x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Sir Alex Ferguson unafraid to change course

He is adept at adapting to situations. That explains why the Manchester United manager is still a winner at 70.

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson, right, and midfielder Ryan Giggs, left, have had long and successful careers at Manchester United.
Manager Sir Alex Ferguson, right, and midfielder Ryan Giggs, left, have had long and successful careers at Manchester United.

As Sir Alex Ferguson enters his eighth decade, he has the chance to begin 2012 from the position he has assumed for much of his first 70 years: first. Primacy has been a recurring theme of his career and a landmark birthday should be celebrated by reclaiming the lead in the Premier League.

Only a shock win for Blackburn Rovers would prevent Manchester United from leapfrogging Manchester City to return to the summit. When Rovers prop up the table, have not kept a clean sheet for eight months and are in the midst of a particularly bloody civil war, that is unlikely in the extreme. Ferguson has suffered some setbacks in his time, but few as improbable.

But if a home game against the lowliest team in the division is logically the simplest fixture of the campaign, the points are only a subplot. In the grand narrative he has established, United are invariably stronger in the second half of the season.

If, therefore, they can look down on the rest during the New Year celebrations, it bodes badly for their rivals. Intimidation can be exercised by United's standing and history. Ferguson's longevity is a form of shock and awe in itself.

Today he becomes the first septuagenarian to manage in the Premier League since Sir Bobby Robson left Newcastle United in 2004. The former England manager was 71 then, and the likelihood is that Ferguson will continue to a more advanced age. If he does not, it will be of his choosing, unlike Robson's unseemly removal seven years ago.

Now the constant at Old Trafford finds himself in a familiar position, locked in another heavyweight battle. Now it is with City, but in past years it has been Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Newcastle United, Leeds United and Aston Villa, plus, the best part of two decades ago, Blackburn.

Intransigent in some ways, unchanging in many, Ferguson has prevailed at times because of his resourcefulness.

He was characteristically obstinate in refusing to discuss his birthday yesterday, but adaptability has often been a theme of his management. So it is again.

When injuries and illness deprived him of 11 senior players in the second half of Monday's 5-0 win over Wigan Athletic, the United manager was operating without each of his five central defenders. Three of his quintet of central midfielders were absent, too, with a fourth, Michael Carrick, required in defence. Unless both Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand are passed fit, it is a role the England international may have to reprise today.

And yet there may be something fitting about that. His first Champions League came in a game when David Beckham and Ryan Giggs were shifted from their usual roles, his second in a match when Owen Hargreaves made a rare outing on the right of United's midfield. Ferguson invariably argues that United make life hard for themselves, but sometimes circumstances render their task tougher.

Rewind to 1990 and his first piece of silverware was secured when his second-choice goalkeeper, Les Sealey, was promoted in place of the out-of-form Jim Leighton for the FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace. Ferguson is no stranger to radically rethinking his plans at short notice. One change in selection has come in attack. Dimitar Berbatov scored a hat-trick against Wigan, which was just his second league start of the season.

The Bulgarian also scored five times against Blackburn last season, when he was established as Ferguson's first-choice forward.

Now he has been a fringe player but, although his contract expires in the summer, the manager will keep him for a further year.

"We will be exercising our option to renew [it]," Ferguson said.

Berbatov is his biggest buy, but many of the other records at Old Trafford belong to Giggs. It is rare that, at 38, he starts three successive games, but with Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley all sidelined, the veteran may be required again. It would be fitting if he were.

Giggs and Ferguson, United's past and present, tick off landmarks with remarkable regularity. Barely a couple of months ago, it was the manager's 25th anniversary at Old Trafford. Before too long, it will be the player's 900th United game. And on they go.