Ferguson salutes players' response to title heartache
Manchester United return to Sunderland today with Alex Ferguson feeling his players have delivered the best possible response to last season's final-day title disappointment at the Stadium of Light.
As the final whistle blew on their campaign at the ground last season, United were technically champions. Seconds later, Manchester City's Sergio Aguero scored the goal against Queen's Park Rangers that changed the course of Premier League history. Such was the nature of that shattering experience, some wondered whether United's players would recover. But, with Ferguson in charge, it probably should never have been questioned.
"These things are hard to take," said Ferguson. "For about 20 seconds we thought we had won it and it was snatched away. But what we have done well this season is dusted ourselves down and made a real good challenge for the league. The concentration levels, the commitment of the players and the team spirit have been fantastic. In that respect we have answered (in) the only way we can."
The anger Ferguson felt at the Sunderland fans' over-the-top celebrations has evidently subsided, meaning there is no talk of revenge as United look to claim three of the 13 points they need from nine remaining fixtures to clinch title number 20.
"I don't have any issues with the Sunderland fans," he said. "I don't think Sunderland fans wanted Manchester City to win it any more than we did. It goes back to modern society. You see it from supporters every week.
"In a corner, wherever your supporters are, the opposing fans vent their spleen to each other. That is what happens in modern-day football."
Despite Ferguson's words, Martin O'Neill fears there will be repercussions today for their role in the dramatic season finale.
"We were bit-part players in it really, but that was fine," he said. "I know Alex took umbrage at our fans celebrating City's goals, but I think if it had been the other way round and we were playing City on that day and United won it, they would have behaved in the same way.
"Our game had finished and everybody was waiting around on the pitch unsure what to do when news began to come through from the Etihad. Then the cheering started.
"He has never mentioned it to me. Apart from 10 minutes after the game I've not spoken to him since. It must have been very hard to take. The most galling thing will have been losing on goal difference.
"Straight away your mind goes back to the games you missed chances, the games where you took players off to protect them when you could have scored more. It's very, very tough. So he went and bought Robin van Persie to make sure it didn't happen again."
United are well on their way to exacting their revenge over City. A title race won by their rivals on goal difference 10 months ago should be reclaimed by United with a huge points advantage and plenty of games to spare, unless Sunderland can somehow do to United what they did to City during their 1-0 St Stephen's Day win.
Few expected United to be so at ease in shifting the balance of power back in their favour, although O'Neill suspected it could happen when he saw the look in Ferguson's eyes just minutes after City's last-gasp winner.
"It was a very strange situation to be in, stuck in a little room with Alex after that," said O'Neill. "But to his credit he came in and you could obviously sense his disappointment at what had happened.
"He didn't say too much, but he's won enough titles and had enough success as a manager in his time to be able to cope with it. I'm sure it didn't happen overnight, but if anyone could deal with a huge frustration like that it is Alex.
"He uses that disappointment and comes back more determined than ever. I didn't think they'd be so far ahead but, after losing the title last season in the way they did, they've had that little bit of extra motivation."
Although United's motivation this weekend will be a victory and another step towards reclaiming the title, they will surely also be relishing the chance to add to Sunderland's woes after they took such pleasure in theirs.
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