| 12.1°C Dublin

Aidan O'Hara: Fergie would happily tolerate mad Mario

IMAGINE for a moment that as Mario Balotelli was walking off the pitch at the Emirates after being sent off that he had taken exception to some of the abuse that was being hurled at him, jumped into the crowd and kung-fu kicked an Arsenal fan.

Or, seeing as he was going to be suspended, he decided to go out drinking which ended with his manager coming to take him out of a police cell. The following day, if he was bored, he might have decided to spend some of his six-figure weekly wage by asking a local escort agency if they had any girls available.

Then, after a day's training, he might have been a little absent-minded and forgot that he was meant to take a drugs test and found himself banned for eight months.

Given Balotelli's current infamy, the manhunt to get him out of the Premier League after any of these misdemeanours would have been the largest in England since Guy Fawkes and, in years to come, his capture could have been celebrated by launching fireworks from bathroom windows all over the country.

Among the many irritating facets of the title race is the portrayal of Alex Ferguson as some kind of Zen Master who wouldn't tolerate such behaviour as has come from Balotelli or Carlos Tevez this season. It has got to the stage where other managers are almost being encouraged to wear wristbands inscribed WWSAD (What Would Sir Alex Do) for difficult situations.

There is nobody who could have wrung more out of Manchester United this year, but if Ferguson's managerial career has been defined by anything, it's his ability to tolerate bad behaviour by one of his players once that player is of use to the club -- which is exactly what Roberto Mancini is doing now with Balotelli.

Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand all gave him severe problems at some stage of their United careers, but, until Keane's opinions outweighed his usefulness, all were tolerated.

In his excellent analysis throughout the season, Gary Neville has compared the behaviour of Balotelli and Eric Cantona and the difficult balance to be struck when a player brings baggage as well as brilliance to the team.

Balotelli is a long way from being of Cantona's calibre, but, when he was Balotelli's age, Cantona had just returned from a loan spell in the French second division and, soon after going back to Auxerre, punched a team-mate in the face. Before he left France, there were several more suspensions and punch-ups as well as throwing the ball at a referee and launching into a tackle (look it up on YouTube) which made Balotelli's disgusting challenge on Alex Song look like a casual trip.

Stamp

And then he arrived in England to win back-to-back leagues with Leeds and Manchester United, while also managing to nearly stamp through John Moncur at Swindon, almost cut Jeremy Goss in half with a tackle and flick a boot at the head of John Polston, with Cantona's studs missing Polston's eye by inches.

The last two of those incidents came in the same game against Norwich and when BBC pundit Jimmy Hill pointed out the danger of Cantona's actions, Ferguson called Hill "a prat". Had Mancini questioned Jamie Redknapp in such a manner after Balotelli's performance against Arsenal, he might have won popular support, but would never be allowed to forget that he tried to defend the indefensible.

It was only after his ban for a kung-fu kick at Selhurst Park that Cantona's legendary status at Old Trafford began to grow as the season ended by winning a double and, the following season, captaining them to another league title.

In terms of impact, it's ridiculous to compare a 21-year-old Balotelli to a 30-year-old Cantona, but, for all of his faults, Balotelli's career has been far more impressive so far than, say, Andy Carroll (18 months older than the Italian), Danny Welbeck (three months younger) or Daniel Sturridge (one year older).

If every manager has sold a player because the public didn't like him, Liverpool would have got rid of Luis Suarez in January, Cristiano Ronaldo would have lasted about one season at United and Cantona's right foot would be more associated with kicking Matthew Simmons than his magical FA Cup final goal against Liverpool.

If Balotelli is happy to stay, Mancini would be crazy to sell him, because, if he needs a goal in a fortnight's time, he will look to his bench and see Balotelli next to Edin Dzeko. In that situation, there would only be one choice.

Despite all of his issues, Ferguson too would snap up Balotelli like a shot if given the chance, because, if they need a goal against City, his bench options are likely to be Welbeck, Javier Hernandez or Dimitar Berbatov.

Like Ferguson, Mancini is well aware that it's far easier to take some of the madness out of a player than it is to put ability in him. And when it comes down to selling a player or keeping him, that is all that matters.

Irish Independent