Managerial troubles

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson... problems aplenty.-AP

THE knives, even the shotguns, are out for the besieged Alex Ferguson, manager of the ailing Manchester United. Mediocre to a degree in its sluggish, goalless European draw at home to Lille, positively abysmal in its 4-1 defeat at modest Middlesbrough. Roy Keane, whose injured foot kept him out of both games, delivered such a rant on United's own inhouse television that the interview was pulled at the order of the chief executive. He excoriated the likes of Alan Smith — a striker played out of position by Ferguson in central midfield — Kieran Richardson, Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea but surely cannot have spared just about the worst offender of all. None other than the lackadaisical Rio Ferdinand, an absolute goal conceding disaster at Boro. And this from the man whom United defended and paid throughout his eight-month suspension for dodging a drugs test.

Ferdinand repaid such trust and generosity by demanding still more money to stay; allegedly up to a colossal �120,000 a week. England dropped him after his poor displays, but he crept back into the team at Manchester as a substitute for the injured Sol Campbell, against Austria. At Middlesbrough, his ineptitude had really to be seen to be believed. I am no admirer of Fergie as readers may be aware. I deplore his shocking arrogance, the way he refuses to give post match Press interviews; something which the flaccid Premiership allows him to get away with. I deplore his shocking verbal assault on poor, inoffensive John Motson, BBC television commentator, for daring, after a game, to ask him whether he would be disciplining Roy Keane. I despised his greedy behaviour over the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar, demanding breeding rights after its Irish owners, Magnier and McManus, had generously given him a share of its winnings as co-owner. He was quite prepared to take them on suicidally in the Irish courts, but it seems that one of his sons talked him out of it. The list of accusations could go on much longer; including the pressure he brought on new young professionals to go to the Elite agency run by his son; the bizarre business of the huge sum of money paid to an Italo-Swiss agent for helping the American 'keeper Tim Howard gain a work permit when, as a former member of the Government appeals committee, I knew the man could not have played any part. Money most of which seems to have ended with the Elite agency.

Yet having said all that, to what extent is a manager guilty when his players let him down? The case of Ferdinand being outrageous. It could, I suppose, be argued that Fergie who has always lived by fear — the so-called hairdryer process, by which he blasts his displeasure into a player's face — and that now in his dotage he cannot inculcate it any more. And it is true that such crude methods have come to seem increasingly obsolescent, with hugely paid or overpaid players no longer at the mercy of their clubs but all too often in a position virtually to blackmail them. Yet would any other manager be able to get more out of the current United squad?

Any more, for example, out of a player like Paul Scholes, always a self-effacing and devoted United man from boyhood, who has, alas, plunged into a strange period of inefficacy and anonymity. Scholes, who can, at his best, score spectacular goals as well as make them, has drifted into puzzling mediocrity. And this is one player who cannot be accused of ever being unmotivated. The measure of his unhappiness was shown in the home draw against Lille, when he was eventually sent off for a second, stupid and unpleasant foul, surely the product of his frustration.

Paul Scholes is booked for a tackle on Lille's Mathieu Bodmer. "Scholes, always a self-effacing and devoted United man from boyhood, has plunged into a strange period of inefficacy and anonymity," says the author.-AP

Meanwhile, what of Wenger? There appears to have been a sea change in the behaviour of the once so coolly sophisticated Arsenal manager. Time was when he used to brush Ferguson's attempts at provocation aside with contemptuous aplomb. Fergie's barbs had once worked all to well against Kevin Keegan, when Kevin was managing Newcastle United, but it seemed that the far more civilised Frenchman was impervious to them.

You might say that things radically changed last season when United so controversially put an end at Old Trafford to Arsenal's 49-match unbeaten run. The refereeing of Mike Riley was certainly abysmal. He awarded United a ludicrous penalty when Wayne Rooney had obviously dived. (But the way after Middlesbrough United can no longer say that the wheels turn round only when Rooney is there; he was there on Teesside and made no difference at all.)

Phil Neville, the United right-back (one of several key players who, this season, have dropped out injured, Gabriel Heinze the left-back being another) was virtually allowed to kick the young Spaniard Jose Antonio Reyes out of the game. And in the tunnel at the finish, Fergie was bombarded with soup and pizza by an unknown Arsenal player. To his credit, Fergie made no official complaint. But Wenger complained very bitterly and publicly about the match and the perceived injustice; which brought similarly pungent retorts from Fergie. This season, Arsenal have slipped out of contention in the League. Which may be why Wenger gratuitously and riskily sneered at Chelsea, after they'd been held to a League draw at Everton and been knocked out on penalties at Stamford Bridge by outsiders Charlton in the League Cup.

Jose "The Mouth" Mourinho doesn't need that sort of provocation to explode. He actually and oddly accused Wenger of being a voyeur. Which was hardly appropriate; but Arsene had made himself a target.