Thursday 21 November 2019

Ferguson on cloud 19

United boss revels in the glory of another title success, writes Jim White

Half an hour after the final whistle, the Darwen End of Ewood Park was still bouncing. Dozens of homemade flags bearing the number 19 were gleefully flourished. And a lusty chant filled the chill Lancashire air: "are you watching Merseyside?"

The moment Manchester United overtook Liverpool to become England's most frequent football champions was marked with gloating gusto by the visiting Mancunians. And down below the cheering hordes, making his way across the pitch with a broad grin across his face, was the architect of that achievement, Alex Ferguson, the newly crowned king of 19. The United fans, spotting him there in his winter great coat, acknowledged his legend by announcing that "every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson".

And the manager grinned back his appreciation, punching the air and giving himself but minor pause to savour his moment before plotting the next campaign. Here's a mark of how enthused Ferguson was about this success: he attended a post-match Premier League press conference for the first time since he appeared in the Wigan press room when United last won the title in 2009.

"It was a long game, it dragged at times, a disappointing game," he said. "But I'm not that bothered. The important thing is being the most successful [club in history]. That is a great achievement."

Great achievement it undoubtedly was. But this was not a compelling advertisement for a championship-winning side. After their magnificent performance last week against Chelsea, the same bunch of Ferguson's players looked suddenly diminished by the occasion. They spent most of the first half failing to create chances, fell behind to a rare Blackburn incursion into their territory and only equalised through a marginal penalty.

What's more, once a draw had been secured, United slowed to a funereal pace, passing the ball around as if in a training exercise. Paul Scholes alone must have touched it 50 times in the last few minutes and never once passed forward. Oddly, Blackburn, despite not yet being safe from dropping into the relegation zone, made no attempt to intervene, appearing happy with their point.

"I know that last five minutes looked as though we were ruining the game," Ferguson said. "But it was common sense for us." And he was right to suggest it didn't really matter. When the history of this season is recorded it will be the away matches against Blackpool, Aston Villa and West Ham that will be recalled rather than this fixture. They were the ones that defined his side's never-say-die commitment.

That is what has marked them out. Compared to his other championship-winning sides, this is not the smoothest or the most compelling. But it has in surfeit that spirit indicative of any Ferguson team, a hunger instilled in them by their manager.

He claimed afterwards that he never doubted for a moment that the necessary would be done at Ewood Park. But if he was inwardly relaxed, his body language betrayed that he was suffering from the sort of nerves that gripped the inhabitants of the Darwen End. During most of the action he sat on the bench, his collar turned up against the weather, which suggested Blackburn was alone in not enjoying an early summer. He greeted Brett Emerton's opener by nervously patting down his hair, crossing his arms and chewing ever harder.

But when Javier Hernandez fell under the close attentions of Paul Robinson in the second half, he was up on his feet, dashing to the edge of his technical area. Once the penalty had been given and Wayne Rooney's spotkick had hit the back of the net, Ferguson unleashed his arrhythmic, arthritic little celebratory dance. He didn't sit down again.

When Phil Dowd eventually brought the passing practice to an end, Ferguson hugged his assistants, hugged his substitutes, hugged Steve Kean, his opposing manager. He sought out Dowd for a handshake and probably would have hugged him too had he not feared another FA charge for being over enthusiastic towards referees.

This is the thing about the most decorated manager in English football: 21 years on from securing his first trophy with United, he still loves nothing better than winning.

The thrill of victory runs through him on occasions like this. Not that it will have lasted long. He was soon planning the next victory. Asked if this was the most special title win of his career, because in that it was the one in which he achieved his ambition to knock Liverpool off their lofty pedestal, he refused to be drawn.

"It's not beating Liverpool's record, I don't think I ever said that about the perch," he said. "The most important thing is that United are the best side in the country. But we should've won the Champions League more often. That's something to be addressed."

And so the plans are being drawn, the next challenge issued. This is not a manager who never lingers long over victory. Even number 19.


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