x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Experience counts in the psychological warfare

Taking on the master at mind games is never a good idea, especially with the ammunition Ferguson says Andrew Cole.

Manchester City and their manager, Roberto Mancini, left, are the club that pose the biggest threat to Manchester United and manager Sir Alex Ferguson, right, winning their 20th Premier League title. And the pair are being drawn into verbal spats as the season nears it end.
Manchester City and their manager, Roberto Mancini, left, are the club that pose the biggest threat to Manchester United and manager Sir Alex Ferguson, right, winning their 20th Premier League title. And the pair are being drawn into verbal spats as the season nears it end.

It takes a brave man to enter the ring with Sir Alex Ferguson. Anyone who wants a verbal spat with the Manchester United manager needs to know his stuff and be able to back it up or risk ridicule.

Ferguson is a hard, calculating opponent with more experience than anyone when it comes to what he memorably termed "squeaky bum" time.

That's now, when key Premier League games that will decide the title are played every week.

He is a master at psychological warfare, with more ammunition than any of his would-be opponents - ammunition in the form of countless trophies, a team full of players who have won the league many times and unparalleled media savvy. He may snarl at journalists, but he knows how to use them better than any manager. Every message coming out of Old Trafford will be with his blessing and he wants everyone saying the same thing to show that United are indeed united.

If there is a weakness, it is kept well hidden. It's a siege mentality which he's perfected: him, his players and his fans against the world.

Manchester City are the club currently in his sights because they are the biggest threat to United winning a 20th league title. Ferguson does not like their rise on his own doorstep and he is so competitive that he would want to beat City at tiddlywinks if he could.

Ferguson will be the strongest voice coming out of United. He will work out exactly what he is going to say and how he will say it to a media who love to report the verbal spats. His aim will be to fire up his own players or for his rivals to lose concentration.

City's ambassador Patrick Vieira commented that United bringing Paul Scholes back was an act of desperation. I like Vieira, but I cringed when I read his words. Scholes has been a success since coming back, but if bringing Scholes back was desperation, what was bringing Carlos Tevez back? His manager had said Tevez would never play for his club again. That was before City faltered by dropping points and Tevez was brought back in the hope that he can help win the title.

Vieira added to his comments this week and said that referees favour United. He has a point if he claims that big clubs get preferential treatment. Maybe they do, but to say it now and in the manner he did made him look silly. Vieira claimed he was misquoted and that he'd been fed an aggressive line of questions, but you won't find Ferguson getting misquoted, because he knows what the media are thinking.

In some ways the City manager Roberto Mancini can't do right for doing wrong. He was hugely successful in Italy but doesn't have Ferguson's experience in England.

While he's a good manager with a very good squad, he has looked nervy of late and if the media sense a weakness they will exploit it.

I saw them do it with my old Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan after he let a 12-point lead slip to United and lost the league in 1996. He lost his temper on live TV, something I might well have done as the pressure may have got to me, but it doesn't get to Ferguson.

It used to. In 1992, United were once that inexperienced team who came close to winning the league but fell apart in April. But they settled down to win the league for the first time by 1993.

The United manager will be loving it at the moment. I remember how he was when I was still playing, singing in training if we were winning, telling me how polite and well dressed I was!

The mood was very different if we lost a game and my name shifted from an easy going "Andy" to a stern "Cole".

I tried to stay out of his way after we'd lost and would even ring the kit man to find out the manager's movements.

But if he lost his temper, he made sure he didn't let anyone outside the training ground see it.

Ferguson's team have won nine of their last 10 league games and drawn the other match at Chelsea, but there are no guarantees of success with eight games to go.

Teams pick up injuries like United did in 1998 when Arsenal won the league. Teams lose momentum like United in 2010, when Chelsea were deservedly crowned champions. Or teams are made of very stern stuff and don't lose their nerve like Arsenal in 2002, when they ended a run of three consecutive United titles.

We will find out more about Manchester City in the next month than we have all season.

If they can win the league against a man of Ferguson's experience, then they'll be worthy champions for the first time since 1968.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

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