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Title would be Ferguson's crowning glory
As Sir Alex Ferguson took his seat in the dugout at Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve, a supporter lent over and handed him a card. Like the choir singing in his honor on the pitch before kick-off at Manchester United’s match against Blackburn Rovers, it marked his 70th birthday.
Ferguson had spent the last month and a half passing one landmark after another. He had celebrated his 25th anniversary at the club, eclipsing Sir Matt Busby as its longest serving manager and was taken aback when the north stand at Old Trafford was renamed after him.
Speaking to MUTV in an interview broadcast earlier on his birthday, Ferguson insisted that he still has no intention of retiring and reiterated that the worst thing he could do would be to put a pair of slippers on. “I think I’ve got three years at the club,” he said. “As long as my health stays up, and as long as I’m still enjoying it and still getting the satisfaction of the team doing its best.”
When Ferguson next faced the cameras later that afternoon, his jovial tone had gone. Relegation threatened Blackburn had spoiled his party by winning 3-2. So too had Wayne Rooney. Axed from the squad after dining out with Jonny Evans and Darren Gibson following United’s 5-0 thrashing of Wigan on Boxing Day, he had disappointed his manager.
Appearing in front of the reporters, Ferguson pre-empted them by asking himself the question on everyone’s lips: Is 70 too old to be in charge of such a great club? “The proof of the pudding will be our results,” he answered.
Ominously, United then lost 3-0 to Newcastle, allowing City, who had brushed Liverpool aside by the same scoreline, to move three points clear at the top of the Premier League. Again, there was talk of a shift in power. A changing of the guard. The end of an era. United, they wrote, were in inexorable decline, powerless to halt City’s rise.
And yet, history has taught us to know better than to write Ferguson off. There’s a remarkable symmetry to what happened next. When the final whistle was blown in the return fixture between United and Blackburn at Ewood Park at the beginning of April, he was again being hailed as the best ever. Three months had elapsed and not for the first time, he had proved his doubters wrong.
A late 2-0 win meant United had completed a quite incredible turnaround. When they beat QPR later that week and City lost away to Arsenal, they found themselves eight points ahead of their rivals with six games remaining.
Even by Ferguson’s high standards, this comeback ranked among his most excellent, perhaps bettering the time United reeled in Newcastle in 1996 to win the Premier League in spite of the fact that at one stage they had been 12 points behind.
What made this feat particularly outstanding, even within the context that United’s lead at the top has since been cut after a shock defeat away to Wigan and a careless draw at home to Everton, is how they have reacted to adversity.
Their 6-1 humiliation at the hands of City in October left no one under any illusion as to the scale of the task ahead of them. Did they shy away from it? Of course not. But that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
United lost centre-back Nemanja Vidic for the rest of the season in December after he ruptured his knee ligaments, then influential midfielder Darren Fletcher too, who was ruled out indefinitely with ulcerative colitis. By Christmas, United were walking wounded with as many as 15 players in the treatment room. They were out of the Champions League too.
But it was the Blackburn defeat, more so than that suffered at Newcastle, which was the nadir. David De Gea was dropped on the back of his performance after making another mistake, Michael Carrick had been forced to play in a makeshift defence and Rooney had picked the wrong time to try his manager’s patience. Few could see light at the end of the tunnel.
Just as the fire threatened to go out, though, Ferguson kept it alive, rekindling it game-by-game until United began to roar again. He brought back Paul Scholes. Placed renewed faith in De Gea and was rewarded for it. He saw Jonny Evans grow with the added responsibility that came with stepping into Vidic’s boots. Antonio Valencia returned from the treatment room and became a driving force in United’s bid for the title. Rooney blew hot and cold but with 33 goals needs only one more to equal his personal best for a season.
Ferguson has, in relative terms, extracted maximum value from limited resources. He has proven adept at alchemy, getting so much out of comparatively little in the last two years. It’s often forgotten by the wider public that United are essentially in ‘transition’ too. That’s a word never associated with them. It’s for other clubs to use as an excuse to describe a season that has been all but written off, as a new generation needs to be introduced. It takes time to adapt and adjust, they say.
And yet United have managed to integrate and bed in the likes of De Gea, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck throughout the current campaign, and still remain on course to win the title. This is what makes Ferguson arguably the greatest of all-time: his ability to rebuild and at the same time remain in contention. To put that into perspective, United have only experienced four trophy-less seasons since 1990.
Sure, this is not his best team. Not by any stretch of the imagination. The 1993-94, 1998-99 and 2007-08 vintages were arguably his best. But, as was the case last year, more so in fact, if Ferguson were to win this Premier League title it deserves to be regarded as one of his finest achievements precisely for the reason it would have come in a season with the odds stacked against his team in competition with a City side that is potentially as formidable as any he has encountered in his time at United.
Onto the derby it is.
James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.
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