Keeping their enemies close
Alex Ferguson has manipulated the critics to get the best out of his players, writes Dion Fanning
Published 10/04/2011 | 05:00
Alex Ferguson looked at his questioner and slammed the table. "That's the attitude of Manchester United." He had been asked about the treble but he sounded like Sean Connery talking about the "Chicago way" in The Untouchables. Last week, his side gave a demonstration of the Manchester United way, the Alex Ferguson way.
Everything that Manchester United achieved in London last week told the story of Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. Everything they did was an example of the will of one man and his ability to shape a team and events to his own advantage.
Everything Manchester United did as laid out and demanded by Alex Ferguson contrasted with the implosion of egos and the battle for control at Chelsea. But Manchester United have achieved nothing unless they can go through at Old Trafford on Tuesday. That is the attitude of Manchester United.
The English FA's decision to suspend Wayne Rooney for yesterday's game against Fulham and, more critically, for the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley provided the traditional point of opposition. Ferguson had his rallying cry. Manchester United were being hounded by the establishment. They have been hounded to the point where they will soon be the most successful club in the history of the English League.
United arrived in London on Tuesday accompanied by the headlines that Rooney would be suspended. Ferguson met the press the day before the game at Lord's. It is an historic place but United weren't interested. The venue was chosen to keep the press away. "Is he always like that?" the Lord's gatekeeper asked at the end. "He wasn't very attentive." Ferguson's attention is what the pressmen worry about.
Ferguson wasn't even in confrontational mode. The press officer had announced at the beginning that no questions about Rooney would be taken and when the Manchester journalists had done their best, the press conference became an endurance. Ferguson always returned his stare to a point in the middle distance, his eyes moving quickly away from his questioner. He wasn't attentive.
Even Rooney's successes were off-limits. "I didn't mention the hat-trick," Ferguson said when his goals against West Ham were mentioned, in case somebody then went on to mention the celebration. Ferguson thinks much of the modern world is preposterous and on Tuesday he couldn't disguise it.
His genius is to have found the aspects of modern life that energise him and his team. He believes in Rooney -- not unconditionally, he has never believed in anybody but himself unconditionally -- but more than he believes in Rooney's enemies. They were Roy Keane and Eric Cantona's enemies and they are Alex Ferguson's enemies. Last week they served a purpose.
On Wednesday night, Rooney walked out along the touchline at Stamford Bridge after the game. He stopped to talk to nobody among the journalists waiting in the mixed zone. By that stage, he knew he would be banned but the world didn't. The following morning he would issue his official reaction. The previous 90 minutes had been his instinctive reaction.
George Best used to say that if he had been born ugly we would never have heard of Pele. If Rooney had been born pretty, he might not spend so much time before the beak.
His presence does seem to offend the "old women of both sexes" who occasionally demand that people should show their game some respect. Their game is not the game Wayne Rooney grew up playing or the game Alex Ferguson has made it his life's work to dominate.
Last week was a critical seven days in the season for Manchester United and Chelsea. The next seven days will be even more decisive. Extraordinarily, United, who have looked so vulnerable all season, are now looking for sides to conquer. They have a creative and destructive energy. They don't talk about the treble but they relish the opportunity to deny others. They helped end Arsenal's season, by Saturday evening they could have done the same for Chelsea and Manchester City.
"If somebody told us we would drop so many points and still have a chance to win the title we wouldn't have believed them," Nemanja Vidic said on Wednesday.
Rio Ferdinand tried to analyse it too. "People look at this team and say we're not as good as the other teams," he said. "I think that's because when you've got someone like Ronaldo in your team he's going to do things that not many other people on the planet can do. We're a very, very solid team. We're hard to beat, we've proved that this season. We've got players not just in the starting 11 but players coming off the bench and making a difference."
As Ferdinand talked, John Terry's wife walked by, smiling and saying "Hi Rio". Ferdinand and Terry were on the opposite sides when England decided to fight about the captaincy last month. The soap opera penetrates at Chelsea; at United it is treated as an irrelevance.
United remain in charge in the title race and favourites to reach the final of the European Cup because of the failure of others.
