Grudging respect: Fergie pays tribute to City mentality ahead of final act
After the torture of his own side's capitulation and then the mild torture he has attempted to inflict on his adversary Roberto Mancini, yesterday there was only equanimity from Alex Ferguson as he calmly faced up to the prospect that Manchester City will be English champions the next time he engages in a public discussion of his team.
The Manchester United manager has been in football long enough to know that it might not play out as the nation expects it to play out tomorrow.
"We still have a chance because, while human beings are human beings, we have to hope we have a chance," he said, with that exceptional quality to find new words for the perennial experiences of football. Yet you fancied that at the back of his mind there was only envy for Mancini and the dethroning which he can undertake tomorrow afternoon.
Ferguson was recalling the day he wore those clothes; when his Aberdeen side denied the Old Firm the Scottish title for the first time in 15 years with the last breath of the 1979/80 season. Having dragged themselves back from nine points adrift of Celtic in March, everything hung on the final afternoon.
Aberdeen's 5-0 win at Hibernian, as Celtic were held to a goalless draw at St Mirren, delivered the legend of Ferguson, jigging across the Easter Road pitch in his usual camel-hair coat, telling the supporters from the microphone in the announcer's box that he loved them.
And then, perhaps unwisely, informing them they were welcome to continue the celebrations at his house that night. (Two did, though fortunately the now Lady Cathy had gone to bed.)
"They had incredible belief in themselves and I told them they would win the match," Ferguson remembered of that day. "I really believed it and felt we were a certainty. They had been used to it, with going to Celtic and Rangers, in front of 70,000 screaming banshees. For a small club like Aberdeen, it was unbelievable."
"Small club" doesn't quite define the City side who will seek to alter English football's tectonic plates, of course. Though after a four-year period in which he has delivered a substantial amount of verbal ammunition in that direction, yesterday brought perhaps his most considered and gracious reflections on them.
It was when invited to reflect on what City's recovery from their catastrophic March reveals, that he interpreted the essential difference between Mancini and Kevin Keegan, whose Newcastle United side sacrificed a 12-point lead to Ferguson 16 years ago.
"Kevin was different. He was a romantic, wasn't he?" Ferguson reflected. "He brought in so many attractive attacking players, like (Les) Ferdinand, (Philippe) Albert, (Fuastino) Asprilla, (David) Ginola. It was fantastic, they were so entertaining.
"They had the most exciting Newcastle team of all time and I remember how they went to Belgium and won a Uefa Cup tie 5-0 (at Royal Antwerp in September 1994). He said after the game that they were invincible!
"I always remember that. Dearie me. That was Kevin, though, and he was such a romantic."
Keegan will flinch, though this observation reflected only Ferguson's respect for Mancini and the defensive "Italian mentality," as he put it in last Sunday's programme notes in which he ruminated on how "maybe we should go down that road".
Mancini, Ferguson said, "has had a big financial advantage over everyone, of course. But you still have to pick the right players and the manager must take the most credit if you win the league in this country.
"Trying to orchestrate the harmony of the place is very important. Making everyone feel they have played their part is a massive part of the game today, so to win the league is a massive step forward for Mancini."
It is tempting to decipher a code here, though this certainly felt like pure respect, not psych-ops.
Ferguson knows from the last-game experience he discusses more than any -- United's failure to get a winning goal past West Ham United's Ludek Miklosko at Upton Park in 1995, which handed Blackburn the title -- that this isn't quite over.
"How many chances did we have that day?" he recalled for the umpteenth time. "It was unbelievable. Their goalkeeper -- Milosko, Miklosko, what's his name? He was unbelievable. A nervous situation could arise if, with 10 to 15 minutes to go, City aren't winning. The crowd could get a bit uneasy, but other than that, they seem composed enough."
It is a decade since the then Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein declared after watching his side dethroning United that "this could signal a power shift in English football".
Ferguson resisted to use this against City but his desire to render their glory as fleeting as Arsenal's was unmistakable. "(Dein) was talking about United actually -- and it (went) back to normal the next season!" he said.
"I don't need to get into that debate, though. The important thing is to know you have a challenge and we know that we have."
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