Loyal fans make it a sour day for the sugar daddies

Sir Alex Ferguson has never known support like it. Guy Hodgson hears the heckles and the roof raised

Sunday 01 February 2004 01:00

Never have so many prawn sandwiches been discarded so quickly. The Stretford End implored Old Trafford to rise in support of Sir Alex Ferguson and the normally hushed Theatre of Dreams rocked to the sound of angry supporters.

It was a stirring demonstration of affection for the beleaguered Manchester United manager, who does not stir many positive feelings in non-supporters of the club but who is treated with the reverence of a religious leader by believers. Stuck between the Rock Of Gibraltar and a hard place since he fell out with John Magnier, Ferguson found a refuge in the backing of his fans yesterday.

The Irish racing magnate owns a quarter of the club with J P McManus and, given the reaction yesterday, precisely nil of the support of the people whose shares in United are not on paper but in their regard for the club. Leaflets, banners and obscene chants dragged Magnier's name through the mud of Old Trafford yesterday as robustly as a Roy Keane tackle.

Indeed, it was hard to see how yesterday could have gone better for Sir Alex who on Friday said it had been a bad week for his family but who could luxuriate in being top of the Premiership this morning. Only a half-decent show from Wes Brown, who passed and marked like he was Magnier's representative in the team, maybe, but that apart it was close to a perfect day.

On the way to the match, as the rain bounced off the pavements, representatives of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association were distributing leaflets spelling out a campaign that could become as dirty as the man alleged to have been rooting through Jason Ferguson's dustbins in recent weeks. "Just Say Neigh" the leaflets proclaimed but, in the small type, supporters were urged to contact Magnier's organisation to voice their disapproval and to attend race meetings where his horses were running.

"These are rich men with a greedy, selfish interest in the club," Jules Spencer, the IMUSA chairman, said of Magnier and McManus, "but they can be stopped just as Rupert Murdoch was. The only people we wish to see owning the club are its fans. No racehorse owners, and no sugar daddies."

Spencer also referred to Magnier's and McManus's "complete lack of interest" in United, but he hoped they would be watching the match on television if only to see the depth of opposition. "Supporters will be raising the roof," he added, "to make sure our feelings about them - and Alex Ferguson - are understood loud and clear." And, in an extraordinary show of defiance by Manchester United plc against major shareholders, the day was choreographed to give the supporters every chance to turn up the volume. Minutes before the kick-off Ferguson appeared from the dry of the dressing room to shake hands and share smiles with the club's chief executive, David Gill.

In theory it was to celebrate Ferguson's signing of a new contract that will earn him £4m a year, but, in front of a horde of photographers who will guarantee the pictures will be printed round the world, it was a piece of propaganda that Goebbels might have shied away from for being too obvert. Magnier and McManus might be trying to own the club but the club is a long way from being happy to be in their hands.

The celebration also gave the supporters a chance to applaud Ferguson's progress along the touchline, but if that was solid backing it was nothing to what happened 10 minutes into the game. "Stand Up If You Love Fergie" rang out and they stood. Not the Southampton fans or the Press Box, you understand, but those discontents apart Old Trafford was as one.

Ferguson even responded to the implorings to give the supporters a wave, something he is not always prone to do on days when his defence has all the solidity of a Swiss cheese. But, on an occasion when everything seemed hell bent on going his way, Louis Saha and Ruud Van Nistelrooy ensured that his smile at the end was as wide as the winning distance of Rock Of Gilbraltar.

"At the end of the day we're happy with the points," he said with relief. He will be happy at the points made to Magnier and McManus too.

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