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Chosen one needs to learn from past

Alex Ferguson celebrated his 69th birthday on New Year's Eve. But they say you are only as old as you feel, so Roy Hodgson and Gerard Houllier (both 63) will currently be feeling much older.

The Manchester United manager must feel like it has been his birthday for the past two months. His rivals look like they have decided to make a present of the record 19th title that will mean so much to him, perhaps in the hope that Ferguson will ride off into the sunset with it and leave United squabbling over a succession as self-destructively as Liverpool have been doing for most of the season.

Fat chance. United have fallen off the football map once before in living memory, and are not about to make the same mistakes again. Ferguson doesn't just pay lip service to concepts such as youth development and continuity, he makes sure his club revolves around them. There is all the difference in the world between United growing too old together in 1974 (or Chelsea not replenishing themselves quickly enough this season, for that matter) and Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes sailing on through the veteran years, supported by young, hungry players seeking to emulate their longevity and success.

Ferguson is finding the job easier in his old age, not more difficult, for precisely the above reason. Like his present team, he may not quite be in the roaring form of old, yet confronted by mere whimpers from everywhere else United stand out from a bedraggled bunch simply by remembering their lines.

United have games in hand on Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham, none of whom looked last week like teams capable of making a serious challenge for top spot this season. City and Spurs would settle for a top-four finish, and while Arsenal's aspirations may be slightly higher, they have lost five times already. Supposedly below their best, United are the only unbeaten team in the league, have scored more goals than anyone else in fewer games, and only City have a better defensive record.

It was not supposed to be like this, the historic 19th title. As recently as two years ago, Liverpool gave United a run for their money, beating them home and away and suffering only two defeats all season, finishing as runners-up through drawing too many games.

Last season it looked as though Ancelotti and Chelsea could make United pay for any lapses, because that is what they did. That is not going to happen this time, but it is not Chelsea, with four titles to their name, whose noses will be put out by United moving out in front in the all-time success stakes.

Liverpool and their supporters must have always feared United would overtake them one day -- they would hardly have been paying attention these past two decades otherwise, yet even through the lean(er) years on Merseyside this has always been viewed as a contest between broad equals. A heavyweight bout, even if one fighter is in better shape than the other. It appears that illusion is about to be shattered in the moment of triumph.

Even Ferguson said he only wanted to knock Liverpool off their perch. He has actually knocked them clean out of contention. It is important for the next Anfield manager to understand that, because on the evidence of this season the fans do not.

The bookmakers' odds for next permanent manager seem to reflect the fans' perception that the job is still an attractive one, practically an honour, and the right appointment, with a little flair and know how, could soon have the club back on their feet and bossing Europe again.

Hodgson knows the reality to be different, and one would guess that Martin O'Neill, Frank Rijkaard, Ralf Rangnick and the rest appreciate that what Liverpool once had is broken and in need of complete repair.

When Ferguson took over, United had waited 19 years for a title, and though success was not immediate, the key was the club accepting that basic rebuilding was necessary. The rest is history, a subject dear to Anfield hearts after 21 years of waiting. Liverpool's need is for a new history man, and if they have the humility to readjust their world view they could find two or three promising candidates without looking beyond Lancashire.


Sunday Indo Sport