A league win this year would be Ferguson’s greatest achievement
On the way out of Wembley, following the FA Cup final last May, I bumped into a long-serving manager. Manchester City had won their first trophy in 35 years, but all he wanted to talk about was Manchester United, and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Manchester United had won their 19th league title that afternoon, in a shameful fixture clash produced by protracted arm wrestling between the Premier League and the Football Association. It was, my managerial mate attested, an achievement for the ages.
“How has Alex done that?” he asked. “The rest of us would struggle to get United in the top four with that squad. Absolutely fantastic. You know what really impresses me? He never stops working, never stops learning, never stops sharing. He puts us to shame. They’ll have to carry him out of that club, feet first.”
That conversation, down to the musing on mortality, is as relevant today as it was then. Perhaps even more so. I, and I suspect the vast majority of Ferguson’s peers, would not bet against Manchester United winning a 20th title this season. That would rate as the greatest achievement in his stellar career.
City have spent more than £1billion, merely getting in a position to challenge at the business end of the season. United’s net transfer spend over the last five years, £56.9million, is less than that of Stoke City. The business plan may make the Glazers billionaires, but, for a manager, it is the equivalent of driving with the handbrake on.
Is it personal? Of course it is. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of psychology would understand Sir Alex’s reticence to end his United career on a low. He is a man defined by such triumphs as the treble of 1999. He would not be being true to himself if he allowed the noisy neighbours to provide the soundtrack for his dotage.
I’m reliably informed he told his players that City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford earlier this season would “be on your tombstones”. However measured his public pronouncements, the return leg of the derby, at the Etihad on 30 April, will be considered a crusade.
United have betrayed their European traditions this season, but domestically they are where they want to be – in the final furlong, with their noses in front, and the roar of the crowd growing to a crescendo.
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