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Saturday, March 6, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Despite track record, scrutiny of Ferguson remains relentless


LONDON -- Perhaps the real truth as opposed to what we have been told will never be known.

Christopher Davies

For instance, exactly why Jaap Stam was sold to Lazio or David Beckham to Real Madrid.

Or why Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson did not make provisions for Rio Ferdinand's inevitable absence after the defender failed to take a mandatory drug test.

Libel laws prevent this correspondent from revealing some of the stories that have come my way about the departures of Stam and Beckham.

It was commonly believed Stam was offloaded to Lazio for £15 million after the Dutch international was critical of certain people at Old Trafford in his book. Not so, but more than that my lips are sealed.

Stam is set to join AC Milan this summer so he can't be that bad a player and how United could do with him now as it struggles in a Ferdinand-less back four which has kept only one clean sheet in seven games since the player's suspension began.

I was told that Real wanted Beckham 13 months ago. My contact could have got lucky but somehow I doubt that. A gut feeling is that Beckham, who remains a United supporter, became disenchanted when the atmosphere between his wife Victoria and Ferguson became cold going on frosty.

Sir Roy Gardner, the United chairman, said that selling Beckham was the right move "because we didn't think his performance for Manchester United was that great."

The chairman is in a very small minority with that view and United has not replaced the main source of supply for Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Many thought it significant that in Porto for last week's Champions League tie only one -- goalkeeper Tim Howard -- of Ferguson's summer transfers started the game.

Eric Djemba-Djemba, David Bellion and Kleberson have much to do before they convince the Old Trafford faithful they are of the required standard.

The jury returned long ago about Diego Forlan and the verdict is: guilty of being a very ordinary striker.

Earlier this week it was revealed United had lost out to Chelsea for PSV winger Arjen Robben who has signed a £13 million pre-contract to join the London club this summer.

It was not that long ago United always got its man, but Robben is the second high-profile player to turn his back on the Reds recently -- last summer Ronaldinho signed with Barcelona rather than the Premiership champion, to Ferguson's obvious anger.

Ronaldinho would have given United the inspiration and unpredictability too often missing in the current side.

The 1-1 draw at Fulham, which United plays in the F.A. Cup sixth round on Saturday, saw it drop to third place behind Chelsea and leader Arsenal.

Ferguson made five changes, leaving "a tired" van Nistelrooy, Howard and Ryan Giggs on the bench which delighted Fulham.

Though Ferguson denies the off-field distractions of his legal action against United's main shareholder John Magnier over the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar have affected the team, when things start to go wrong it leaves the manager vulnerable to finger-pointing.

And more and more fingers are being pointed in his direction. There cannot be another sporting franchise in the universe where the coach is taking the main shareholder to court over anything, let alone the stud rights of a horse.

It is a long time since there has even been a mini-crisis at United which has had a monopoly on the Premiership title, playing the best football in England over the last 10 years with the majority of the finest players.

Suddenly questions are being asked, though answers can be difficult to come by.

It has been about three years since Ferguson conducted a post-match press conference in domestic football for the written media, preferring to speak only to television, especially MUTV, the club's own channel, where the Scot is never asked anything controversial.

Ferguson is bound by contract to talk to all parts of the media before and after Champions League games and next Monday's press conference on the eve of the return tie against Porto, which leads 2-1, could be lively.

Many British journalists are intimidated by Ferguson and it is not unknown for a difficult question to be passed to an unsuspecting foreign reporter, so that he can receive what is known as the hair-dryer treatment from the manager.

Roy Keane was sent off in the first leg for treading on Porto's Vitor Baia, who admittedly made a five-course meal of it, though the United captain could and should have jumped over the goalkeeper.

Ferguson called Keane's act "not the sort of thing he normally does" but it was the midfielder's 11th red card and his disciplinary record includes a premeditated lunge at Manchester City's Alfie Haarland that would not look out of place in any Top 10 Worst Ever Fouls compilation.

Keane has twice been critical in public about the attitude and input of certain United youngsters and his petulant act in Porto, which means he is banned from the second leg, seemed more a buildup of frustration in the Irishman.

Other disciplinary excesses from a club normally top of the fair play league have seen Ferguson punished by the Football Association for misconduct during the game at Newcastle, Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo guilty for their part in the infamous post-match melee when Arsenal visited Old Trafford last September, Ferdinand's drug ban, Gary Neville sent off for butting Manchester City's Steve McManaman, while Paul Scholes has been charged for an off-the-ball incident against Middlesbrough.

United, which is four points better off than it was at this stage last season, when it won the title, remains one of England's top teams and perhaps it is unfortunate to be compared with the Arsenal juggernaut, which is on course to go through the entire Premiership season unbeaten.

However, United is judged by the highest of standards and it is not playing as well as it did last season, four points more or not.

Significantly, Ferguson appointed fellow Glaswegian Walter Smith, the former Rangers and Everton manager, as his assistant until the end of the season on Wednesday. The pair worked together when Ferguson was Scotland manager in the 1986 World Cup and Smith, an old friend from the 1970s, was his assistant. By next Tuesday, United could be in the semifinals of the F.A. Cup and the quarter-finals of the Champions League. They could also be out of both competitions.

IF MAN UNITED and Real Madrid make it through to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, David Beckham could be in line for an emotional return to Old Trafford.

Next Wednesday's second leg in Madrid against Bayern Munich, which should have beaten Real comfortably in Germany but for an Oliver Kahn blunder which saw the visitors escape with a 1-1 draw, should be one of the truly great European nights even by Bernabeu Stadium's standards.

There is no love lost between the sides, the animosity dating back to 1976 where there was a violent clash between Real idol Juanito and Bayern's Lothar Mattheus, Klaus Augenthaler's provocative gesture to Madrid fans not helping matters.

The assertion by Bayern striker Roy Makaay when the draw was made that "we've had a marvelous stroke of luck . . . any other opponent would have been harder" was taking confidence and arrogance to new extremes.

Makaay measuring up to Ronaldo and Beckham against Michael Ballack are just two of the tasty matchups on view as the team that knows it's the best plays the team than thinks it's the best.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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