Success tempers Ferguson's famous fury

FA CUP FINAL: Liverpool v Manchester United; When Alex Ferguson spoke to Glenn Moore before the start of the season (left), he remained confident despite enduring a turbulent summer. The two talked again this week, with the Manchester United manager entitled to a certain sense of vindication
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There were 23 microphones and tape recorders under his nose, a dozen photographers firing flash guns at his feet, two score reporters and six TV crews in front of his face. You could almost see Alex Ferguson thinking: "It's a long way from talking to one bloke with a notebook at East Stirling."

Later, when the madding crowd had departed with their soundbites and quotes, Ferguson admitted: "I do think that sometimes. The most daunting time was when I was managing Scotland in the Mexico World Cup. I went into this big room and it was just packed with media; there were so many of them, it was unbelievable. I've been immune to it ever since."

Wednesday's open day at Old Trafford was, therefore, just another day in the career of this remarkable manager. Greatness has been conferred upon him in some quarters since Manchester United's title triumph on Sunday and, though challenges remain, it will not be too generous an assessment if United defeat Liverpool today to secure an unparalleled second double.

That the season is ending in glory is even more impressive when one recalls that it began in turmoil. Wednesday was not just a long way from East Stirling, it was a long way from August.

It is difficult to remember now but, back then, Ferguson was under pressure. Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and, bafflingly, Paul Ince had been sold and no one bought. Even supporters' groups were wondering if he had lost the plot. Only one man seemed to believe it was all under control: Ferguson himself.

On opening day's eve, a relaxed and confident Ferguson told The Independent: "Just because three players have left, the tabloids have made it an end- of-the-world situation. I do not feel threatened. Why should I? People say I should have bought a player, but it is very difficult to get one who can get in our team." The following day, a youthful United side conceded three goals to Aston Villa in the opening 45 minutes at Villa Park and, one wondered, is it really impossible to strengthen this team? As Gary Neville said this week: "I don't think any other manager would have put the faith in the young players he has done."

Ten months on and Ferguson's faith in youth has been vindicated, along with his trust in experience. He had also said that day at The Cliff: "I expect great things from my good players: [Gary] Pallister; [Peter] Schmeichel; [Roy] Keane. That is the backbone of my side. I hope [Ryan] Giggs emerges to be the great player I know he is going to be. These are important players. If we are going to win the League, we need them all performing."

Apart from Pallister, who has played well but too rarely, they have not let him down. Schmeichel and Keane have been the foundations on which Giggs, with Eric Cantona, have engineered the championship success.

"Schmeichel has had his best-ever season," Ferguson said this week. "He has produced his saves when it really mattered. It is easy to make saves at 4-0 up, he has made saves at important times, at 0-0, or 1-0. Even at Bolton [where United won 6-0] he made two great saves before we had scored.

"Keane is one of the best players in Britain. I would not swap him for anyone. He has a great football brain, can run all day and never gives the ball away. Giggs has been terrific. He has been injury free and matured into a lovely player."

Looking back at that interview, there is just one discordant note. Ferguson also "expected great things from Andy Cole". But that is balanced by David Beckham's emergence for, in August, Ferguson admitted the one area he was seeking to strengthen was on the right-wing. He may still be looking but Beckham has filled in more than adequately.

"I think Beckham can be a wide-right player of a different type," Ferguson said. "He has good running power and can cross the ball well. Obviously he doesn't have Kanchelskis' pace and that is something we have missed but he gives us other things."

Ferguson will be looking at potential signings during the European Championship. As ever, he is already planning ahead. "You can look back at records but for me the next one is important. Success is a fleeting thing, a brief moment when the referee's whistle goes. Then it is on to the next one."

Thus, on Monday morning he was back at his desk at 9.30 speaking, with barely disguised relish, of the need to bring the players in for training that day to "run out of their legs what they put into them last night". For Ferguson himself it was just "a couple of glasses of champagne" though, in the wake of Sunday's triumph on Teesside, he did put our scheduled conversation back a couple of hours - he is normally in by eight.

He was in chirpy mood, as he has been all week. His team have been equally upbeat; all but Cantona and Cole mixing happily with the press on Wednesday. The contrast with this corresponding week last season has been marked, an indication that, while success may be fleeting, failure has a unhappy longevity.

"Winning the championship will make preparation much easier," Ferguson admitted. "Whatever team I play I think they will enjoy it and be confident. Last year we were flat after losing the League. The dressing-room right after the game at West Ham last season was terrible. The directors and myself were patting their heads and trying to lift them, because we knew we had the final coming up, but there was nothing we could do. Come the middle of the week I thought they were all right but, when I saw them perform, I knew it had bitten them too deep. It's a major difference this year. I'm not being over-confident, but Roy Evans will know what I'm talking about."

Ferguson often talks about his team in paternal terms. This is not unusual among football managers but at least Ferguson, at 54, is of an age where it sounds appropriate. To the younger players especially he is, Phil Neville said, "a father figure".

These days he is a protective parent rather than the intimidating one of the past. Football managers are often noted for their tempers but Ferguson's is legendary even by the standards of the genre. He once exploded in the Aberdeen dressing-room, kicking the laundry basket as he did so. A pair of underpants landed on the head of the player next to the one he was laying into. The adorned player was too scared to move and sat rigid until Ferguson, spotting him, berated the unfortunate for wearing them. "Getting on the wrong side of his temper is not the best thing you can do," said Lee Sharpe, with a hint of knowing understatement.

While that temper is still there - and can be turned on with alarming speed - it is less frequently seen these days. "He's calmed down," Sharpe added. Brian McClair, one of Ferguson's first signings, said: "I don't think you'd ever say he was relaxed, but he's mellowed. I think that's his age, his experience, his achievements."

Whatever today's result, only the Champions' League remains absent from Ferguson's roster of success. "I think we need a couple of players," he said. "It is a big challenge. I think if we can improve tactically and get proper preparation we will be all right."

"His great strength is his single-mindedness," McClair added. "His ability to make decisions and stick to them. He's got real self-belief that what he's doing is right. His record suggests he usually is."

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