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Will Wigan’s adventure be Fergie’s last stand?

Alex Ferguson

By Frank Malley
FOR a man accustomed to the glint of silver, the Carling Cup is not a trophy to get overly excited about. Except this year is different for Alex Ferguson.

The cup which Ferguson has not always treated with due respect has assumed an importance in United’s season way beyond that of times past.

Out of Europe. Languishing 12 points behind Chelsea in the Premiership. Out of the FA Cup after a performance against Liverpool devoid of imagination. Having officially relinquished their position as the world’s richest club to Real Madrid.

No wonder the Glazer brothers, Joel, Avi and Bryan, plan to be in Cardiff to see United try to win its first League Cup since 1992.

A second successive season without a trophy was not what they and father Malcolm had in mind when they paid £780m for United.

Defeat against Wigan, a suburb of Greater Manchester for heaven’s sake, might just set the doubters pondering once more whether Ferguson has taken United as far as he can.

After all, we are talking about a United side in which Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy alone cost a combined £75m.

That’s £5m more than Wigan chairman Dave Whelan has pumped into that club over the past 10 years, including the cost of their brand new state-of-the-art JJB stadium.

Money alone does not guarantee success, something Ferguson has proved these past two years with a string of signings that simply haven’t worked.

Rooney aside - and let’s face it, predicting his success did not take an Einsteinian leap of intelligence - Ferguson has brought ordinariness to Old Trafford; Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic the latest pair to struggle at settling in despite their combined price tag of £12m.

United’s defence remains shaky, especially at set-pieces, while the midfield, with Darren Fletcher and Kieran Richardson, hardly world-beaters, looks little more than makeshift.

That is why the pressure will be on, at the Millennium stadium, in a final that will see neutrals, to a man, cheering for Wigan.

Not just because they are the underdogs, but because Wigan are the club who have given every football fan in the country hope that unfashionable towns with limited support can break into football’s big-time.

Manager Paul Jewell has been as refreshing as his team, even if he has a penchant for the footballing cliche. "We can’t afford to fear them, although we do respect them," he says. "But we don’t want to go there and be bridesmaids. People say there’s no pressure on us but come Sunday we will put pressure on ourselves. We want to lift that trophy."

That’s the great beauty of tomorrow’s final. Wigan are not in Cardiff for the day out, just as they are not in the Premiership only for the ride.

They are there for the long-haul.

And the way they have gone about getting there and staying there is an example to every club. It would be wrong to suggest Wigan did this entirely on a shoestring.

Whelan, who took over 10 years ago for a match against Hartlepool in the old third division, which drew 1,500 supporters, has dug deep into his £800m fortune to fund the club.

Wigan has paid big wages, their expenditure constantly exceeding turnover, which is why it was a bit rich of Whelan to recently complain that the Premiership needs a wage cap to curtail the spending of Roman Abramovich.

Yet Wigan’s secret is not mere money.

Whelan has applied the rule which was the blueprint for all successful football clubs back in the days when he was a defender for Blackburn.

Put in place a dynamic manager and back him to the hilt on and off the field.

A pleasing balance between youth and experience, meanwhile, has kept Wigan where they are in the top half of the Premiership.

Defenders such as former Liverpool man Stephane Henchoz, doubtful with a knee injury, ex-Portsmouth centre-back Arjan De Zeeuw and goalkeeper Mike Pollitt, once discarded by Ferguson, are revelling in one last crack at the Premiership.

Midfielder Jimmy Bullard is proving that West Ham jettisoned him too easily, while Irish international Graham Kavanagh supplies midfield guile.

Austrian international Paul Scharner also proves that Jewell knows how to spend Whelan’s money wisely; the midfielder-cum-defender signed for £2.5m in the transfer window when a bigger club such as Birmingham were sure he was their man.

Why did Scharner go to Wigan? Because, in his estimation, the prospects of European competition were better. That is some compliment to Wigan, who struggled to spend a significant chunk of the £25m Whelan earmarked for team-building, last summer, because many players feared for their survival.

Most encouraging of all, however, is that Wigan’s adventure has been built on attractive, positive football - full of pace and penetration.

Much of that is down to front men, Jason Roberts, who completes a three-match suspension in time to play at Cardiff, and Henri Camara, whose darting runs were a feature of Senegal’s recent progress to the semi-finals of the African Nations Cup.

It was Jason Roberts’ late goal at Highbury that saw Wigan through to Cardiff and the twin strikers should cause United’s defence more than a few problems.

The problem for Wigan will be at the other end.

It is no coincidence that Wigan have done wonderfully well against most Premiership opposition.

The odd times they have been outclassed were away to Liverpool and Manchester United.

Their league game at Old Trafford ended in a 4-0 drubbing which could have been worse; Wigan’s immobile defenders no match for Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The smart money says United will have too much class, but 100 Wigan busses are ready to roll across the Severn Bridge, while the nation at large is preparing to clear its throat and roar the team on.

The steely eyes of the Glazers, meanwhile, will be calculating exactly where United are heading.

Make no mistake, Ferguson needs that glint of silver.

