Fergie's senior servants still set standard
THE last time Manchester United lost to Spurs at Old Trafford, Jim Leighton was in goal, a 16-year-old Ryan Giggs had just accepted the offer of a traineeship and listed among the club's associate schoolboys were: 'Beckham, David R J; Butt, Nicholas; Gillespie, Keith R; Neville, Gary A; Scholes, Paul; Savage, Robert W'. Following hard on their heels was; 'Neville, Philip J'.
For all the chants of "Fergie out'' 21 years ago as a troubled United slid to 13th, a besieged Alex Ferguson was quietly laying the foundations of a structure that would dominate the English and, at times, European landscape. Through the remarkable years since, some of those gilded youth have moved on. Savage was released and crashed his car, but not his career; Gillespie went to Newcastle United in the Andy Cole deal; Beckham left for Real Madrid; Butt headed to Newcastle and Phil Neville to Everton.
Giggs, Scholes and Gary Neville remain as models of United's staying power in games and title races.
On the eve of today's meeting with Spurs, Ferguson sat in the Academy at Carrington, surrounded by pictures of callow boys who became celebrated men, and reflected proudly on that golden crop, particularly the enduring presence of a thirtysomething triumvirate.
"We are special that way,'' said Ferguson of the longevity of Giggs, Scholes and Gary Neville.
The uplifting sight of three hungry senior servants giving everything in training and matches partly helps explain why Ferguson retains his own appetite at 68. In times of tension, United's manager knows he can trust this trio. Against Manchester City last week, Scholes scored in the dying seconds, Neville extinguished the Welsh dragon Craig Bellamy and Giggs saw off Adam Johnson.
Occasional suggestions that Old Father Time had caught up with these three bemused Ferguson. "I don't know who thinks that. We certainly don't and that's why the senior players continue to be in my first team.''
United's manager insisted he was not contemplating the pipe and slippers either. Responding to claims that he had informed directors of his plan to retire in 2011, the fired-up Scot came storming in off a run-up that made Michael Holding look like Michael Crawford, unleashing assorted barbs.
"Absolutely not true, absolute rubbish,'' Ferguson said. "That's a laugh if I've ever heard one. I've no intention of retiring. If I did, would I tell the directors? There's only one person I'd talk to and that would be (chief executive) David Gill -- and the Glazers, of course.
"The only thing that determines my staying here is my health. Unfortunately for you lot I'm in rude health. You're left to suffer me!
"You'll be gone before I'm gone, don't you worry. The way you write, you'll all be banned anyway.'' Echoing their manager, the staying power of Scholes, Neville and Giggs ensured that, once again, United kept going until the death against City.
"Before Scholes scored I was resigned to 0-0 and it would have been very difficult for us to win the league. But we won with the last kick. We have done that far too many times for it to be an accident. The players have to be applauded for that incredible resilience they've shown time and time again.''
In central midfield, Scholes' unebbing influence, Darren Fletcher's energy and the promise of Darron Gibson has meant Michael Carrick being relegated to the bench, leading to speculation about his future.
Ferguson shrugged. "What can you say? Drop Scholes?! Scholes' form has been magnificent. He controlled the match last week. Fletcher has had a great season. Gibson's had a great spell.
"Michael had a tremendous game against Bayern Munich. I'm spoiled for choice in central midfield. My intention this season was to play Giggs there. But midfield has been doing well, so Ryan has been having to operate mainly on the left, which I'm not unhappy with. He's shown he can still handle it as a wide player.
"And Gary Neville's unbelievable. He's an amazing man, absolutely amazing. Gary's used his experience to the full. Bellamy is a handful, but Gary studied every bit about him and had him under control.
"When you are out of the game in your 30s for a year and a half (through injuries), for most players it is impossible to come back to the level Gary is now.
"But he's incredible. We were looking after every game to see what his recovery was like, how he felt, do we bring Rafael back in? But every time Gary was up for it. He never missed a training session. I wouldn't be surprised if he went to South Africa.''
And after the World Cup? Would Neville sign a new deal? "Gary will be here next year,'' stressed Ferguson, underlining the theme of staying power.
Along with daffodils, spring always brings out defiance at Carrington. It's showtime for Ferguson, silverware time. The next fortnight could bring a 19th title, breaking Liverpool's mark and setting a record of four-in-a-row, or it could herald the end of an era. The fight was on and a Glaswegian heavyweight was in the thick of it.
"I don't think it keeps me healthy. I don't think it's good for you but it's there. I have to accept there's pressure in life. I can deal with it. It's going to be nervy for some players or supporters. Chelsea have a lot of experienced players, but pressure does hit teams at this time of year.''
He knows Chelsea have an awkward trip to Liverpool on May 2. "If we were going to Anfield, we'd look upon it as a difficult game.''
Ferguson almost conjured up the ghost of Devon Loch to haunt Chelsea, who face Stoke City tomorrow. But the champions must first resist Harry Redknapp's vibrant visitors.
"They are the best Tottenham team of my time, 23 years. When I came down they had that team of Hoddle, Waddle and Clive Allen. This team has a lot of substance to it and Harry has done a great job. On the one hand I congratulate him for beating Chelsea for us, but now I'm faced with the problems Chelsea faced.'' Like Gareth Bale's breaks, Luka Modric's little darts and Heurelho Gomes' agility.
"The good thing is the players have seen them play, seen the quality, and know what they will be up against. We are not going into the unknown. Spurs are going for fourth. I don't think anyone below us and Chelsea, possibly Arsenal, have reached the kind of form Spurs have shown in the last two games. What you saw against Arsenal and Chelsea was championship form, beating two of the best three teams in the league convincingly.''
Welcome to the stress factory. "There's pressure through the leagues. Look at a great team like Sheffield Wednesday and their situation in the Championship. They've two games left and one is against Crystal Palace, who are directly above them. See the pressure on Leeds.
"They beat us in the FA Cup and then went into freefall and now are fighting to get promoted automatically.'' Pressure was even on those not playing, like Ben Foster. Ferguson was adamant the England 'keeper was staying.
"He'll be tremendous next year,'' said the United manager. With that, Ferguson marched off for training which had been given a "lift'' by victory over City. "The players are charged up,'' smiled Ferguson.
Another epic test of staying power awaits. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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