Ferguson ready for return of an old enemy
United manager expects 'hostility' as he prepares for FA Cup clash with Leeds, the club that almost broke him in 1992
"It should be called 'The Luck Cup'," said the man who has won it five times and starts his quest for a sixth tomorrow. "Every time we have won it, we have had bits of luck on the way. The team that has the luck usually wins it."
In this Sir Alex Ferguson differentiates the FA Cup from the Premier League and the Champions League; competitions which require considerably more than fortune to be won. And yet, when the Manchester United manager runs through the occasions in which luck has played a significant role, they are, typically, all games he has lost.
"Last season we were knocked out of the semi-final on penalty kicks by Everton," he said. "The young players did not deserve to be eliminated. In 2007 we lost the final in the last couple of minutes to Chelsea and before that we lost the final to Arsenal on penalties. We were unlucky then."
As 2010 opens, Ferguson finds himself in a familiar position, fighting on all fronts, competing for every trophy. The FA Cup was famously the first silverware he won in England and, if there is no evidence he would have been sacked had he failed, his regime was running out of oxygen fast. In 1990, the year United won the FA Cup, they finished 13th in the league.
It was the year Leeds United won promotion back to the top flight and, although tomorrow's third-round tie at Old Trafford pitches together two very different teams, it renewed a rivalry that has run through English football since the days of Sir Matt Busby and Don Revie, encapsulated by two semi-finals.
In 1970, Leeds and Manchester United faced each other three times before Billy Bremner settled matters in the second replay at Bolton. It was the nearest Wilf McGuinness came to a trophy in his brief, turbulent time at Old Trafford and had George Best not disappeared from the team hotel in Worcester before the first replay at Villa Park, his team-mates thought they might not have required a rematch. It was the beginning of the end.
Seven years later, at Hillsborough, they met again. Don Revie had long gone from Elland Road but his attitudes remained. Lou Macari recalls Leeds keeping United waiting five minutes after the buzzer sounded for the sides to line up in the tunnel and Gordon McQueen loudly dismissing Leeds' opponents as "a bunch of midgets". United won 2-1. "I don't have to spell out what Leeds have meant to Manchester United over the years," Ferguson reflected. "It has been a fantastic, feisty occasion every time we have met. It always carried a degree of hostility, which meant we had to tell the players to behave themselves on the pitch because there was no need to add to the problems off it. Leeds are bringing 8,000 fans so it will be a busy day for the police and a brilliant atmosphere." Ferguson's first encounters with the Leeds of Howard Wilkinson were difficult occasions. The way they ground United down to take the title in 1992 triggered as near to a breakdown as Ferguson's regime has ever suffered.
Two years later Ferguson found himself at Elland Road, where the dugouts are very close to the crowd, and was shocked by a woman screaming abuse almost into his face. The Leeds captain tomorrow, Richard Naylor has been flooded with texts urging him to "smash Gary Neville".
And yet, Ferguson generally enjoyed a good rapport with the Yorkshire club and its managers – especially Wilkinson. As he points out, since the days when McQueen and Joe Jordan crossed the Pennines, Leeds and Manchester United have done regular transfer business, while as he proved when vetoing Gabriel Heinze's move to Anfield, Ferguson would never contemplate the same relationship with Liverpool.
Even now, with Leeds two divisions below, there is an affection of sorts. "I watched Leeds against Liverpool in the League Cup and thought they did really well," he said. "Simon Grayson has done a fantastic job. He is a Leeds boy himself, some people have targets in life and I think he has reached his managing Leeds. He has instilled great motivation in his team and they have not let him down."
Other Leeds managers might have felt let down by directors who "lived the dream" and then failed to deal with the consequences. Ferguson's time at Old Trafford has been dotted by clubs like Blackburn, Newcastle and Leeds, who spent massively to challenge Manchester United and then crashed spectacularly to earth, with each club relegated. "It was a surprise particularly with Newcastle and Leeds when you consider the size of their fan base," said Ferguson. "But when you get near the bottom of the league at the turn of the year, then every team is in trouble and it doesn't matter who you are.
"That is historically correct. I remember when Nottingham Forest were relegated in 1993, they came to Old Trafford and played us in the January. I said to my staff afterwards that this team will be relegated; you could just sense it. People said there was no chance of Forest going down with men like Pearce and Keane but you could see they were sinking.
"Leeds' problems were financial which meant they had to sell their best players and, if you sell your best players, you can bet your life that the results will change, too. But they look an absolute certainty for the Championship next year and, with the motivation that's coming from their manager, they have a great chance of returning to the Premier League in the next couple of years."
Minnowkillers: United's recent run
*Manchester United face League One Leeds tomorrow having not gone out of the FA Cup to a lower league side since Harry Redknapp's Bournemouth beat them 2-0 in the third round in 1984. They have, however, been taken to a replay on four occasions since.
*Feb 1989 Bournemouth 1 Man Utd 1
(United won 1-0 in replay)
*Jan 1996 Man Utd 2 Sunderland 2
(United won 2-1 in replay)
*Jan 2005 Man Utd 0 Exeter 0
(United won 2-0 in replay)
*Jan 2006 Burton Albion 0 Man Utd 0
(United won 5-0 in replay)