United fuelled by Fergie’s fire

TEN league titles in the bag, a Champions League trophy already tucked away and another one tantalisingly close to being secured.

If Alex Ferguson ever wanted to choose the perfect moment to walk away from Manchester United, it might just arrive next month if he looks out across Red Square with a second European Cup in his grasp.

That is the script, anyway, the romanticised ending to a 22-year epic that has seen Ferguson build an empire at Old Trafford that has long since outstripped the one created by Matt Busby. But in reality? Rewind to Ferguson’s early days at Old Trafford, when the club was in the ever-growing shadow cast by Liverpool, and you get a sense of what really drives the Glaswegian.

“My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f***ing perch,” he said. “And you can print that.”

Less than an hour before he had uttered his fighting talk, United had beaten Bayern Munich to claim only their second European Cup, but the old rivalry, the number one objective remained in the forefront of Ferguson’s mind. Overhauling Liverpool was, is and will forever be, Ferguson’s raison d’être at Old Trafford and if he adds the Champions League to the Premier League this season, it will only take him closer to achieving his number one objective.

Having delivered a 10th Premier League title, United’s haul of league championships now stands at 17, just one behind Liverpool’s record tally. The Merseysiders’ five European Cups will take some matching and might even be beyond Ferguson, but with domestic parity in sight, do not bet on Ferguson calling time on United yet, even if they win the Champions League on May 21.

“I’ve already done that,” Ferguson reminded those pressing for clues on whether European glory would signal the end. “That was an issue because it was always a question of I haven’t won a European Cup, but having done that, that’s not an issue anymore.

“The issue is more a club thing, i.e. trying to improve our record on all fronts, whether that be the European Cup, the Premier League, the FA Cup. It’s maintaining that success, creating the continuity, that’s important. When I leave, there has to be a continuity and we are planning towards that.

“There has to be a plan, no question about that. There have been clubs in the past who have not recognised the change in their clubs and have suffered for it. We try to be one step ahead all the time, that’s one of the reasons we put Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand on longer contracts, it gives us stability.”

When he celebrated his 65th birthday in December 2006, Ferguson insisted he had no intention of marking his 70th birthday in the United manager’s chair. He remains the ‘Godfather’ of Old Trafford, but his well-trusted assistant Carlos Queiroz is Ferguson’s eyes and ears on the training ground and the Portuguese coach also eases the burden on Ferguson in other areas, such as identifying players and cajoling the Latin temperaments of Ronaldo, Nani and Anderson.

Ferguson’s passion and drive continue to fuel United’s incessant pursuit of silverware, however. The ‘hairdryer’ may be gathering dust somewhere in his plush office, but it remains primed for an appearance at least once a season and none of his multi-millionaire players is safe from his fury if provoked.

The fear factor might not work elsewhere, but combined with an ethos of treating each of his players with the respect due to a top professional, the iron fist in a velvet glove remains effective. Those first team players that enraged Ferguson by arranging last December’s infamous Christmas party certainly discovered that the fire still burns as intensely as ever.

Back then, the dressing downs were delivered behind closed doors and those senior players singled out given the opportunity to make amends on the pitch.

And as the title was finally decided at Wigan yesterday, those players were the ones that drove United over the line to secure Ferguson’s latest trophy. Now for the big one.

What his rivals said...

“He is one of the best and influential managers around. I congratulate him for that and I have a lot of respect for him. He embodies football.”

Frank Rijkaard

“He is the best there is, and may ever be. He is Mr Amazing.”

Alan Curbishley

“He must be as thrilled with this team as he was with any of the others and that is what gives him the incredible appetite and enthusiasm to carry on. He’ll already be planning more titles and more glory.”

Kenny Dalglish

“I don’t know him well enough to say he is a friend but I absolutely respect him for who he is and what he has done. To spend such a long time in a job, you have to make big sacrifices.”

Arsene Wenger

Greatest title triumphs

ALEX FERGUSON has rated this season’s title as his best since arriving at Old Trafford, but there is no shortage of competition.

1992-93: Having missed out agonisingly to Leeds the previous season, Ferguson was under pressure to deliver and did, spectacularly. Tenth in mid-November, United were inspired by the arrival of Eric Cantona and won the title by 10 points.

1995-96: A triumph not just for Ferguson’s much-vaunted kids — famously written off after an opening day defeat at Villa by Alan Hansen — but also his unique approach to psychological warfare. Newcastle’s Kevin Keegan failed to deal with the Scot’s jibes, cracked live on television and lost the title by four points.

1998-99: Claimed the first part of an unprecedented Treble by beating Tottenham 2-1 on the final day of the season to win the title by a point from Arsenal. Further glory was to follow at Wembley and the Nou Camp.

2006-07: Inspired by the brilliant displays of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, United ended a three-year wait for the title in dazzling fashion. Chelsea pressed hard but were undone over a catastrophic Christmas period: United ended six points clear.


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