A week later, Ferguson's mouth was a tight knot of fury. Having watched his Frenchman being sent off for the second game in succession, and several other players behaving with the petulance of wronged schoolboys, his face turned an ecclesiastical purple as he spluttered his way through a combative press conference. 'Say what you like. That's your job,' he snarled at journalists. 'Cantona: He's a nutter' was the Sun's headline the next morning.
Over the last seven days Alex Ferguson has learnt that being poised on the brink of history is not the most comfortable place to be. For eight months his team have played magnificently, yomping towards victory in all three English football trophies, an achievement never before accomplished, even by Liverpool in their pomp. Then, suddenly, things have gone awry. First at Swindon, then at Arsenal, the same players who so recently looked untouchable began to look fragile, throwing away leads and throwing punches, giving away goals and moaning, moaning, moaning.
The popular press, recognising that failure is as big a story as triumph, have launched into United with considerable schadenfreude. It is like 1992 all over again, they reckon, when United, about to win the championship for the first time in 25 years, collapsed at the last, riddled with nerves. And whose fault was that? Why, Alex Ferguson, the man who cracks under pressure.
It is an odd analysis, since for the last 20 years, Alex Ferguson has thrived on pressure, mainlined it, channelled it as his chief management technique. He puts pressure on his players, pressure on his colleagues, but mainly he puts pressure on himself, driving himself with a fury matched only by the manner in which he drives his car.
'He sees football as a cause, a cause to which he expects you to give 100 per cent,' remembers Mark McGhee, once a player under Ferguson at Aberdeen and now manager of Reading. 'Everything else is secondary.'
And the cause is to prove everybody wrong. Alex Ferguson has been convinced the world has been conspiring against him since his youth in Glasgow, when he organised an illegal strike at the toolmakers where he worked as a teenager because he was certain the management were about to cut the workforce's wages. He was right. At Aberdeen FC, when he became manager after an undistinguished playing career, he was convinced it was the snide metropolitans of Glasgow who were out to put him down.
'He used to keep a log of how many times we Glasgow-based journalists would come to watch his side and harangue us if it wasn't often enough,' remembers one member of the Scottish football writing pack. 'He was certain that every referee was against him, too. When his team played he reckoned they took on far more than the opposition. They took on the world.'
Ferguson is a clever man. He channelled his inner rage into a superb motivating force for a team of players on the fringes of Scottish life, even if he did need to fling half-time tea cups around to make them appreciate he meant business.
'In a way we all benefited from that,' said Alex McLeish, his captain at Aberdeen. 'It made you realise what the game could mean to someone.'
After 10 years of triumph at Aberdeen he felt the hunger to do down his critics was becoming less of a motivation. The pressure was beginning to wear thin. So when Manchester United, on Bobby Charlton's suggestion, offered him the biggest job in British football in November 1988, he took it.
It is impossible to overestimate the effect this intense, driven Glaswegian had when he arrived in Manchester in 1988. It is his nature to take on every aspect of a club's administration - when he was manager at St Mirren he once drove round the roughest areas of Paisley with a loudspeaker strapped to the roof of his car haranguing the locals into coming to watch his team - and United was no exception.
At the time the club was a mess. The board appeared to be more interested in selling star players for profit than winning trophies, the previous manager had bought unwisely, and the core of the team had become notoriously acquainted with Manchester's licensed premises. Ferguson may have publicly made noises about winning the championship immediately, but privately he was appalled at what he found.
Ferguson took the club apart with his usual gale of energy. From the youth scouting policy to the players'
diets, he changed it all. Although he enjoys a drink it is only in celebration, after a job is done. He took an instant Calvinistic distaste to how boozing had become part of United's daily fabric, and determined to rid the club of its 'swaggering, socialite free spirits' as he called them. Never mind that Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath were the fans' favourites and brilliant players both, he sold them immediately. His first signing, Viv Anderson, was, significantly, a teetotaller.
