TIME is a luxury football managers rarely enjoy. The hammer-blow rhythm of bad results and ritual rejection is gathering pace and for every smiling face in an after-match interview, there are dozens feeling the pain.
Alex Ferguson is a master of time like no other. Only he would dawdle for two seasons waiting for Dimitar Berbatov to get over his Old Trafford stage fright and blossom at such a pivotal moment.
In the week leading up to three season critical fixtures -- games against Bayern Munich and Chelsea which will stretch hearts and minds -- Berbatov shook off the paralysis which has infected him since he arrived at Old Trafford with a £30m millstone around his neck and began to smile.
Not quite duck into shining white swan yet, but at least Berbatov is now earning his wages and Ferguson must be delighted.
It could be argued that Ferguson had little choice but to wait for Berbatov to deliver in much the same way he had to grit his teeth while another expensive misfit, Juan Veron, ghosted in and out of effectiveness and shed value by the month.
After paying £30m, Ferguson was stuck with the moody Bulgarian and we had a grandstand view during the World Cup qualifiers. In both games against Ireland, there were moments when Giovanni Trapattoni's adventure teetered on the brink at Berbatov's dancing feet. But he didn't convert and didn't look too fussed either way.
For the past few weeks, he's been converting. Sure, many of his goals have been of the eight yard tap-in variety but he's often the initiator of the move he finishes. He's finally looking comfortable in his shirt.
It took longer than it should have but as ever with Ferguson, the timing is impeccable. There is clearly pressure on Wayne Rooney's fitness, be it a bruised foot or a legacy issue with his knee, and for Berbatov to slot so well into the young master's best position allows a much needed respite.
Playing together, Rooney and Berbatov show an increasing understanding and offer rich potential in the coming seasons.
Few managers are allowed the time to give players of such huge value breathing space to settle in and find their feet.
Most clubs want and need an instant dividend if the transfer record has been broken. Success and Manchester United give Ferguson the elbow room he needs. He has backed his instinct on a whole range of players and in recent years, held the line against pundits and fans who would have ditched John O'Shea, Darren Fletcher, Ji-Sung Park and even Berbatov.
Others rose from the Old Trafford academy system and were shipped around the Premier League when the time came for a definitive assessment; numbers on the Glazers' bottom line.
Paul McShane took a novel approach and accelerated the process, choosing to carve his own fate away from Old Trafford once he sensed that younger men were edging ahead in the pecking order.
Ferguson was surprised when McShane knocked on his door but the Wicklowman was right. There was no sense lingering and he packed his bags.
But when Ferguson sees something in a player which can only be recognised in the daily bump and grind of training or through interaction on a personal level, he will back his man against all criticism.
Who else would have kept faith with Gary Neville, destroyed by an ankle injury back in 2007 and a bit player for United ever since? Ferguson saw value in giving his crocked club captain a contract extension and over the last few weeks, his investment turned a profit.
Neville is playing as well as ever again and even if his best always involved an uncomfortable level of flakiness, his current standard is good enough to make him a serious contender for Fabio Capello's World Cup squad.
Right now, he's benefiting from the absence of John O'Shea, another Fergie favourite who repaid belief with tangible benefits for Manchester United.
O'Shea's recovery moved from gym to training ground last week and we must hope that time will work its magic on his difficult muscle injury and that Neville's swansong doesn't extend beyond the summer.
That said, Neville's application and dedication is an object lesson for someone like Darron Gibson, another one of Ferguson's long-term projects. Gibson came on to score Manchester United's fourth goal against Bolton on Saturday, a crisp finish with his first touch.
His celebration was slightly overblown and carried an echo of old gossip about a sometimes elevated sense of his own value.
Gibson is a confident young man and admits himself that it took him some time to understand how lucky he is and how hard he has to work. He's just 23. He knows by now that status at Old Trafford has to be earned and a new contract secured last year will give him until 2012 to do just that.
To be so graced by the regard of the best manager in the business and a man who has the confidence and stature to back his own judgement makes Gibson one of the very lucky ones.
The fact that he is judged against another Irishman who dominated Old Trafford for many of the Premier League years is not so fortunate. The next Roy Keane will never be found but Gibson was a good enough midfield prospect to attract the tag and he has big boots to fill.
Ferguson leaned on the Derryman in December when injuries forced his hand and Gibson was transformed from the frustrated bench warmer he had been since September into a regular with five appearances in 18 days.
By the time Leeds rolled up at Old Trafford for an FA Cup tie at the height of the winter weather in January, Gibson was trusted and clearly making progress.
At the end of that game and with Leeds fans celebrating raucously, the chill radiating out from Ferguson while he marched towards the dressingroom was far more extreme than anything nature could manage and in the next few days, it became apparent that Gibson would need treatment for frostbite.
Tonight, Gibson will be on the fringe of things in Munich and unless Manchester United suffer catastrophic injuries in midfield, that's where he will stay for the rest of the season.
But he has time yet to make the breakthrough which looked possible during that pre-Christmas run of form and convince Ferguson that he is worth the wait.
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