x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Ferguson still has many points to prove

Of all Sir Alex Ferguson's achievements, the time spent at Old Trafford may be the greatest, given the unrelenting desire it has involved.

Ferguson, entering his 24th season at United, is the longest serving manager in British football.
Ferguson, entering his 24th season at United, is the longest serving manager in British football.

In an age when people live longer but attention spans are shorter, when the notion of a job for life has become obsolete and, in some professions, the rewards can render it unnecessary, longevity is still more of a feat. Of all Sir Alex Ferguson's achievements, the time spent at Old Trafford may be the greatest, given the unrelenting desire it has involved. If a lifelong enthusiasm accounted for the durability of his late friend, Sir Bobby Robson, Ferguson seems driven more by the most ferocious competitive streak in football.

Righting perceived wrongs, proving critics real or imagined wrong, and reaching ever higher targets matter as much as ever as he begins his 24th season at the helm. By way of comparison, Sir Matt Busby resigned after his 24th year, albeit to return after Wilf McGuinness' brief reign. Last year he bristled at descriptions of a World Cup winner as a better manager than himself, and he duly saw off Luiz Felipe Scolari as he had seen off countless challengers before.

This year the task is to prove United are no one-man team, to exorcise memories of Barcelona's slick superiority in the Champions League final and to put the insubordinate Rafa Benitez in his place. And, a quarter of a century on, the same fears remain for the most successful manager in the game. "I never think that I am bullet proof; no, I never think that way," said Ferguson. "I always work under the fear of failure. You have got to think that way. The world is waiting for the ones who are complacent. If we lose against Birmingham today it will be a failure. There is something in me that doesn't think about anything else but winning. I am always trying to transmit to my players that it's winning that matters and losing matters even more."

One with a better understanding than most of Ferguson is in the other dug-out today. As with many United games, it is a reunion. It is a further sign of his longevity that, while Alex McLeish is among his many former players who have gone into coaching, the Birmingham manager took his first job 15 years ago. McLeish, who played for the older man at Aberdeen, has actually outspent Ferguson this summer and, despite signing eight players, believes Birmingham require three more on their return to the Premier League.

Ferguson, who has opted not to spend the majority of the money he received for Cristiano Ronaldo, has taken a different approach. There may be Premier League debuts for Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia today, but their manager has looked within for answers. Given the absences of Nemanja Vidic, Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville and Owen Hargreaves, there could be a youthful veneer to his side. They can become younger as he gets still older, so the warning about complacency may be required.

Past results would say so. Uni-ted have won 33 of their 38 home league games in the past two campaigns, but among the five setbacks are two at this stage of the season. In both of the past two years, United have opened their season with an Old Trafford draw. A hard-fought point proved as good as it got for Reading and Newcastle, however: both were relegated at the end of the campaign while United won the title on each occasion.

Failures, as he said, inspires Ferguson. In the wake of Ronaldo's sale, the mantra from players, particularly senior individuals such as Neville and Ryan Giggs, has been that United are bigger than any one player. So they are, but bigger than any one man? Ferguson's long regime suggests otherwise. @Email:rjolly@thenational.ae tv Watch Manchester United v Birmingham live at 4.30pm on Showsports 1 & 2