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Monday, May 18, 2009

Hungry Ferguson in no mood to stop yet

MANCHESTER, England (AP) During his early barren years as manager of Manchester United, when even winning one championship seemed a huge challenge, Alex Ferguson could never have imagined Saturday's feat of matching Liverpool's record haul of 18 titles.

News photo
Forward planning: Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson is already thinking about next season after leading his team to a record-equaling 18th English league title on Saturday. AP PHOTO

Now, even at 67, Ferguson cannot imagine the day he leaves either.

"I'm definitely not contemplating it — I'll carry on," he said amid the celebrations following a 0-0 draw with Arsenal. "I'm going to stay as a manager and my health will tell me when to quit. Let's pray my health will give me five more years.

"You get that same wonderful feeling when you win a trophy. When you see the fans celebrating at the end of the game, all the hard work and the pain is worth it."

When Liverpool won the league for the last time in 1990, the title gap between the two clubs stood at 18-7 and just reducing it seemed a tough enough mission for Ferguson, who was then in the fourth year of his reign at Old Trafford.

But after sticking with the Scot through seven years without an English championship — a degree of patience that would seem implausible in today's game — he duly repaid United's faith. And how.

Despite taking until 1993 to deliver the club's first title since 1967, the success rate has been unrelenting since.

The 11 English championships, two Champions League triumphs and five F.A. Cups — among his 25 major trophies — have made Ferguson the most successful manager in British football history.

Having already won the League Cup and Club World Cup this season, a first quadruple would be completed with a victory over Barcelona in the May 27 Champions League final against Barcelona.

But while he was so determined to knock Liverpool "off their perch" when he arrived south from Aberdeen, the 67-year-old Scot is not one to dwell on personal achievements.

Asked ahead of Saturday's game if he had reached a level of success that would never be matched, Ferguson quickly responded with a smile: "Is the world coming to an end?"

Clearly not — and neither is Ferguson's tenacious drive for success.

"I am already thinking about next year," said Ferguson who went back on a decision to retire in 2002. "You have to do it here. There is nothing else for it. You just drive on."

The manager indicated a year ago that next season would be his swansong before retirement, but after seeing a fresh crop of the young players he has nurtured break into the first team, he now can't think about leaving until they have established themselves.

Just like the "Fergie's Fledglings" blueprint that produced the likes of David Beckham, now with AC Milan and the Los Angeles Galaxy, and Ryan Giggs, who captained the side Saturday 18 years after his debut, exciting new players are still emerging at Old Trafford.

A fresh-faced striker he unearthed in Italy has been credited with keeping United's title defense on track this season when it seemed most in danger of succumbing to a resurgent Liverpool.

The Red Devils were heading for a third consecutive loss in March as they trailed 2-1 to Aston Villa, only for Ferguson to make an inspired substitution by sending on Federico Macheda to make his debut. Cristiano Ronaldo equalized and the 17-year-old Italian promptly popped up with a 90th minute winner.

A week later, the former Lazio trainee was responsible for rescuing another two points by scoring a second-half winner at Sunderland.

"Macheda's effort was the catalyst for winning the league," Ferguson said. "If we had drawn or lost that game Liverpool would have had the scent."

Emerging teenagers like Macheda, the Da Silva twins Rafael and Fabio and striker Danny Welbeck keep Ferguson feeling young at heart.

"We have a lot of young players in the squad now and that's the healthy part," Ferguson said. "We obviously still have the dinosaurs like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. We hope they can last another two years because the younger players will really benefit from that.

"It's a very young squad and I'm quite excited by that. You can only try to think of what Giggs, Scholes and Neville were like at that age and they were still learning."

Ferguson looks back nostalgically on the treble winning season of 1998-9, whose high point was the Champions League triumph against Bayern Munich, secured with two goals in stoppage time.

"Happy days, so many memories made up of glorious bits of magic accompanied by heart-stopping anxiety," Ferguson recalled in Saturday's matchday program, a decade after the feat. "Our treble was a remarkable achievement, which I still believe will not be repeated in my lifetime."

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