Ferguson ready to wield axe
No room for sentimentality as ruthless United boss plans major clear-out
As Alex Ferguson prepares to take a giant stride towards securing his 12th Premier League title at Newcastle tonight, the Manchester United manager said he would not shy away from the tough decisions needed this summer to maintain the club's dominance.
Victory at St James' Park, where United have not lost in a decade, would take them nine points clear of Arsenal, who will have a game in hand but only six matches to close the gap.
With Manchester City defender Joleon Lescott warning United that the challenge from Eastlands was unlikely to fade, preparations for next season have already begun. Ferguson dispatched his brother, Martin, to Spain to scout Atletico Madrid goalkeeper David De Gea, who is a prime candidate to replace Edwin van der Sar when the Dutchman retires next month.
The close season at Manchester United is expected to be a busy one, with the future of players such as Owen Hargreaves, Wes Brown, Michael Owen, Tomasz Kuszczak and even Dimitar Berbatov uncertain. And while Ferguson did not discuss individuals in his squad, he told 'The Manager', the magazine of the League Managers Association, that he was not afraid to bring a player's career to an end.
"It is a horrible thing to say but you cannot be sentimental in this job," the 69-year-old said. "I love the players that I've had and I've been very, very fortunate to have had great players who have come through my career with me.
"All of the players I have had here have played a part in my success so when I see something happening -- as in the cases of Nicky Butt and Phil Neville -- I have had to release them to other opportunities.
"It was getting to the stage where I was terrified of talking to them and telling them they weren't playing. It wasn't fair to them because they had played a big part in the resurrection of Manchester United. When the time came for me to let them go, I knew I was cutting really important, loyal strings and I didn't enjoy it.
"My job is to manage United and to produce results. I will not be regarded in the same way if I am not successful. Everything to do with me is black and white. If it's on the football field and I see something that I feel is a retrograde step for the club, I have to act and make decisions, which is something I have always been good at.
"I can make quick decisions. In management, you have to be able to make decisions and sometimes you are not right, but that doesn't concern me because the important thing is being able to do it."
That Manchester United are perhaps three games away from recapturing a championship lost to a resurgent Chelsea 11 months ago is one of Ferguson's many great achievements. United's football may have lacked the magic of previous campaigns but they have forged a consistency that in a wildly unpredictable Premier League should prove decisive. Nevertheless, Manchester City's victory in Saturday's FA Cup semi-final was, said Lescott, a shape of things to come. "I know United are top of the league and will probably go on to win the league but I think they are looking over their shoulders now and thinking about the way we are progressing," he said.
"In the next couple of years we are going to be getting to semi-finals and finals a lot more. We'll meet them more and more. Manchester City winning a trophy would be huge. I don't think there is a deadline.
"It would be great to win any silverware but the FA Cup is a bit different. I have been surprised by how much the manager (Roberto Mancini) wants to win the FA Cup; he sees it as something special."
Mancini, however, would want to win the Premier League more and now United are close enough to the trophy to smell the Brasso.
And yet, Berbatov, who on Sunday night was named in the Team of the Year voted for by the Professional Footballers' Association and is still the Premier League's leading goalscorer, is likely to begin tonight's game at Newcastle on the bench, just as he did when United and Chelsea locked horns for a place in the semi-finals of the European Cup.
Berbatov, given an opportunity on the grand stage, squandered two early chances in the Wembley semi-final against City, moments that in a bland post-match interview Ferguson singled out as decisive. The suspended Rooney was watching from the stands and even if his record at St James' Park were not outstanding, with six goals in five games, there would be little question he would return.
As Ferguson proved when getting rid of Dwight Yorke and Ruud van Nistelrooy when both were seemingly at the height of their powers at Old Trafford, the manager has a keen sense of when a striker is past his peak. Berbatov's contract expires in 14 months' time and Manchester United have a unilateral option to extend it an extra year -- another of the big decisions Ferguson will have to take in the summer. (© Independent News Service)
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