Managing to outlive death
On the eve of his 71st birthday, Ferguson's domination has never been stronge
Published 30/12/2012 | 05:00
There are some people who will tell you that Alex Ferguson is planning for retirement at the end of this season. At the moment, he is doing a very good impression of a man who will go on forever, a man who has never felt so alive.
"I am outliving death," he said when he took part in the unveiling of a statue of himself at Old Trafford recently. He relished being part of this death-defying moment and he reminded the crowd that normally you had to be dead for a statue to be commissioned.
Ferguson doesn't fear ageing as much as what ageing does to those around him who wonder if it weakens the manager. Ferguson knows that to work is to live and has always feared that, for a man like him, retirement equals death. He had once promised that he wouldn't still be going at 70, but that seemed like the naive talk of a young man as the day approached. Now he says retirement is a young man's game, but even that idea baffles him.
He will be 71 tomorrow and his actions over the past few days might have been a pre-emptive strike. Ferguson loathes how these birthdays come with mention of the end, which must be inevitable, at least for normal men.
Last year, on his 70th, he resisted the opportunity to reflect. "I'm not getting into that. I'm fed up with that. Wait until you get to 70 and you'll understand what I'm talking about."
So this year he has marked the occasion by reprising his greatest hits, demonstrating that his management remains founded on key principles. Ferguson spent St Stephen's Day pointing out deficiencies to match officials before turning on those, primarily Alan Pardew, who had criticised Mike Dean's failure to mention Ferguson's actions in the referee's report.
Who would wonder if his powers are diminishing in a week when English football has wondered if he still has too much power?
Why would he retire or consider that he is too old at 71 for all he must endure when the past week has seen those below him in the Premier League scrabbling around complaining about his omnipotence? They had a point, they always do, but Alex Ferguson was in service of his own interests, which are the same as the interests of Manchester United.
Mike Dean was criticised for not referring to the incidents in his report but he should be praised for doing the far braver thing and insisting that Newcastle's goal stood, knowing that Ferguson's reaction would be the most predictable thing of all.
On the field, United are as extraordinary as ever. They may have abandoned first principles with their inability to defend but they haven't forgotten second, third and fourth principles, the principles Robin van Persie was brought to the club to maintain.
United may falter in the spring but they may not be distracted by Europe if their involvement only lasts two more games. Ferguson says he has analysed United's defending and can detect no pattern so the supporters, he joked, will have to get used to the "agony" of winning 4-3.
Ferguson's analysis might be more severe if United begin to lose more of these games 4-3. United have lost three games, two of them 1-0, which will encourage Ferguson in his belief that while United continue to score they will continue to top the table.
He may be committed to the attacking philosophy of Manchester United but he would change it if United began to lose. He knows too that conceding goals increases the chances.
"Of course it matters. If we are scoring four goals at home, it should be one against us or none. It is obviously a concern because it is testing us right to the very limit and making us play beyond the energy levels we need to."
So far no team has matched them, with Manchester City feeling aggrieved that Roberto Mancini will have to answer to the FA for his comments after the defeat at the Stadium of Light and Ferguson won't.
More importantly, City's loss to United and defeat at Sunderland has allowed United to pull away. On and off the field, Ferguson has his opponents where he wants them. He will know, however, that the lead can disappear in a couple of weeks, especially with United's defence.
City are said to have an advantage without European football but Mancini has a way of turning everything to his own disadvantage. If Chelsea can continue their form over Christmas then they will be involved in the title race, an astonishing improvement on what had gone before.
There are still plenty of Chelsea fans opposed to Rafa Benitez and there are some who want him to apologise, presumably for competing with Chelsea while he was at Liverpool, especially as most of the things he was alleged to have said about the club he didn't say. There are few managers more capable of blocking out the noise than Benitez, even if he is aware of it.
Today's game at Everton is a critical one – victory would be the most significant since Benitez arrived at the club.
In a short space of time, he has been able to convey his ideas to the players. His great strengths as a coach are his idea of how he wants to play and his equally certain belief in how this must be achieved.
Perhaps because of his position as interim manager, Benitez feels the need to talk up his side.
In Japan before the final of the Club World Championship, he remarked that victory would allow
Chelsea to believe they could win the league. It was a comment which he would have been better off saying after the final.
Everton may also reduce some of Chelsea's ambitions. When they have a cause, the Everton team and fans merge into one intimidating force and they will have a purpose against the former Liverpool manager.
David Moyes' brilliance as a manager is being rewarded this season. His exceptional achievement in shaping a team while balancing a budget in the knowledge that his best players might leave at any stage may yet result in a top-four place.
Certainly Everton are the most cohesive team challenging for fourth spot, even if West Brom will feel they merit attention too.
Arsenal and Spurs expect to be there and, for very different reasons, the future careers of Arsene Wenger and Andre Villas-Boas depend on qualifying for the Champions League.
Ferguson's attack on Pardew and his ingratitude was said by some to be the Manchester United manager creating a distraction. In fact, Pardew may be the one hoping people will be diverted. Newcastle supporters were lined up for their traditional vox pops on Friday but this time they were being asked if Newcastle were a "wee" club or a big one.
It was a spectacular irrelevance as they slide down the table with Pardew denied, through injury, players like Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye.
Aston Villa and Fulham are falling too. They are teams that, for different reasons, are far too easy to dominate and their lack of fight is dragging them into relegation trouble.
Wigan are in their customary position. James McCarthy continues to demonstrate his class as do Norwich pair Wes Hoolahan and Anthony Pilkington, who could become an important player for Ireland in the new year. Jonathan Walters is another Irish player who is central to his club's impressive form. Nobody tips Stoke for relegation any longer, a testament to the money they've spent wisely and the management skills of Tony Pulis.
Others are more chaotic. QPR need to win today against Liverpool if they are to begin a fightback. Reading and Brian McDermott need more days like yesterday. They deserve more than a struggle which looks destined to end in relegation.
This weekend they were all drawn to the words and actions of the man at the top of the table. He doesn't believe in destiny, he only believes in the force of his own will. Alex Ferguson is outliving death and he continues to defy them all.
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