But he quickly discovered that time is not something Manchester United managers are blessed with. After decades not winning the championship, of being dominated by their great Merseyside rivals, United's fans were in no mood to be patient. After Ferguson's team had lost 5-1 at Manchester City in November 1989, the 10,000 reds at the ground were united in their chant: 'Fergie out.'
Fortunately for Ferguson he had powerful allies in the boardroom (principally Bobby Charlton) and he rode the crisis. Moreover, he was extremely popular within the club. To watch him in action at Old Trafford is to see a man clearly in love with the place. He has time for everyone, no matter how insignificant their role in the hierarchy.
'Cleaning ladies talk about him as if he was a pal,' says Pat Crerand, the former United player, now radio commentator in Manchester. 'It's not some management consultant's technique, that's his character. He treats everyone with dignity. That's very much a Matt Busby trait.'
Getting things right off the field soon had its effect on it. United's luck changed soon after the City game, when Ferguson acted with brutal ruthlessness and dropped his rickety goalkeeper before the 1990 FA Cup final replay. He knew it would end the player's career, but he did what was necessary without sentiment. The cause was all. And the cause he found at Old Trafford was to prove United better than Liverpool. From the moment he arrived, United always performed well against England's foremost club.
'He's the best I've ever seen at reading a game,' says Les Sealey, United's reserve goalkeeper, who has spent most of this season on the bench watching his manager at close quarters. 'It amazes me what he sees, tactical things, which you only see after he's told you. His team talks are a masterpiece.'
In order to prove United better than Liverpool, however, Ferguson had to win the League title. Cup triumphs were not enough. In 1992 it seemed as though he would, and lay the ghost of expectation which had been in the Mancunian air since the days of Matt Busby. But the team faltered and stumbled, and Leeds won it instead. Ferguson was criticised for communicating his desire too urgently to the players, for wanting the thing too much, for over-tensing their nerves.
'Alex is a bad loser,' says McGhee. 'It hurts him almost physically. It was not wanting to feel as bad again that drove him to the title in 1993.'
That and a Frenchman called Eric Cantona. Since the cause is all, Alex Ferguson will subsume everything to it, even his own ego. While other managers could not handle the Frenchman's vast self-esteem, Ferguson was happy to take him on, to let him play his own game. When Cantona plays well, Ferguson is first to praise him. When he does something despicable, and Jimmy Hill points it out, Ferguson calls the pundit a prat to deflect attention from his charge's misdemeanour.
'Losing worries him far more than what people say about him,' says McGhee. 'So he will take any diversion to keep the players' minds on the job in hand, even becoming the press's whipping boy.'
In every way Ferguson is fiercely protective of his players. It is not just the young superstar Ryan Giggs whom he keeps away from predatory agents and press; every player at Old Trafford speak highly of his consideration and concern. 'The manager's got something about him that no one else has got,' says Sealey. 'The players will run their legs off for him - it's respect.'
This season Ferguson has visibly relaxed as Cantona ('mon genius') has led his team on their merry charge. His public face has become much more like his private one: full of jokes and little kindnesses, loving the football his boys have played; he was even, despite the lack of practice, becoming magnanimous in defeat. His fame has spread, winning him admirers such as Sir Richard Greenbury, the chairman of Marks & Spencer, who is said to reckon him the best man manager in Britain.
This last week, however, as the final furlong has approached, and the team and its central figure have begun, apparently, to wilt under the pressure, the old Ferguson, the defensive, red-faced fury, has reappeared. And with it the laager has been reconstructed: it is Fergie v The Rest again.
'At the moment it feels as though we are not only playing the world, but Mars as well,' he said last week, and for once he may not be paranoid. Defeat in tomorrow's Coca-Cola Cup final, the first leg of the treble, will be relished by those who find nothing more enjoyable than watching their best friend fall from a roof. But you might be foolish to bet on it: a cornered Alex Ferguson is a dangerous opponent indeed.Reuse content