After two championships, following 26 fallow years, Ferguson is impregnable.

"Manchester United will always be news," he said, "you have to accept that attention. Just because three players have left, the tabloids have made it into an end-of-the-world situation. I do not feel threatened, Why should I?"

Of the three, the departure of Mark Hughes is easiest to explain. Neither he, nor Ferguson, wanted a situation where he was at the club, but not in the team. The prospect of Hughes turning out with the kids at Bury, where United's reserves play, was not an attractive one. He might be able to pass on experience but he is not a garrulous mixer and, at 31, both parties felt he deserved better than that.

The disenchantment of Andrei Kanchelskis, who has left the club in mind, if not yet in body, is more complicated. Of the three he is, said Ferguson, the one who will be missed most. "I would never have let Keith Gillespie go if I had known what was going to happen."

So why let Kanchelskis go? To keep Eric Cantona Ferguson did his Henry Kissinger impression, flying to Paris to placate the Frenchman. But with Kanchelskis it is clear that it is not just his language that Ferguson cannot comprehend. Ferguson speaks glowingly of his professionalism - "he brings his own fruit, he washes it himself, he looks after his body" - but cannot understand his motivation. Cantona's threatened departure was an emotional decision, Kanchelskis's had been brewing for many months.

"I just scratch my head with him. Money has something to do with it. If you are going to get over a million pounds for leaving the club there must be a temptation. Supporters might not understand that, but not everyone is a United supporter. The world has changed. Money is important to professional footballers."

And so to Paul Ince. The money must have been a factor there. Mancunian whispers suggest Ince wanted to leave, but gave supporters the impression he did not, to avoid a repeat of the West Ham situation. West Ham was Ince's first club, the supporters there turned against him when he made it quite obvious he could not wait to leave them for Old Trafford.

Ferguson has been quoted, earlier this summer, as suggesting Ince did want to leave but he is now keeping quiet on that aspect of the deal, preferring to dwell on the opportunities it presents.

"It was a decision which I felt was in the best interests of the club. I have great faith in the young players and I think Nicky Butt is going to be an outstanding player. I felt we needed to change the direction of the club, otherwise we might end up having to sell Nicky.

"He is 20 years of age, he has already played for England Under-21s and he is ambitious. He would only go along with the situation for so long. Then he would say 'I am not happy playing 15-20 games a season.' He is a local boy and he wants to play for United. I think everyone recognises it is a great club but, being local, it means something more. I had to give him his chance."

For the same reason, said Ferguson, he did not attempt to sign Paul Gascoigne. "I think he is a great player but I wanted to give the young players a chance and bringing in Gascoigne would have interfered with that."

One young player who will get an early opportunity is Paul Scholes, who is earmarked to fill Eric Cantona's role until he returns from suspension in October. "He is emerging as a similar player to Cantona in many areas," Ferguson said. "He is young and he has the hardest job in terms of his age - he is 20. But he has a marvellous touch, he is a good finisher and he has good passing ability. These are qualities that can replace Eric. Scholes and Cole, Cantona and Cole are partnerships.

"Cole is important to us. Some of his finishing pre-season has been out of this world. I expect great things from him - I expect great things from all my good players: Pallister, Schmeichel, Keane. That is the backbone of my side. I hope Giggs emerges to be the great player I know he is going to be. He is a smashing lad, he is maturing, but he had a rough season injury-wise last year. He scored four goals for us, the previous season it was 17. These are important players. If we are going to win the League we need them all performing."

Injuries continue to blight Ferguson's plans. Steve Bruce and Andy Cole may make the start at Villa Park today but are not match-fit, while the best Giggs can hope for is a place on the bench. Paul Parker, who missed almost all of last season, has a toe injury.

These absences test a squad which, Ferguson admitted, lacks depth. "People say I should have bought a player but it is very difficult to get a player who can get in our team. I am looking for a right-sided midfield player but, other than that, all I need is a couple of experienced bodies to help us withstand the pressures of a long season. A Ray Wilkins or a Bryan Robson who could come in and calm things down for us in a big game. We have a weakness, but it is not about quality, it is about numbers and big game experience. That is why I need Giggs and Cole and Cantona. Why I need Bruce and Parker to be fit."

David Beckham will start on the right side of midfield but he is a different player to Kanchelskis and United are having to adapt accordingly. A year ago the typical United attack began with the early ball into Hughes which he would hold before it was turned out to Giggs or Kanchelskis on the flanks. Their pace would create the opening for themselves or one of the central players.

Now United are having to play a shorter game, building moves while seeking the opening for Cole. At Oldham on Tuesday night there were long spells of keep-ball with Butt and Keane at the hub and players running off them in all directions.

"It was good, I've enjoyed pre-season. Keane keeps the rhythm of the team going in that anchor position. He is economical, he does not try stupid things, he will play easy passes. You need a good passing tempo so everyone is moving. If the midfield staggers with the ball, if someone runs with it when they should not, people stop.

"Then, once it gets in the last third it is about penetration - producing passing that matters, one-twos, that kind of thing. It is about imagination. All the best players have imagination, they see a bigger picture. I watch a game and they will play a pass and I will think, 'Bloody hell, I never saw that.' That is what a great player can do. We try to develop that here, we ask them 'What have you got in your locker, show us what you can do'."

The patient passing of the younger players was a joy to him. Briefly, you wonder if his dream is to build a United team constructed entirely from within, from former youth team players. But no, said Ferguson: "It is not possible. I tried it at St Mirren but you need to bring players in."

Soon, however, Ferguson will only need to do so occasionally. The youth system he overhauled on arrival at Old Trafford is bearing fruit by the bushel. Ferguson has a rare dedication to this aspect of the job. When United want to sign a youngster it is often Ferguson himself who will knock on the door and asks the parent for permission to sign their prodigy, as he did with Lynne Giggs.

Soon there will be a monument to this dedication. A purpose-built indoor arena for the school of excellence. It is being built now, on the frame of The Cliff's old sports hall. The building work mirrors that at Old Trafford where two cranes tower above the north stand which is being enlarged. Outside, on Wednesday morning, there were queues to get into the superstore. There usually are.

Other supporters were gathering at The Cliff, waiting to watch training. There are doubts about the summer sales but reports of terrace dissension are wide of the mark. The infamous poll in the Manchester Evening News, in which 53 per cent of readers said Ferguson should go, had no echo at Oldham when the United end roared his name, imploring him to "Give us a wave".

He did, three times. Then, an hour after a young United side had cruised to a 2-0 win, he was besieged by autograph hunters proferring pieces of paper, or replica shirts, to be signed. There was not a word of criticism.

Ferguson says his postbag has been very supportive. It ought to be, given his record, but there were complaints earlier this summer with one supporters' group bemoaning the exodus. "I have made decisions about which people say 'What has he done that for?' But they do not know all the circumstances. I do not make decisions for myself. If I did that I could make it an easy life and just let things drift along, but I am looking for more."

In this gradual break-up of a team which was outstanding by domestic standards, but was found wanting at the highest level, there are echoes of Nick Faldo's overhaul of his golf swing.

Faldo came back to dominate golf for a period. Ferguson seeks to ensure United do the same. First, however, they must have this transitional season, but remain competitive. It is a difficult balancing act but, whether he is juggling telephones or tactics, Ferguson will relish the challenge.