Fergie gets back to the future

ALEX FERGUSON said he would allow himself 24 hours to savour the magic of Moscow and his achievement in becoming the 14th manager to win two European Cups.

For most coaches, such an attitude would represent the most bizarre form of self-flagellation; for Ferguson, it was simply a case of keeping himself in the old routine.

The Scot is the sort of character who appears allergic to complacency and the need to strain every sinew and synapse in the pursuit of excellence is chronic, even at 66. He is the most extreme type of obsessive compulsive but it is that flinty refusal to bask in his many glories which has transformed Manchester United from irrelevant also-rans to global superpower during his 21-year stewardship.

“I won’t be getting carried with anything,” he reflected. “The euphoria evaporates very quickly. The moment the referee blows the final whistle, or a guy misses the final penalty, is like a drug: the joy and the excitement is amazing but it vanishes very quickly as well. Now we focus on what we do next.”

Ferguson added: “We have made one step forward towards getting a respectable figure in terms of Champions League wins and we want to add more and get up there alongside the Liverpools, Bayern Munichs and Ajaxs.

“And then you never know what ambition can do to you. Real Madrid have nine wins and it is a target you take for granted — perhaps not in my lifetime, but it is worth chasing.

‘‘I’m proud of winning it because, as I’ve said many times, we should have won it more times.”

That said, Ferguson has never believed that medals can shield their owners from disappointment: Jesper Blomqvist, who started United’s 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, never played for the club again, while Ronnie Johnsen was sold a year later having made just two more appearances. Four years previously, Paul Ince was rewarded for his role in some of United’s most memorable modern triumphs by being shipped out to Inter, with a barrage of criticism ringing in his ears.

Nobody is expecting a bloodbath at Old Trafford this summer and Ferguson is justified in believing this is his strongest ever squad. His substitutes’ bench in 1999 included the likes of Raymond van der Gouw, David May, Phil Neville and Jonathan Greening — worthy club servants, but hardly in the class of Ryan Giggs, Anderson and Nani. But Ferguson would consider it a dereliction of duty if he did not at least investigate ways of pepping up his squad and there is scope for refreshment.

The romantics may have gone misty-eyed at the sight of Paul Scholes, banned for the 1999 final, finally collecting his winner’s medal and Giggs striking home United’s decisive seventh penalty in the shoot-out, having replaced Scholes to make his 759th appearance for United, beating the previous club record held by United legend Bobby Charlton, but the fact remains these two club stalwarts are in the twilight of their top-level careers.

The Welshman has been drifting towards the periphery for most of the season, making only five starts in the Champions League, and while Ferguson believes he can play until he is 37, it is inconceivable that Giggs, whose speed of thought is no longer matched by his turn of pace, will still be part of his regular plans beyond next season.

Scholes remains a first choice for Ferguson in red letter occasions — although he would never be asked to exert himself more than once a week — but both he and Gary Neville have started to fall victim to the sort of persistent niggles and knocks which sound a death-knell for a footballer’s prospects. When Ferguson observed yesterday that “Ryan’s had a fantastic career” and “they’ve all been real professionals”, his speech bore all the hallmarks of an obituary notice.

United supporters will be sorry to see the dwindling of three of their most beloved stars, local lads who, along with Wes Brown, represent the last link to that remarkable treble-winning side who delivered United untold riches for peanuts. But sportsmen are rarely fortunate enough to choose the moment of their departures and riding into the sunset as Premier League and European Cup holders, in the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster, is probably as good as it gets for three dyed-in-the-wool Mancunians.

The one man who will not be bidding farewell to Old Trafford, of course, is Ferguson himself. He simply laughed and shook his head when asked in the small hours of Thursday morning whether he was contemplating retirement, and why should he?

His mind is clearly still razor-sharp, his competitive spirit burns as fiercely as ever and there is no sense that either the United faithful or, more significantly, the club’s reclusive owners are growing weary of him.

Provided his body does not break down, there is no reason for Ferguson to depart, particularly when Liverpool remain tantalisingly ahead of their rivals from down the East Lancs road in their tally of league titles and European crowns.

Overhauling the Merseysiders remains Ferguson’s greatest remaining ambition. If, and more likely when he achieves it, even this old stickler might grant himself a fitting celebration.

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