Why Ferguson must act to tame the beast

Ian Ridley, football corespondent, discusses harsh truths for a proud club
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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER UNITED can dazzle you. That bitter-sweet history, those vivid red memories. And when Old Trafford reverberates to the biggest support in the English game singing "Glory, Glory Man United", the hairs on the back of the neck defy modern ground regulations and stand up.

Manchester United can also disgust you. Roy Keane's indiscipline in the FA Cup semi-final replay against Crystal Palace last week was but the latest in a litany, though the worst since, well, Eric Cantona in January. Their fans' chanting of "Ooh, aah Cantona" was, at best, insensitive coming three days after the death of a Palace supporter. Perhaps it was their way of beseeching their beloved Frenchman not to join Internazionale of Milan. They knew, though, that it had been the refrain which had sparked the trouble at a Walsall pub last Sunday and led to the fatality. They knew, too, how it would upset the Palace support, as their club director Colin Noades - who urged the fans to boycott the match without doing so himself - complained to the Villa Park stadium manager.

Forget Millwall; United have become the club with the "no one likes us, we don't care" mentality. Under Alex Ferguson, they have taken the domestic game to new levels of athleticism and invention in recent years and have been rewarded with plenty of silver. But the perceived jealousy of rivals may have led them to believe it is begrudged.

Such tribalism, when kept in perspective, helps to give the game the rich appeal it had for a once-besotted Cantona. But when football becomes a raison d'tre, the results are the incidents of the past week.

Such intensity may now have turned on Cantona, and on United, as he contemplates the appeal of Italy from the gloom of a hotel suite within checking-in distance of Manchester Airport. Much as the neutral would like to see him back in English football, it is doubtful whether he and opposing sets of supporters can survive the winding-up procedures that last Sunday showed to be sadly inevitable.

Beyond any envy of United's record and resources, it is more a perception of them as sometime bullies that troubles. And the feeling persists that the terrible beauty that Ferguson has created has become a monster in danger of self-destruction. The Championship may have gone the night of Cantona's kick; with Keane's stamp, which may see him missing for more than a standard three matches after his disrepute charge, might have gone the Cup.

Thus could United again be victims of their own disciplinary record, as they were in the European Cup when Cantona, because of a four-match sus- pension, was unable to offer evidence of whether he really was a player for the highest level.

There is mitigation: they are angered by the extension to Cantona's ban by the FA, having believed they acted justly in suspending him to the end of the season for the Selhurst Park incident. Many of their fans feel, anyway, that he performed a public service in giving Matthew Simmons a kicking.

And Keane was also provoked, first by a tackle in the first half against Palace from Darren Pitcher that necessitated seven stitches, then by Gareth Southgate's lunge at him. Besides which, Palace's Darren Patterson began the fracas that ensued.

Television replays showed, however, Pitcher's tackle to be hard, but fair, and that Keane had shaped up first with a high challenge at Southgate. Moreover, some United players, even the once equable Denis Irwin, were quick to join in the mle. And there could be no excuse for trampling on the stomach of a fellow professional in what was an echo of Cantona's act against John Moncur at Swindon at this same stage of last season.

There is a debate about whether Keane should play in the final against Everton but there should be none. It should be an FA rule that a player sent off automatically misses the next round of the competition.

It now falls to the manager to re-establish the dignity of the club. Last week Ferguson said: "Nobody gets away with indiscipline at our club. But Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane - these players are born winners. It's very difficult to say to them: `I want you to be good little boys today and win three-nil.' " On Wednesday, he conceded that Keane was silly and deserved to be sent off but the manager of the champions of England would not go as far as condemning a member of his family. "We'll do it indoors," he insisted in a choice of words that echoed the ethos of his close-knit Glasgow upbringing.

"None of you have been football managers. You don't know what it's like," he told the press. He cited the time he had complained to a sports editor about some off-the-record comments being published by a reporter and the editor standing by his man. "What happened in private, I don't know," he added.

United's players may indeed be read the riot act and punished internally but it does seem curious that the club should benefit from fines. Perhaps the PFA's benevolent fund might be a better destination.

Contrition is not Ferguson's strong suit; winning is. But grace in victory is a tenet of sport. If United are to dazzle us again, rather than disgust us, the manager will have to ensure that some of his players have not lost sight of that simple message.

If that does not have the right effect, in less idealistic but perhaps more forceful terms, it may be that United are about to discover the painful lesson that to lose control may ultimately be to lose.