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Friday 13 December 2019

No winners in the Fergie friend-zone

Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

THERE'S a fine line on first dates between trying to impress and coming on too strong, but, either way, the least you want to do is make an impression. Arriving with flowers, spending a fortune at an expensive restaurant and waiting at the rank until the Mercedes taxi pulls up to go home might be playing your trump card too early, but at least you should be remembered.

If, after all that, you end up with no phone number, being described as "nice" and an assurance that she'll "be in touch," it might be time to re-think the strategy.

In his programme notes at Old Trafford yesterday, Alex Ferguson gave Rafael Benitez the managerial equivalent of a kiss on the forehead when he wrote about understanding the pressure which the Liverpool manager is under and declared his "sympathy" with the Spaniard.

If the Monday night/Thursday night combination of games didn't confirm Liverpool's growing irrelevance to the conscience of Europe's elite teams, the chance for Benitez to enter the friend-zone of Fergie certainly will.

Once the number of games remaining in the Premier League goes to single figures, the annual Ferguson mind-games story arrives even if only one man, Kevin Keegan, ever really unravelled -- and even that was after the wheels had come off his team's title challenge.

Unlike Keegan's emotional rant, Benitez last year unfurled a list of "facts" which he perceived about Manchester United in a cold and calculated manner which riled Ferguson, mainly because Benitez seemed to have got his retaliation in first.

The 68-year-old spoke about needing to read more Freud before he could understand Benitez, defended Everton as "a big club" in the face of the Liverpool manager's apparent "arrogance" and stood up for his old pal Sam Allardyce after Blackburn's defeat at Anfield during which Benitez, in the course of a negligible gesture, had gone "beyond the Pale."


History has since been re-written so that Ferguson won yet another "battle of minds," even though the verbal sparring was followed by Liverpool hammering United 4-1 at Old Trafford in a run of games when they dropped just two points from their final 11 matches, thanks to four goals from Andriy Arshavin which had a far more damaging effect on Liverpool than any words uttered by any rival.

Like most managers, Ferguson is respectful and kind to those in the opposition dug-out once they don't pose a threat. It's far easier to be conciliatory with three points in the bag. Arsene Wenger's comments about Hull City's fighting qualities nine days ago would have been a whole lot different had Nicklas Bendtner not scored an injury-time winner, while Ferguson has enjoyed an easy-going relationship with many of his former players who are now in management -- mainly because none have come close to beating him.

Bryan Robson, Paul Ince and Roy Keane are out of the Premier League having barely laid a glove on their former boss, while Steve Bruce looks closer to being a future Championship manager than Champions League manager, such has been Sunderland's slide down the table this year.

The one former player to have relative success against Ferguson was Mark Hughes, whose team beat United 4-3 in 2006, after which Ferguson accused Blackburn of using "dirty" tactics. By the start of this season, the relationship had deteriorated, with Hughes managing Manchester City and, with a striking similarity to Benitez's description of Everton, Ferguson branded City "a small club with a small mentality."

That Ferguson was compelled to speak negatively about City meant that Hughes was succeeding and, for the first time in the couple of decades since he took over at Old Trafford, Ferguson had to worry about City as a live threat.

Michael Owen's winner deep into injury-time in last September's Manchester derby sated Ferguson to the extent that he could enjoy a joke with fourth official Alan Wiley (who he would label "unfit" two weeks later) just to rub salt into Hughes' wounds.

Having seen off another former player, Ferguson labelled Hughes's sacking "unacceptable" in December, but after putting City back in their box by knocking them out of the Carling Cup, he has been conspicuously quiet about his noisy neighbours. If Roberto Mancini is doing his job well, however, Ferguson might be compelled to offer comment or two about their Champions League prospects before the two teams meet on April 17.

The following week, City travel to play Arsenal in a game, which Ferguson will certainly have an opinion on if Arsenal are still in the title race with three games remaining.

Like Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, Ferguson and Wenger seem to have gone from sworn enemies to the Chuckle Brothers during their advancing years, but the knowledge that Arsenal haven't gone away you know could lead to the re-opening of some old rivalries.

"He should keep his opinions to Japanese football," was Ferguson's flippant welcome to Wenger in 1997, when the 'Arsene Who?' brigade was in full swing and their bitter relationship reached a low point in 2004, when Ferguson was hit with a slice of pizza in the tunnel after United had ended their opponents' 49-match unbeaten run.

The absence of incendiary characters such as Keane or Keown has taken the edge off the feud, but, of far more relevance, is Arsenal's inability to challenge for the league title in four of the last five seasons.

When he looks for potential targets, Ferguson might turn his ire to the fixture computer and Arsenal's apparently easy run-in or Wenger's complaints about the indiscipline of other teams having presided over dozens of red cards during his reign.

For the sake of Wenger and his team's title aspirations, being under the skin of Ferguson is a far better place to be than with Benitez in the bosom of his friendship.

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