Fergie and the farce

HISTORY repeats itself, wrote Karl Marx, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. I cannot imagine such a thought passing through the mind of Mark Hughes, the Blackburn Rovers manager, as he recently sat at Old Trafford, watching his present team beat Manchester United, the one where he grew up and starred, so sensationally. But he may well have felt that in some sense he had been there before.

What happened was that Sir Alex Ferguson omitted his hugely talented, greatly effective but endlessly combustible England striker, the precocious Wayne Rooney, from the team, and didn't bring him on till eleven minutes into the second half, preferring not for the first time to leave the big Dutchman Ruud Van Nistelrooy alone up front. It clearly didn't work. Blackburn, so much the underdogs, went into the lead when the whole United defence missed a low free kick by Pedersen which somehow found its way into the net. When Rooney came on to have a shot by Rovers' American goalkeeper, Brad Friedel, Van Nistelrooy followed up to equalise, but hopeless confusion in the United defence, initiated by an error from Paul Scholes, enabled Pedersen to give Blackburn the wholly unexpected victory.

What happened then was virtually unprecedented at Old Trafford. As Ferguson left his bench, the fans booed and jeered him. They were plainly fed up with his tactics and above all the use or misuse, which he makes of Rooney. His excuse for starting with Rooney as a sub made no real sense. Since Rooney was suspended from United's two ensuing games in Spain, having got himself sent off in Spain for his fatuous behaviour by Danish referee Kim Nielsen, the man who sent David Beckham off in Saint Etienne versus Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, Fergie said he wanted to be "fair" to those who actually would be playing in the two European games.

Fair? Foolish would be a better word. And when Rooney does play, Ferguson is now in the habit of sticking him out on the left flank rather than in the centre, where both Rooney and the United fans would clearly prefer him. But this one man up formation so displeasing to the United support, always eager for their team to attack in numbers, is in fact nothing new. Roll back the years away and you will find United going to Turin to play Juventus in a European Cup game, deploying the hugely gifted and original Eric Cantona as the lonely striker, thus completely wasting his huge talents, denying him decent time and space and enabling him to be close marked out of the game. In parenthesis, Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, who came out very strongly in defence of Ferguson, lambasting the behaviour of the United fans — though he and Fergie have been at daggers drawn in the past — is hardly the one to preach attacking football; as he had done of late. Who was it, when the Gunners met Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup Final at Cardiff, who inexplicably left Dennis Bergkamp all alone up front, totally wasting the 36-year-old Dutchman's tremendous talents, his flair for doing the unexpected, and allowing him, like Cantona in Turin, to be marked out of the game for lack of speed and space? That embarrassing afternoon, Wenger's policy was one of abject surrender and despair. He confessed that, having twice lost to Manchester United in the Championship, he had no hope of resisting them if he allowed them free play.

So, as he had fearfully hoped, the game went to penalties, on which Arsenal, having largely and predictably been dominated over the 120 minutes of play, won the Cup. Still it was unusual to see Wenger coming out so strongly in support of Ferguson given their bitter exchanges over the years. Not least when last season the Gunners lost their long unbeaten Premiership record at the 50th time of asking at Old Trafford when an inept referee in Mike Riley, who had given United no fewer than eight penalties at Old Trafford, gave them another one when Wayne Rooney quite plainly dived, and allowed the United right back Gary Neville to kick Arsenal's young Spanish striker Jose Antonio Reyes out of the game.

United won it 2-0 and when it was over Arsenal players in the tunnel pelted Ferguson with soup and pizza though to his credit he did not officially report them. But when Wenger bitterly criticised United's tactics Ferguson retorted that Arsenal's own disciplinary record was appalling; which indeed it was.

Back though to Hughes, Blackburn and Fergie. Back as far as September 1993 when at Stamford Bridge, I reported a League match between Chelsea and a till then unbeaten United. Mark Hughes was dropped from the United attack; he wasn't even on the bench. And without him and his back to the goal resilience, United's "shape", as Ferguson afterwards referred to it (he actually deigned to give post match Press Conferences in those remote days) was in tatters. Fergie's excuse? He wanted to use the same team in Budapest versus Honved the following Wednesday in the European Cup, a match from which Hughes was suspended. Chelsea inspired by Glenn Hoddle won 1-0.

How long will Ferguson stay? He has had his troubles of late. With David Beckham. With Magnier and McManus, the Irish racing millionaires, who generously let him pick up all the winnings of their racehorse `The Rock' but baulked when he crassly demanded breeding rights. Fergie was going to go to court but then backed down. Then there's the case of Tim Howard, the USA 'keeper, and the Swiss agent paid heavily for doing nothing. But the Irishmen won't pursue it now.