Thursday, January 20, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: May 5, 5:08 PM UK
Ferguson: A study in scarlet
John Brewin, Senior Editor
For the privileged gentlemen of the press, White Hart Lane affords journalists a proximity to the benches of the competing teams. Harry Redknapp's twitches and flouncings are closely visible, and his assistant, Joe Jordan, bares his teeth in a fashion similar to that of his playing days. But when Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson visit a ground, as they did Spurs on Sunday, most eyes are drawn in one direction.
From such a close vantage, one man's presence dominated the scenes on the sidelines. He's the one whose jaw was smashing down repeatedly on his chewing gum. And the serial masticator can still be the angriest man around. Witness the fleas volleyed to the ears of his errant charges and to officials whose decision-making does not match his desires. After all this time - 35 years in football management and counting - he retains an unremitting vigour. From a candid viewpoint at the Lane, there looked little sign of wanting to give it all up. The day will come, and it may well be this summer, but it will still resonate as a shock when Ferguson takes his leave.
It is not abnormal in a professional career to have crises of confidence, and henceforth suffer a lack of focus, and even Ferguson has suffered them. There are many who still label his foray into the world of horse-racing and dalliance with the Coolmore owners of Rock of Gibraltar a direct cause of the Glazer family's takeover of United. And the years of relative slump, between 2003 and 2007, saw him accused of being a man out of time in a new world dominated by Jose Mourinho and Russian roubles. Yet he is still here, and those factors are either now departed or less omnipotent.
As his team held on for a 0-0 draw to mark a decade of never being beaten away at Spurs, his energy looked as renewable as ever, sustained even by a team that cannot deliver the footballing nirvana previous United incarnations once did. The last time Ferguson lost there in the league, a United already crowned champions were defeated on the last day of a 2000-01 season. At the time, there was some talk that the non-offer of a future upstairs role had seen Sir Alex look elsewhere, to another club, for a life after hands-on football management.
It had been expected that May 2002 would be the swansong, either a home game with Charlton Athletic, or a Champions League final in Glasgow, his birthplace - a home setting for an emotional goodbye. A rethink in February 2002 and a collapse of United's trophy ambitions meant neither transpired as an end game, and almost a decade on, he is still here. After all, what else was he going to do? Such was the advice his wife Lady Cathy offered him as retirement at 60 neared.
The current team's model of hard work and grit mirrors that of its manager - defensive yet liable to hit back at any time they are threatened. To come across him in person at press conferences can be fearsome. A determined yet distant stare is always there. An unfamiliar face is peered at; the challenge is to ask a question if you dare. Few newcomers take on the risk of being dismissed. Regular TV viewers will note the "well done" regularly delivered to the post-match interviewer when interaction is completed. It suggests that no lines have been crossed, the code of questioning, on Ferguson's terms, has been adhered to - a BBC out-take from 1995 and a furious exchange with John Motson about a Roy Keane sending off reveal what happens when that code is not followed.
Glasgow is no place for small talk, views are expressed directly there. Ferguson's language can often be as industrial as his time on the Clyde's shipyards. On Sunday, Mike Dean was the recipient of such choice words and many a referee can often seemed affected by a looming presence in a dark coat, watching their every decision like a hawk.
And it is human presence that leads the list of Ferguson qualities. This is a seemingly dour man, yet his better moods follow the description that Brian Clough once delivered of Kenny Dalglish, a rival again after all these years, although the penning of an autobiography foreword signals a defrosting of a relationship in which "choking back the vomit" was once the order of the day.
"He had a smile like Clarke Gable," Clough said of Dalglish, and the same goes for a fellow Glasgow West Ender. Being dour does not preclude a beaming smile when all is going well. Many in my profession would admit problems with the Ferguson approach to them yet none could deny that he must be respected. When the Premier League title was retained in May 2007, he was applauded into the Carrington press room by a group of reporters for whom he often makes life a misery.
So too the many managers he has faced down and usually beaten. November's stand-off with Wayne Rooney and his advisors saw a phalanx of fellow bosses decry the treatment Ferguson was receiving, with Ian Holloway the most colourful in his defence of his profession's leading man. A clubbable type when off duty, Ferguson has made many friends in the business, though a long list of broken relationships is behind him. The latest of these might well be Preston North End owner Trevor Hemmings, following the sacking of son Darren as PNE manager between Christmas and New Year. The removal of United's loan players from Deepdale with immediate effect was an action that precipitated much consternation among a legion of critics.
At present, and with Rafael Benitez now absent from the Premier League, there looks to be some form of detente with his managerial rivals. Even Arsene Wenger is no longer the enemy he once was, though expect a rejoining of hostility if things go close between their teams. Manchester City, though not their manager, are currently dismissed with a shrug and a barbed quip, even during their courting of Rooney.
If this current United team, defective by previous standards, is to deliver the Premier League title, it may be among Ferguson's finest achievements, marking as it would his club's 19th league title. Shorn of pyrotechnics with Cristiano Ronaldo long gone and Rooney shell-like, this team will likely have to triumph through force of will, and a refusal to bend under pressure, with the type of determination that has taken their manager so far and for so long. And that would seem fitting.