Ferguson hails old-money hunger
Alex Ferguson and Wayne Rooney play a game at the Manchester United training ground. Ferguson says: "He's the best at coming up to me and asking: 'What's the team?' I say: 'You're not playing.' He says: 'Come on, give me your team.' I say: 'No, I won't, I'm still thinking about it.'
"Then he says: 'I'll give you my team.' And he gives me his team. He's brilliant at it. He's never far wrong. He thinks about it, you see. He knows the game." This is Ferguson in his element, larking about with a world-class footballer whose development he has overseen from the star's late teenage years.
Rooney is the great individual delight in a season of immense challenges for the manager, who is hunting down a record fourth consecutive English league title in a season beset by mounting disquiet among supporters over the £700m-plus of debt loaded on to United by the Glazer family's borrowings.
Ferguson, who remained bullish despite yesterday's defeat at Everton, has built a succession of illustrious United sides since his arrival in Manchester in November 1986, and Rooney has become the leader of this generation.
"He keeps telling me he's centre-back. Then a right-back. Then he says: 'Oh, and I can play midfield'," Ferguson says. "He's a one-off in terms of the modern type of fragile player we're getting today, cocooned by their agents, mothers and fathers, psychologists, welfare officers. Rooney's a cut to the old days. His attitude is: 'Give me the ball, I'll tell you how good I am.' He's a throwback. I don't think he has any inhibitions about that. He knows what he is.
"What we're seeing now is a terror of a player. What he's got that he can't lose is an in-built hunger, in-built energy, in-built desire. Some people are born with these things. We've seen many players like that, by the way, and they've all been great players. Some really ordinary players have made great careers because they've got this drive inside them."
Unceasing vigour also explains Ferguson's endless foraging on the field but the tightness of his grip on power since the early 1990s, when the Premier League-winning class of 1992-93 set him on a path to the 11 English titles that have brought the club level with Liverpool on 18 overall.
The targets: an unprecedented fourth consecutive Premier League crown, made all the more difficult granted in the wake of yesterday's events, a third Champions League final in a row -- never before achieved by a British club -- and the top-place finish that would deprive Liverpool of their domestic bragging rights.
All this, while Ronaldo is lighting up a distant sky at Real Madrid, supporters are protesting against the Glazers in the old Newton Heath colours of green and gold, and those "noisy neighbours" at City are spending like a lottery winner on Coronation Street.
The secret of his durability in the face of Liverpool, Arsene Wenger's Arsenal, Roman Abramovich's Chelsea and now oil-rich City is strategic wisdom, a talent for controlling change. There has been no greater setback since Cantona abruptly retired than Ronaldo's move to Real Madrid.
Ferguson maintains that United fans should not confuse Ronaldo's sale with the £67m paid by the club in interest last year or the Glazers' frantic search for £500m in new bond loans to soften crushing interest fees, though the supporters themselves say the big issue is where most of the £80m went subsequently: to a transfer fund or to the banks.
"Ronaldo was sold simply because the boy wanted to leave. I did well to keep him another year. When we sat down, you could see it in his eyes. He said: 'Boss, I just want to play for Real Madrid, it's nothing against Manchester United.' The only reason he was sold was because the boy fervently wanted to leave."
Relations between the world's No 1 footballer and the manager who enticed him from Sporting Lisbon at 18 years of age remain unusually cordial. Ferguson says: "I got a text from him last week saying: 'I miss you so much.' I'd texted him to say happy birthday. He was 24. And he said he missed me, and 'thanks for all the kind things you're saying about me'. You appreciate things like that."
But to be manager of Manchester United requires the political acumen of a statesman who can balance the corporate agenda of the club against the needs of the team and the demands of a worldwide congregation. It is here, in the growing supporter anger about the debt problem, that Ferguson faces a new and daunting test of his capacity to hold the institution together.
"I cannot let it interfere with my direct route to winning the title or the European Cup. That's the only thing that concerns me."
This is his critique of the anti-Glazer demonstrations: "I'm never against protest. I've been brought up in protest all my life. I was involved in the [Govan shipyards] apprentices' strike of 1961. I don't think there's anything wrong with people protesting if they're not getting the proper respect or valuation of their worth.
"It's everyone's right, there's no doubt about that. But my problem with it, being manager of Manchester United, is that I've got owners who have never caused me any bother. Any time I've asked for money they've given it to us. I can only speak as the manager, because so far it hasn't in any way affected me financially at all."
But it's the field, not the financial sector, where Ferguson defines himself. Next Sunday's Carling Cup final against Aston Villa presenting the first trophy-winning opportunity of a potentially historic campaign. And a timely reminder yesterday that it won't be easy.