What price Fergie?

How much has United’s qualification for the Champions League final to do with Sir Alex Ferguson, asks Brian Glanville.

You might say, after Manchester United beat Barcelona, however narrowly, at Old Trafford, that Alex Ferguson had the last laugh. Or perhaps the one from last laughing, seeing there was still that European Cup Final to be contested in Moscow. (Between two English teams: give me strength!). For several days, Alex Ferguson had been pilloried in the Press for his team’s dull display in Barcelona and disastrous defeat at Chelsea, where he had recklessly, so it was charged , rested no fewer than half a dozen of his first choices, in a game which could well decide the destination of the Premiership. Then came the vital victory over Barca at Old Trafford and there was Fergie beaming again, rather than snarling. Needless to say, we’d heard the usual litany of “We wuz robbed” after Chelsea had scored their winning goal from a penalty. Michael Carrick having, to the general consensus, handled in the box.

Yet, I could not resist thinking about an old American strip cartoon of high satirical value, called I Go Pogo. Ostensibly it is all about a bunch of animals in the swamps of Florida. In one sequence, they are miserably walking through the rain when, with resignation, they name the alligator as their new leader. Whereupon it suddenly stops raining: for which he claims the credit. When they ridicule the idea, he replied, “It happened during my administration, didn’t it?” And this qualification for Moscow has, by the same token, happened in Sir Alex’s.

But how much has it to do with him? Or, putting it another way, how little has it to do with him? United found themselves facing a subdued Barcelona team which had given up all hope of the Spanish Championship, and had squeezed through to the semifinals thanks to a couple of uneasy 1-0 wins against a Schalke 04 team which was by far the weakest of the four survivors and had been floundering in the Bundesliga.

To be fair, the Barca team which twice met Manchester United was at least last to call on the wonderfully precocious attacker Lionel Messi irrepressible at Old Trafford, and in midfield the wily Portuguese-Brazilian, Deco. But Samuel Eto’o such a formidable marksman in recent seasons, was known — as we would see — to be firing blanks. Ronaldinho, the chief inspiration of the team, had dropped out. Thierry Henry, though available at last after injury, had been all season a pale facsimile of his Arsenal self.

You might, with some force, argue that, had Ronaldo only put away that second minute penalty at Nou Camp, instead of shooting hopelessly and so carelessly wide, it might have been another story. Moreover, United should surely have had a second penalty, when Ronaldo was blatantly fouled by the Mexican international stopper, Rafael Marquez, though the referee, perhaps not too surprisingly, found discretion to be the better part of valour, given the minatory presence of nearly a lakh of Barca fans.

The fact remained, however, that Ferugson’s own negative tactics saw to it that Barcelona dictated the game, and that United clung on to a goalless draw. Afterwards, Ferguson came out with the strange statement, “Ronaldo was a constant threat, and I thought with better support, we could have won.” No doubt. But whose fault was that if not Fergie’s. Whose fault was it that Rooney of all people was stuck out on the right wing, where he was largely isolated from the action? And why keep the South Korean winger Park on the field throughout when he was so ineffectual? Though to be fair, he did a good deal better when it came to the second leg at Old Trafford.

At Stamford Bridge, Ferguson surprisingly put out his heavily diminished side. No Paul Scholes, destined to score the spectacular goal which qualified United at Old Trafford. And Ronaldo brought off the bench only well into the second-half, and only to replace the injured Wayne Rooney, whose hip trouble would keep him out of the ensuing second leg four days later at Old Trafford. Yet, this was a vitally important game in the Premiership, in which defeat against their closest rivals would mean that the race was wide open again.

This was surely a twofold risk, in that Ferguson was thus gambling on both United’s potential targets. For what guarantee could there be that they would defeat Barca at Old Trafford? And after that, there was still the Final to come. And if he bewailed his alleged hard luck at Chelsea, the cry of, “Diabolical!” torn from his throat yet again, he might have remembered that United’s own goal was a gift, a fatuous and gratuitous back pass from Ricardo Carvalho, snapped up gratefully by Wayne Rooney, to score.

But Ferguson was surely blessed with luck in Barcelona, when United did win the European Cup in May 1999. True, suspension deprived him of both Paul Scholes and Roy Keane who had played a heroic part in their semifinal win at Juventus. But Ferguson surely got things badly wrong when he decided to play Ryan Giggs on his wrong foot on the right flank while using the ineffectual Swede Jesper Blomqvist on the left. Something he didn’t rectify for 67 minutes when he at last switched Giggs to Blomqvist’s role while bringing on Teddy Sheringham. By which time Bayern Munich had held a 1-0 lead from the sixth minute and had twice hit the woodwork.

But when Norway’s quick striker Ole Gunnar Solksjaer came on at 81 minutes, things at last happened. In the 90th minute, both Sheringham and Solksjaer scored and United had the Cup.

Against Barca at Old Trafford, United never mastered young Messi, while Scholes’ goal, though superbly struck, was the result of a horribly misplaced attempted clearance by Zambrotta. Surely a vital victory rather than a famous one.

And let us draw a veil over United’s complex dealings with such matters as the acquisition of USA ’keeper Tim Howard, for which United paid a huge fee to an obscure Italo-Swiss agent for his alleged help in getting him a permit. When I as a two-year member of the Department of Employment’s Appeals Committee knew that no agent ever got anywhere near us.

It transpired that most of that money had been passed on to an English agent in Monaco who had then transmitted it to the Elite Agency in Manchester run then by Ferguson’s son Jason.

I was longing for the whole truth about this murky business to emerge when the two Irish millionaire racehorse owners, McManus and partner Magnier who had fallen out with Fergie over his demands for breeding rights in a horse, Rock of Gibraltar, they had let him have free, for actual racing, abandoned their demands for 99 questions to be answered. This, when they were bidding for the club, before it was sold to the Glazer family. It was known that Ferguson had brought pressure on young United players to join the Elite agency. So the mystery of Tim Howard’s transfer remains. Or is it really a mystery?