United's manager chugs on

As speeches go it wasn’t exactly Churchillian. Sir Alex Ferguson stood on the pitch at Old Trafford after his team’s last home match of the season and waited for the great waves of affection tumbling from the stands to quieten.

Then, in an address that probably did not require the speech-writing services of his confidant Alastair Campbell, he merely thanked the fans for their support, suggested that the players deserved a round of applause for their ‘fantastic effort” and, incorrigible to the last, managed one last sideswipe at his rival, Arsene Wenger, at whose premature assumptions he has sneered since Christmas.

‘It wouldn’t be appropriate to have the traditional lap of honour at the last home game,” he said.

‘We’ve not won anything yet.”

‘Not won anything yet”: it could serve as his epitaph. Even 30 hours later, after Arsenal had imploded, gifting Ferguson with his eighth title as United manager, he was just as brusque. There was no time for a eulogy, barely a moment to look back and assess why the title had been secured. As always with Ferguson, nothing had been completed, this was just a return to business as usual, no more than the start of the next phase.

‘We expect Arsenal to be challengers next year,” he told the United website an hour after Leeds had won at Highbury.

‘And we look forward to that because I think, from my own personal situation, I feel my decision not to retire is the best decision I have probably made.”

An hour after what he described as ‘the greatest achievement” and he was already thinking ahead. Which means anyone who thought Ferguson might bow out now on a winning note will be sorely disappointed.

For him a championship achieved under such sweet circumstances was the best vindication he could offer for his decision to stay on last Christmas.

Now reinvigorated by the ‘Viagra of victory”, Ferguson has lifted the horizon on his own departure.

Last season, as United slipped and staggered after Ferguson’s declaration of impending retirement there was a sense at Old Trafford that an era was coming to an end. The corridors were ankle-deep in speculation; players were stalling on signing contracts, unsure of the identity of their next manager—no permanent No 2 was brought in after Steve McClaren’s departure, because it was thought the new man would want to make his own appointment.

As much as anything it was this growing sense of a full stop about the place that infuriated Ferguson back into the saddle.

He has long used the metaphor of a bus moving on to describe his football club, and he saw the way his departure was being interpreted—as the terminus heaving into view—as corrosive to the forward momentum he believes is vital in a sporting institution.

There is no doubt Ferguson was on a personal mission this season. He disliked the manner in which he was depicted when Arsenal won the Double, as a one-eyed old dinosaur whose time had come, his kingdom being usurped by the modernising foreigner. With wide interests in life beyond the training ground, he particularly balked at the fact that Wenger, a man who in any other walk of life would be dismissed as a nerd, was routinely supposed to be more sophisticated.

How satisfying it must have been for the chippy Glaswegian toolmaker that it was he and not the professorial Frenchman with his grasp of five languages who fine-tuned his operation’s engine to perfection in the title run-in.

As it happens, Ferguson’s managerial methodology has always extended a long way beyond kicking boots around the changing room. But he has been particularly hard at work embracing new ideas of late. At Old Trafford there are now three top

European coaches on the staff: Ricky Sbragia, the reserve team manager; Francisco Filho, under-17s coach; and Carlos Queiroz, Ferguson’s Portuguese assistant, whose recruitment he describes as ‘one of the best decisions I have made at the club”.

He may be right, incidentally: Queiroz it is who has been largely credited with turning the United defence into the most parsimonious in the division, the backline that won the title.

All three men have been brought in since the manager decided to stay on, a largely unreported overhaul of the coaching system that suggests Ferguson’s thinking is focused once more on the long term. And in the long term the goal he has set himself and everyone at the club is the vast piece of silverware currently in the hands of Real Madrid.

‘We’ve got to address the situation in terms of winning the European Cup,” he said on Sunday.

‘Manchester United have only won it twice and for a club of this scale that is not good enough. We need to add one or two players with that extra degree of cunning.”

Hearing him talk with such relish of the challenges ahead, Martin O’Neill, David Moyes, Sven-Goran Eriksson and all the rest nursing the hope of one day soon easing themselves into the United dugout would be well advised to concentrate on the day job for some time yet: Fergie is sticking around.—

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