James Corrigan: In the mind games that go with fight for silverware, Fergie's silence is golden

It was only a throwaway remark but there are criminal compensation lawyers less keen than Fergie on seeking profit from unprovoked attacks

Monday 24 January 2011 01:00
Man United quietly top the table
Man United quietly top the table

Football managers, so it is rumoured, are human beings and thus are prone to uttering stupid things. But there is the stupid as in "duh" and the stupid as in "doh!". The former is embarrassing but essentially harmless, while the latter can affect the outcome of seasons, if not entire careers.

In fact, it may even be a case of the more dim-witted the better. There are certainly examples which suggest longevity for the masters of malapropism. The great Ivor Powell retired last year, aged 93, after 58 years as a coach and a similar period as a walking blooper machine.

Of course, it was the Welshman who attributed one of his sides' success "to the harmonium in the dressing room". And then went on to describe the celebratory dinner as "steak with all the tarnishings". More recently, Stuart Pearce "saw the carrot at the end of tunnel". Yes, "Psycho" is now in charge of the Great British hopes in the London Olympics.

A personal favourite in these volumes of verbal incompetence was when one manager, still gainfully employed in gafferdom, strode into a press conference, looked around for his preferred hack and asked: "Where's Tommy?" "Er, Tommy's dead," answered one of the journalists. "No! What did he die of?" said the crestfallen manager. "It was the Big C," came the reply. To which the manager responded: "Christ, drowned did he?"

That particular character shall remain nameless so as to protect the ignorant. Suffice to say it wasn't Arsène Wenger or Harry Redknapp. As two of the sharper cookies in the technical box, their pronouncements are invariably as considered as they are proven correct. Which makes their apparent baiting of Manchester United these past two weeks all the more mystifying. It's as if they have purchased that Kevin Keegan self-help manual "How To say Exactly the Wrong Thing in the Direction of the Canniest Old Bugger in Town" (foreword by Rafael Benitez).

For his part, Harry doesn't believe Sir Alex Ferguson's men will remain unbeaten for the rest of the campaign because they "cannot be as strong without Ronaldo or Tevez". Well, first off, strength is relative and with the comparative weakness of Chelsea and Liverpool, United don't need to be as strong. True, Spurs are much improved, as are Manchester City. Yet this past weekend merely provided further proof of their continued greenness in the running of the title race.

Second off, what will be more important for United in the weekly quest to avoid defeat (and we can be sure that with Sir Alex the "weekly quest" is all it will remain) is not the absence of a Cristiano or a Carlos but the presence of a Vidic and a Ferdinand. The rest concede weak goals; with that pair at their heart United don't. For some reason rearguard actions are applauded only when launched by the underdogs. At times this season, United's resistance has been staggering in its belligerence.

Certainly, it has had little to do with luck; yet it has been on the depressingly inevitable side of predictable that the newest cliché in the footballing lexicon focuses on this myth. Nothing sums up a mess better than the convergence and confliction of the clichés. It's why Wenger can feel comfortable in saying "over the season it all evens out" in the same passage as "United have been a bit lucky".

In fairness, it was only a throwaway remark in answer to a query concerning the much-revered Arsenal "Invincibles". Yet Fergie gathers discarded comments like seagulls on the tip. Except the media do the recycling for him, presenting these statements as unprovoked attacks. And there happen to be criminal compensation lawyers less keen than Fergie on seeking profit from unprovoked attacks.

The old Fergie would probably have provided a retort by now. This new Fergie doesn't speak much in public. There are the interviews he grants to his club's MUTV channel, which, in truth, is akin to Khrushchev in Pravda. Sure, there are personal reasons behind his silence to some of the media. But as a benefit, his own glib musings are not about to unsettle his reign.

Is this now part of it? Who knows, perhaps he learnt something from the public row with Benitez a few years back. Then all the talk was of Fergie effortlessly controlling the mind games. Liverpool proceeded to venture to Old Trafford and control the football game. The 4-1 scoreline supposedly ruptured another cliché, but all it probably did was realign Ferguson's focus. It's not how it affects the managers that counts, but how it affects the players. One doesn't naturally transfer to the other.

However, you can be sure he is using the doubts emanating from both sides of the north London divide to stoke his side's conviction. No, he wouldn't and maybe couldn't adjudge this team to figure alongside his great United teams. But for Ferguson the "great" comes in the here and now.

The fact is United haven't yet been beaten and, with Wayne Rooney returning to form to complement the inspired Dimitar Berbatov, they are threatening to win this league at a canter. On the way, they may stumble; they may not. To Ferguson, that obsessive collector of silverware, that will not be the question. Still, how grateful he will be to two of his rivals for providing the daft answers.

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