 

Will Wigan’s adventure be Fergie’s last stand?

Alex Ferguson

By Frank Malley
FOR a man accustomed to the glint of silver, the Carling Cup is not a trophy to get overly excited about. Except this year is different for Alex Ferguson.

The cup which Ferguson has not always treated with due respect has assumed an importance in United’s season way beyond that of times past.

Out of Europe. Languishing 12 points behind Chelsea in the Premiership. Out of the FA Cup after a performance against Liverpool devoid of imagination. Having officially relinquished their position as the world’s richest club to Real Madrid.

No wonder the Glazer brothers, Joel, Avi and Bryan, plan to be in Cardiff to see United try to win its first League Cup since 1992.

A second successive season without a trophy was not what they and father Malcolm had in mind when they paid £780m for United.

Defeat against Wigan, a suburb of Greater Manchester for heaven’s sake, might just set the doubters pondering once more whether Ferguson has taken United as far as he can.

After all, we are talking about a United side in which Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy alone cost a combined £75m.

That’s £5m more than Wigan chairman Dave Whelan has pumped into that club over the past 10 years, including the cost of their brand new state-of-the-art JJB stadium.

Money alone does not guarantee success, something Ferguson has proved these past two years with a string of signings that simply haven’t worked.

Rooney aside - and let’s face it, predicting his success did not take an Einsteinian leap of intelligence - Ferguson has brought ordinariness to Old Trafford; Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic the latest pair to struggle at settling in despite their combined price tag of £12m.

United’s defence remains shaky, especially at set-pieces, while the midfield, with Darren Fletcher and Kieran Richardson, hardly world-beaters, looks little more than makeshift.

That is why the pressure will be on, at the Millennium stadium, in a final that will see neutrals, to a man, cheering for Wigan.

Not just because they are the underdogs, but because Wigan are the club who have given every football fan in the country hope that unfashionable towns with limited support can break into football’s big-time.

Manager Paul Jewell has been as refreshing as his team, even if he has a penchant for the footballing cliche. "We can’t afford to fear them, although we do respect them," he says. "But we don’t want to go there and be bridesmaids. People say there’s no pressure on us but come Sunday we will put pressure on ourselves. We want to lift that trophy."

That’s the great beauty of tomorrow’s final. Wigan are not in Cardiff for the day out, just as they are not in the Premiership only for the ride.

They are there for the long-haul.

And the way they have gone about getting there and staying there is an example to every club. It would be wrong to suggest Wigan did this entirely on a shoestring.

Whelan, who took over 10 years ago for a match against Hartlepool in the old third division, which drew 1,500 supporters, has dug deep into his £800m fortune to fund the club.

Wigan has paid big wages, their expenditure constantly exceeding turnover, which is why it was a bit rich of Whelan to recently complain that the Premiership needs a wage cap to curtail the spending of Roman Abramovich.

Yet Wigan’s secret is not mere money.

Whelan has applied the rule which was the blueprint for all successful football clubs back in the days when he was a defender for Blackburn.

Put in place a dynamic manager and back him to the hilt on and off the field.

A pleasing balance between youth and experience, meanwhile, has kept Wigan where they are in the top half of the Premiership.

Defenders such as former Liverpool man Stephane Henchoz, doubtful with a knee injury, ex-Portsmouth centre-back Arjan De Zeeuw and goalkeeper Mike Pollitt, once discarded by Ferguson, are revelling in one last crack at the Premiership.

Midfielder Jimmy Bullard is proving that West Ham jettisoned him too easily, while Irish international Graham Kavanagh supplies midfield guile.

Austrian international Paul Scharner also proves that Jewell knows how to spend Whelan’s money wisely; the midfielder-cum-defender signed for £2.5m in the transfer window when a bigger club such as Birmingham were sure he was their man.

Why did Scharner go to Wigan? Because, in his estimation, the prospects of European competition were better. That is some compliment to Wigan, who struggled to spend a significant chunk of the £25m Whelan earmarked for team-building, last summer, because many players feared for their survival.

Most encouraging of all, however, is that Wigan’s adventure has been built on attractive, positive football - full of pace and penetration.

Much of that is down to front men, Jason Roberts, who completes a three-match suspension in time to play at Cardiff, and Henri Camara, whose darting runs were a feature of Senegal’s recent progress to the semi-finals of the African Nations Cup.

It was Jason Roberts’ late goal at Highbury that saw Wigan through to Cardiff and the twin strikers should cause United’s defence more than a few problems.

The problem for Wigan will be at the other end.

It is no coincidence that Wigan have done wonderfully well against most Premiership opposition.

The odd times they have been outclassed were away to Liverpool and Manchester United.

Their league game at Old Trafford ended in a 4-0 drubbing which could have been worse; Wigan’s immobile defenders no match for Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The smart money says United will have too much class, but 100 Wigan busses are ready to roll across the Severn Bridge, while the nation at large is preparing to clear its throat and roar the team on.

The steely eyes of the Glazers, meanwhile, will be calculating exactly where United are heading.

Make no mistake, Ferguson needs that glint of silver.