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Fergie: it's not over yet

He celebrated turning 68 on New Year's Eve but are the naysayers being a bit quick in writing off Fergie?

Anyone who's just awoken from a long, deep sleep might be wondering about the sorry state of Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United football team.

Pundits in both press, radio and on barstools (from listening to the lot of them, these are not mutually exclusive areas of expertise), have been rushing to bury the Man United manager's career with all the decorum of someone hoping to bag a cheap sofa in the winter sales.

If most of the commentators are to be believed, Ferguson might just be about able to afford an easy chair in the transfer market. And, there are plenty who say a LazeeBoy armchair would perform better in front of goal than Dimitir Berbatov.

It's hard to disagree that the current Manchester Unite side looks a bit lightweight when compared to the giants Fergie has had in the ranks since he took over at the club in November 1986.



dismissed

But the game has been changing and who's to say Ferguson hasn't got the right squad to build on his club's current championship-winning status. That's right. Manchester United, the side being dismissed so readily, are current Premier League champions, lest we forget.

Okay, so they no longer have the services of the quicksilver Cristiano Ronaldo. I can name a few top-dollar pundits who never rated the lad when he was at Old Trafford so, if they're to be believed, he's no great loss to Ferguson's aspirational X1. You could be forgiven for beginning to think that football punditry is an inexact science. But over the last decade, whether know-all or ne'er-do-well, you'd have been quids in if you'd put your money on Alex Ferguson.

Even when the odds seemed stacked against him, Fergie came up trumps.

It's been a remarkable odyssey from the shipyards of Govan to the dugouts of Europe. But, more than anyone, Ferguson has bestrode this landscape with distinction, his jaws chomping on a wad of gum, his football brain ascertaining ways to deliver yet more silverware to the already over- burdened Old Trafford trophy room.

It's worth bearing in mind that as things currently stand Ferguson's team are second in the Premier League, just one point behind leaders Chelsea. Not bad for this time of year.

Certainly from Ferguson's perspective Man United are in with a shout. Two weeks ago, before his side demolished Wigan 5-0, Ferguson was encouraging Wayne Rooney and his team-mates to turn on the style.

"Wayne can step forward and be the main man but there are a few who have to step forward in that respect," he said. "We are coming to that time now. The challenge is there. The League is so tight and teams are taking points off each other that you don't expect. It means a consistent run from someone will give them a great chance."

Ferguson's experience in this area is second to none. Who can forget the season ('95-'96) when United trailed Newcastle by 14 points only to pip them at the post. And Newcastle had led the table by 12 points in January.

Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andre Kanchelskis had been let go before the start of that season and Fergie hadn't made any significant new signings. Few believed he'd build a league- winning team in a season. "You can't win anything with kids," pronounced Alan Hansen on Match of the Day.

Mind you, statistics prove you can't expect to win the league every year. And Ferguson has only won it 11 times. Last year he made history by becoming the first manager to win the League three times in succession. A remarkable achievement.

While much is being made of the fact that United's form this season is patchy and that opposing club's, like killer sharks sensing blood, will rip Fergie's threadbear team apart, some managers will take on board his assertion that Manchester United have the experience to rise above their current problems.

"Our experience of run-ins is good," Fergie announced recently. "We know we can handle that part."

And, while his critics talk up the spending power of rivals Chelsea and Manchester City, Ferguson knows that it's all to play for.

He'll also know that despite some bad results, the other top teams are also dropping points, leaving the race wide open. He'll be striving for consistency.

While neighbours Manchester City are enjoying a spending boom, the club remains six points behind United who've already beaten them this season. Yet City fans, as they've done from time to time over the last 15 years or 20 years, sense that their upcoming Carling Cup semi-final home and away legs will provide opportunities to celebrate the demise of their rivals in red.

When Ferguson says he's not concerned about not having made big money signings, there are those who don't believe him. But, star acquisitions aside, the Scotsman has always been happy to pit his wits against his fellow managers in the race for honours.

If he rues not being able to spend the £80m the club earned from the sale of Ronaldo, he's not showing it. Instead, Ferguson, the oldest manager in the top division, has illustrated how he's kept pace with changes in the game since he first arrived at Old Trafford from Aberdeen in the 1980s.



WISDOM

In defiance of perceived old school wisdom, he's changed his team every week this season, opting for the sort of rotation policy that has seen other managers branded as ditherers. It's an awareness that became obvious to him as he competed both at home and in Europe and found his team overstretched.

"The days when Liverpool won the league only using 14 players are no longer possible," he said recently. "Nobody even thinks about that now. The modern-day game is all about a squad. The idea is to get everyone making a contribution."

In the absence of Ronaldo, Fergie wisely attempted to spread the load. There must be some method to what his critics perceive as madness. Because, with 14 goals to his credit, Wayne Rooney is currently top of the goal scorers table with Jermaine Defoe and Didier Drogba. Man City's Tevez is two behind.

As economists ponder how United will pay back the enormous borrowings the Glazers required to acquire the club, it's expected that Ferguson will be smarting from the mauling his team received from lowly Leeds United in the FA Cup and from former United player Carlos Tevez's hat-trick for City against Blackburn.

But Ferguson is likely to take these concerns on board as part of a day's work. After all, he's endured more turbulent times with the Red Devils, not least a running battle over a racehorse with two of the club's former top shareholders.

And in 2005, the home fans were booing him and accusing him of losing the plot. Having changed his mind about retiring, Ferguson admitted that his announcement a few seasons earlier, "may have derailed the players a bit."



STREAK

Fans complained that he'd sold David Beckham, hadn't lined up a suitable replacement for Roy Keane, had splashed out silly money on under- performing Juan Sebastian Veron, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson and had down-played the importance of the FA Cup. (Do these arguments sound familiar?)

As he embarked on a sensational title-winning streak the following season, Ferguson showed, yet again, that he is most ruthless when his back is against the wall. He still has an insatiable appetite for trophies. And for assuring his place in the history books.

If he's secretly planning to step aside at the end of the season, then you can be assured that he'll want to do so on a high. And that means we can probably expect fireworks from his team before the season ends. In that context the defeat by Leeds United can be seen as a sharp motivational spur.

Over a decade ago, people were asking what was left for Ferguson to achieve. Fergie had the answer when he said, "My motivation lies in not wanting to come second." He then went on to dominate the League and add another Champions League title to his CV.

Today it isn't just referees who have Ferguson in their sights. There's a feeling the old warhorse isn't as fiercesome as he once was. Teams might just be beginning to no longer feel intimidated by having to play at Old Trafford.

But there's a lot of football to be played before the destination of the various trophies is finally decided. And, whether through guile, footballing insight or bullying, Alex Ferguson is certain to have an influence on where they wind up.


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