FOR those scrutinising the Old Trafford touchline tomorrow, Alex Chapman Ferguson and Luis Andre de Pina Cabral e Villas-Boas would seem classic contrasts.
A former shop steward against a scion of Portuguese nobility. A 69-year-old with a young team against a 33-year-old trying to rejuvenate an old team. Closer scrutiny reveals they share common ground, a windswept outpost on the banks of the Clyde called Largs where both were moulded as managers.
Ferguson's eyes lit up yesterday at the mention of Inverclyde National Sports Centre, at the scene where Jimmy Johnstone took a rowing boat into the shipping lane but forgot the oars. Ferguson learned his managerial trade there. Rather more recently, Villas-Boas did his C, B, A and pro licences at Largs alongside the likes of Ally McCoist and Ian Durrant. Scottish Football Association coaching staff still talk of Villas-Boas's huge “determination” to graduate from Largs with the skillset to succeed.
“Largs coaching schools over the years have always been very good,'' said Ferguson, talking before training at Carrington. “When I went there it was full of fantastic coaches who gave you a good grounding for your future.” He has followed Villas-Boas's progress with interest, noting the trophies at Porto, and hearing the talk that the new boy might even be good enough to steer Chelsea to the Premier League title. “It will be an incredible achievement. Absolutely. That somebody so young could go and do that would be incredible. For a young man coming to Chelsea it's a great challenge. It's a hard challenge at his age but he's acquitted himself very well and his team have responded. You hope, as a new manager, that you get an immediate response and he's got that.” At the same age, Ferguson was taking his first steps into management.
“I was 32, but it was only a part-time team I was taking over at East Stirling. It was about five pounds a week (for the players) and I was running two pubs in Glasgow. The one common denominator is that you want to be successful. I set about in determined fashion that I wasn't going to fail. I'd chosen that life. I'd been an engineer and I made up my mind that I wasn't going to go back to engineering. “I took all my coaching badges when I was young – 23 years of age – so I'd prepared to be a manager. “I gave that advice to Darren (his son), who went to Warwick College and did a course in business management and got his badges. You have to do that – you have to show anybody who interviews you for a job that you're ready to be a manager.” Villas-Boas proved at Academica de Coimbra and Porto that he was ready for the challenge. Chelsea is a leap in expectation levels and squad experience.
Being the same generation as many of the players, especially with the thirtysomethings such as Frank Lampard, John Terry and Didier Drogba, was not an issue for Villas-Boas, Ferguson argued. Good managers earn respect whatever their age. “When I went to St Mirren I had Ian Ure as a player who was older than me (by two years),'' continued Ferguson. “But I got him the job at East Stirling to replace me. I think Ian is still working in a borstal in Ayrshire somewhere (Kilmarnock). “I was 36 when I went to Aberdeen. Bobby Clark, the goalkeeper, was maybe 33 but I didn't have too many older players to deal with.''
He sees certain echoes in his arrival at Old Trafford and Villas-Boas's at Stamford Bridge. “There are similarities from when I came from Aberdeen. “I'd achieved something at Aberdeen and that helped me. It's the same with Villas-Boas. He won the Europa League and the Portuguese league last year with Porto and that stands him in good stead. After that, the impression that the players get from him in terms of his knowledge of the game and man-management skills … that's all in the future. “I never had a problem dealing with people round about my age. My advice to any young manager is that you should never seek a confrontation because it's always around the corner, in all shapes and forms, particularly the performance on the football field.''
As Ferguson talked more about Villas-Boas, his tone changed slightly, dropping a degree or two of the initial warmth towards the new boy and reminding his audience of the quality of his own peers. Managers needed to do their apprenticeships, learn the ropes. “If you go back a few years, clubs were giving jobs to players who were just finishing their careers like Trevor Francis and Ray Wilkins,'' continued Ferguson. “That, to me, was quite surprising. That's changed and experienced managers are coming to the fore again – look at Roy Hodgson, a great example of that. Harry Redknapp is experienced and changing things round at Tottenham. I'm more pleased that experienced managers are being highlighted than young managers.
“The young managers have more of a future. Their time will come. I'm pleased clubs are not ignoring the values of experienced managers.” The old ones are the best? Villas- Boas has a lot to prove. United and City are the teams to beat, the ones who invested shrewdly and swiftly in the summer while third-placed Chelsea still have issues with Fernando Torres. Ferguson dislikes rivals being written off, knowing that it makes team-talks easier for canny coaches like Villas-Boas. “Chelsea are in a nice position,'' Ferguson said. “Nobody's talking about them and that's an advantage. The competition over the last six or seven years has been ourselves and Chelsea. So we're not dismissing them.''
One stat indicates Chelsea's threat. If they score tomorrow, it will be their 50 th Premier League goal against United. United's sorcerer aims to deny the Chelsea apprentice.