The champions' failure has been most spectacular. Chelsea have two hours on Tuesday for this side, the core of the side that united behind Jose Mourinho, to try and win the Champions League. If they fail, they won't get another chance. Didier Drogba will be gone in the summer. Frank Lampard is fading and his game isn't suited to playing with Fernando Torres. There are few in the Chelsea side who look like they are suited to playing with Torres.
After more than an hour of Wednesday night's game at Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea coach Michael Emenalo walked up to Carlo Ancelotti and offered his counsel. Emenalo, often described as "extremely well-connected at Chelsea", usually sits at one remove from Ancelotti. Paul Clement, the
former Irish under 21 coach, is the man Ancelotti usually consults now that Ray Wilkins is offering his banalities on television. Wilkins and Emenalo reportedly did not get on. Wilkins was dismissed earlier this season while Emenalo remained to play the parlour games at Chelsea.
On Wednesday, Clement was again a constant presence by Ancelotti's side. Emenalo for the most part stayed seated. Shortly after his conversation with Ancelotti, the substitution that baffled most people was made: Drogba came off and Torres (pictured) stayed on.
On Friday, Ancelotti again denied that anybody else was involved in team selection. Yet, the owner is involved in squad selection so what difference does it really make? He bought Andriy Shevchenko five years ago when Mourinho didn't want him and sources say he was the driving force behind the purchase of Torres.
Ancelotti might not have objected when he considered how the squad had been pared last summer yet he might also have thought of other ways to spend the money.
Torres' injuries persuaded many at Liverpool that £50m would be too good to turn down. He had, apart from his debut against his old club, looked sharp in some of his early Chelsea games. But now he appears as jaded as he did at Liverpool around the time Rafael Benitez -- who as manager got the best out of him -- felt he had begun to make less of an effort.
Somebody else may have to work these problems out in the summer but on Tuesday it will be Ancelotti's job. Failure will mean the end for him and Abramovich will have to dream up a new way of winning the European Cup.
They are a club that, in contrast to United, are answerable to everyone and no one. The Glazer sons walked across the pitch before the game on Wednesday and were dutifully booed but even their unwelcome presence does not deflect United. Ferguson will not let it happen. Chelsea are, at this stage, fighting fires but it is hand-to-hand combat, every man for himself. Ancelotti says he will be at the club next season but friends of his aren't so sure. As the players walked by the media after the game, they fought their own battles. One reporter was taken out of the mixed zone so he could have a private conversation with Terry which quickly became heated. Petr Cech walked by and was asked to do one more radio interview. "I've done 150 interviews," he said, "Somebody else should do something as well."
Others like Lampard and Terry had stopped to talk. Torres didn't. He conveyed none of the menace of Rooney in his refusal to engage with the media but he has stopped delivering his own kind of menace on the field as well. Abramovich's purchase was done in order to win the European Cup. Torres could play in the competition and therefore promised instant gratification. If the European Cup has taught Abramovich one thing, it is the need to be patient.
He will need the patience of a Buddhist if United knock them out this week. United know the opportunity that is there. "These games are going to define the season," Ferdinand said.
Their reputation has overwhelmed teams this season as it always has. Ferguson's will has done the rest. Rooney is restored after a painful year. Ferguson was attentive when he met the press after Wednesday night's game. He made some jokes in his way and he stared hard when a cameraman clicked his fingers. Some people were beginning to miss the inattentive Ferguson. Now everyone is paying attention again.
His players know what is required. "If we don't win anything, who cares if we're in three trophies at this stage?" Ferdinand asked late on Wednesday night.
Ferdinand is back to play a part. Abramovich threw money at his problems in January, something Ferguson has been prevented from doing by the Glazers in recent times.
They have overcome their problems and they continue to hold Rooney as he comes through his. 'What fucking what,' could be the clarion call for Manchester United.
"Your team gets defined by success. If you win something it's not by accident," Ferdinand reminded those who had been ready to write United off.
Ferguson saw them coming. He has managed to convince his side that they must prove a point to the establishment. At this stage, you would think Manchester United have proved their point. Alex Ferguson has never seen anything wrong with proving it again and again and again.
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