The Lazarus effect

September 16, 2004
By Dominic Raynor
(Archive)

Manchester United's alarming decline from 2002/03 Premiership champions to potential also-rans in the fledgling 2004/05 season can be put down to the absence of a single player, or so we are led to believe.

Rio Ferdinand's eight-month suspension, imposed for missing a routine drugs test at United's Carrington training ground in September last year, was the stimulus for the Old Trafford club's capitulation.

And while this claim may fly in the face of the 'one player doesn't make a team' mantra, the statistics do actually bear it out. Before the £29.3million defender's last appearance for United in January 2003 the club were one point clear at the top of the Premiership. By the end of the campaign the Red Devils were licking their wounds in third place, 15 points behind Arsenal.

This season United are already nine points behind the Gunners, after only five games, and the defensive frailties that have gifted goals to their opponents cannot be mentioned without Ferdinand's name being uttered in the same breath.

What excellent news then that Ferdinand, the apparent embodiment of all United's problems, has completed his ban. The 26-year-old is eligible to return for Monday night's clash with arch-rivals Liverpool and everything is set to be peachy again at the Theatre of Dreams.

Unfortunately for United it's not so. While Ferdinand's departure certainly coincided with a down turn in the fortunes of the Old Trafford club, the defender's absence cannot be hailed as the sole catalyst for the crumbling of the red empire.

Ferdinand's exit was just one of a series of tumultuous events that had a negative effect on one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Old Trafford was rocked by a high-profile bust-up between manager Sir Alex Ferguson and major shareholders JP McManus and John Magnier. The Irish duo - dubbed the Coolmore Mafia - became embroiled in legal proceedings regarding a dispute over the lucrative stud fees for racehorse Rock of Gibraltar, throwing Ferguson's future at the club in doubt.

Coolmore's Cubic Expression investment company then started buying up United shares, stopping short of the 30 per cent mark that would have triggered a full bid for the club under stock market rules, fuelling rumours of a coup d'etat.

US sports tycoon Malcolm Glazer responded and instructed Commerzbank to increase his stake in Manchester United Plc to 18.25 per cent, adding to the takeover speculation.

This shareholder shake-up, and subsequent demonstrations from fans groups, followed news that chief executive Peter Kenyon had defected to Chelsea after spending £26million on players, who, in the majority, were not up to standard. The new recruits of David Bellion, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson were simply not good enough to plug the gaps when injuries struck.

Meanwhile, United were fighting Ferdinand's corner. The defender had 'forgotten' to produce a urine sample after training because he was out shopping with Eyal Berkovic. Old Trafford officials believed their player should have escaped with the same £2,000 fine imposed on Manchester City's Christian Negouai for a similar offence.

The Reds' protracted battle eventually proved fruitless and when the FA hearing delivered an eight-month ban it was a crucial blow; although not the singular factor for United's disintegration.

Ferdinand became the perfect focal point to bemoan the difficulties that befell United and now his return is expected by many to herald a return to dominance.

That is massive responsibility with which to saddle a defender, who is not match fit and must slot into a team that looks more vulnerable than at any stage since Ferguson launched a phenomenal run of success with the FA Cup triumph in 1990.

Empics / MikeEgertonRio Ferdinand: The United and England star is losing friends

But such are the current fortunes of the club that Ferdinand is being prepared to go straight back into the starting line-up. He traveled with the Red Devils for the 2-2 draw in Lyon, even though his eight-month ban doesn't expire until midnight on Sunday, and he is also involved in extra training sessions.

The weight of expectation will prove heavy, but, fortunately for Ferdinand, just as his exit became the symbol of troubled times, his return to action coincides with a series of boosts that threaten to put United back on track.

The £27million capture of England hero Wayne Rooney on transfer deadline was a show of strength - signaling to their rivals that United still have the pulling power and desire to attract the best talent available. And although the former Everton striker won't be fit for action for another two weeks his presence in the ranks is a boost to morale.

United's record-breaking striker Ruud van Nistlerooy returned earlier than expected from a hernia operation to bang in two timely goals in Europe in midweek - breaking Denis Law's longstanding club record. The Dutch striker's reappearance should take most of the burden off new signing Alan Smith, who has scored five times whilst carrying the attack for United.

Cristiano Ronaldo returned to bolster the ranks from an extended stint on international duty with Portugal at Euro 2004 and the Olympics, likewise Argentina's Gabriel Heinze.

Injuries forced Heinze into an unexpected debut for United last weekend, having spent two months on international duty since his £6.9million switch from PSG, but he marked his first game with a goal and a performance steeped in a self belief that had been missing from the United ranks.

This is the situation into which Ferdinand will return. And while Rio Ferdinand the player may not be the reason for United's disintegration and possible resurgence, his return and all that it has come to represent, will be United's final opportunity to get their Premiership season back on track.

The last United player to return from a hefty-ban with such devastating effect was Eric Cantona. After serving a nine-month ban for a 'Kung-Fu' kick the former Leeds United forward scored the equalizer against Liverpool in his first game back and United went on to win the title.

Those United fans that believe in omens will be hoping that former Leeds defender Ferdinand can have a similar effect against Liverpool and on the rest of the season. Those who don't, will be hoping that he can provide whatever is missing before it's too late.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.