Manchester United go into today's Champions League quarter-final draw considered be the most likely team to depose a Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona as the cream of Europe. They are not regarded that way, however, by one of Old Trafford's favourite sons.
Lou Macari made 400 appearances in 11 years for the Red Devils, the most significant of them being the 1977 FA Cup final at Wembley where his decisive goal, deflected in off teammate Jimmy Greenhoff, deprived arch-rivals Liverpool of a first "Treble". Macari, who has since spent another 11 years at the club working for their in-house television station MUTV and their vast corporate hospitality network, is concerned by the current team's vulnerability to the occasional unexpected defeat.
"That's OK in a wide open Premier League like we are seeing at the moment where all three title contenders are making mistakes," says Macari. "But you can't afford such slip-ups in the later stages of the Champions League, otherwise it's all over. "I feel United are going to continue suffering the odd setback and I fear that it is most likely to come against one of their main European rivals, so I think their prospects of success are much greater in the Premier League."
United were a far cry from the team who are closing in on what would be a record 19th domestic title, one more than arch-rivals Liverpool, when Macari joined them from Glasgow giants Celtic in 1973 after an approach by his fellow Scot Tommy Docherty. The ignominy of relegation in his first full season was the low point in the club's modern history before the slow recovery process begun by Docherty and continued under Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson was eventually taken into overdrive by Alex (now Sir Alex) Ferguson.
Ferguson's success formula, according to Macari, is not who he has bought in more than 24 years at Old Trafford, but who he has nurtured. Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes were put forward as the prime examples at a time when one of the big-money signings, Wayne Rooney, is capturing all the headlines. "Alex has got a diamond in Rooney for the future but just as importantly he also has diamonds in his squad who are players from the past," Macari remarks.
"When you look at the records of Gary Neville, Scholes and Giggs they are incredible. I am not going to see a player in the next 20 years who comes along and does for the club what those players have done. "I think it's going to be difficult for even somebody like Rooney to match them in an era where money talks and players are more and more likely to move on." Macari watched in admiration in that era as players like David Beckham, Nicky Butt, and Phil Neville also performed to a level beyond their tender years in Premier League-winning sides but the triumvirate of Gary Neville, Scholes and Giggs are his clear favourites.
"They have always been there," he reflected, "very seldom injured until the latter stages of their careers and that happens to all players. I think to re-create that complete package again is going to be very difficult." Macari has also watched closely the financial power struggle at Old Trafford between the present American owners, the Glazer family, and the a consortium of business known as the Red Knights seeking to take control.
"The Red Knights feel it is not right for the club to be in debt to the extent it is," adds Macari. "The other side feel that they can handle the debt perfectly well. "I'm a bit like the manager. I have no interest in that side of football. I'm more concerned about what happens on the pitch. If there was nothing happening on the pitch then that's where I would be concerned. "I would be kicking and screaming about anything. But there is plenty happening on the pitch and that's the only place it really counts." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org