What price Fergie?

After the recent, largely tedious, FA Cup Final, hardly worthy to be the first at the belatedly reopened Wembley, Alex Ferguson ran pretty true to form; a sore loser. He claimed United should have had a penalty — something which hardly occurred to me, who was there — and castigated the referee. So United ended the season with a regained League title, his ninth, for which he was applauded to a fanfare of trumpets, anti-climactic defeat in Milan in the second leg semifinal of the European Cup, and failure in the final minutes of the Final versus Chelsea.

Alex Stepney, who memorably kept goal for United when they became the first English team ever to win the European Cup final in 1968, publicly urged Fergie, now turned 65 and determined to manage on, to remain for another five years at Old Trafford. There is no gainsaying the achievement of a man who moulded unfashionable Aberdeen into European power, and has won so many Cups and Championships, yet this very season seemed to me to illustrate again what I have long believed; that he has his Achilles' Heel. He makes some strange mistakes.

Not least tactically. In the 2007 Cup Final itself, it was hard to understand the logic of his strategy. Why, for so much of the game, keep the ebullient Wayne Rooney alone upfield as solitary spearhead, the very role he so detested and found so burdensome under Sven Goran-Eriksson, in the 2006 World Cup? It meant that he almost always received the ball under pressure, and only got into the game as a true force when eventually, in the second half, he was allowed the time, space and opportunity of a free role, which he exploited with sometimes thrilling effect. Alan Smith came on to take the sole striker's position and the team was transformed.

By the same token, why until so late in the match was Cristiano Ronaldo, immeasurably less dangerous and penetrative than usual — apart from that bleak evening in San Siro — deployed on the left rather than the right flank? Presumably it was supposed that he would have the measure of the Chelsea right back, Portugal's Paulo Ferreria, hardly the most resilient of defenders, and Ronaldo indeed can do damage on the left. But it is on the right that he is surely most dangerous, and on the left, Chelsea largely succeeded in crowding him out.

It was also arguable that Ryan Giggs, for me the finest British player of his generation and essentially an outside left, was kept too long in a central midfield position, before at last being moved to the flank. It was suggested that Ferguson feels Giggs no longer has the pace to excel on the wing and there was at least one moment late on when, with greater pace, Giggs, the old Giggs, would surely have exploited a fine chance, rather than being caught by Essien. But by and large, he was muffled in midfield.

One's mind goes back to 1990, Barcelona, and the only time United under Fergie have ever won the European Cup, when his initial tactics looked suicidal. Giggs on the right and his wrong flank and foot, the mediocre Dane Jesper Blomqvist on the left, Bayern Munich a goal up, calling the tune, hitting the woodwork three times, till Fergie suddenly and belatedly saw the light, brought on Teddy Sheringham and Ole-Gunnar Solksjaer, who in the last breathless minutes and against all the odds, proceeded to win him the game.

Six years later, Feguson controversially got rid of three star players in the pre-season summer, Paul Ince, the England midfielder, whom he scathingly described as a Big Time Charlie, Mark Hughes, an essential target man in the attack who had time and again been bewilderingly, left out, and the big fast Russian international outside right, Andrei Kanchelskis, admittedly reported to have gambling problems.

An exciting Newcastle United team, exuberantly managed by Kevin Keegan, set a fast pace and at one point were fully a dozen points ahead of United. But Ferguson then conducted shrewd, relentless psychological warfare against the vulnerable Keegan, who all too easily fell prey to it. The big points lead melted away and Manchester United came out ultimately on top.

One remembers, too, the occasions in the European Cup, notably in a match in Turin against Juventus, when Ferguson inexplicably fielded Eric Cantona, his brilliant if explosive Frenchman as a lone striker, thus totally wasting the abilities of a player who axiomatically needed time and space to "come from behind," but alone up front simply hadn't the pace or the room to be effective.

Back in 2003 Ferguson in fact, had been about to retire, only to change his mind. He survived an embarrassing stand off against his former friends and benefactors, the Irish racing magnates, Magnier and MacShane, who had given him winning rights in a powerful racehorse, Rock of Gibraltar, but understandably drew the line at letting him have breeding rights into the bargain.

They'd actually drawn up a list of 100 embarrassing queries. Not least into the bizarre farce of the transfer to Old Trafford of the American 'keeper, Tim Howard, for which an Italio-Swiss agent who'd done nothing to help him get a work permit (as one who served two years on that Government committee I knew how things worked) the money being largely passed on to an English agent in Monaco, thence to Ferguson's son's Elite Agency. But when the Glazers bought the club and the Irish moguls were paid off, they dropped their demands. Pity.

Slamming a boot at David Beckham in the dressing room hardly helped; at that stage of his career, Beckham still had plenty to give the team. But as Disraeli once said, "The defects of great men are the consolation of dunces." Better, perhaps, to leave it at that.