by Daisy Cutter
There is a suspicion amongst many that had Sergio Aguero’s 94th minute shot against QPR on May 13th struck the post or side-netting then Sir Alex Ferguson would have retired as a champion. After a quarter of a century spent knocking a liver bird off its perch and mostly besting Le Professor of North London this would have represented arguably his greatest achievement yet – the shushing of his ‘noisy neighbours’ – but the canny dark Lord would have been acutely aware that on this occasion it had taken every reserve of experience and manipulation at his disposal to hold back the inevitable blue tidal wave engulfing the English game. Even Moses only attempted a similar nature-defying trick the once (and he wasn’t forced to coerce a geriatric ginger out of pasture to do so) and I share the belief that Ferguson would have revelled in the immense pain dished out to his Manchester rivals and got out while the going was good with records smashed and a point duly proven.
Furthermore, as the champagne sprayed around the Sunderland dressing room, a 70 year old with one eye now on his legacy would have spied an opportunity not to be wasted, a chance to corrupt reality through the means of success.
Let us imagine for one moment how this summer would have differed had that one strike from an Argentinean’s boot been scuffed inches to the right. Ferguson would have justifiably been venerated from the media rooftops for hauling and cajoling what was – by United’s imperious standards – an average side to their twentieth league title while City spent their close season licking wounds in hibernation. This would have allowed Ferguson free rein in the press to further propagate the myth that it was all achieved with youthful esprit in comparison to City’s moneybags mercenaries and with a vast number of their readers casual reds the newspapers would have opted not to question the validity of this. Thereupon the ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ fallacy would have taken flight forever.
Following United’s Champion’s League exit to Basle last season I debunked this myth that was fast gaining momentum by an apologist media and United fans who were desperate to seek solace in their then failing team. I pointed out that the average age of the Manchester United squad of 2011/12 was 25.20 while City’s was a slightly more acne-troubled 25.04. Additionally the notion that here was another batch of talented homegrown kids coming through the youth system in a similar vein to Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and the Nevilles was fanciful in the extreme. Of the few young players United did possess most – namely De Gea, Smalling and Jones – were purchased at a substantial cost.
Yet the fiction would have soon mutated into an unchecked truth because the history books are always written by the winners and any text that subsequently follows is usually penned by those wanting to be associated with the winners. This is an axiom that has served Ferguson very well down the years. It has given him carte blanche to propagate any number of untruths through the media from referees persecuting his team to papering over the cracks during the rare lean spells. It has also seen him bestowed with the entirely false reputation of being an arch Machiavellian figure; a master of the mind games.
Success gives you the microphone and sometimes the truth can barely be heard from the cheap seats.
This week the United manager gave an interview in which he made several ludicrous comments that has seen him ridiculed in many quarters. It was a stream of nonsensical claims that was supposed to illustrate that here was a man and club back on the offensive after the extreme shell-shock that inevitably followed City winning the league not only in his lifetime but in his time. Fergie-time. The main thrust of his claim was that United ‘buy the right way’ by investing in youth and the long-term whereas City does not. He also stated that he could play a Premier League team of under-23s if he so wished. Rather fabulously he then laid out this side including a player in Jesse Lingard who has not yet made a first-team appearance nor is likely to in the near future (‘He will become a player when he’s 22’) and best of all three players who are older than his self-imposed age bar. Johnny Evans isn’t young Fergie; he just plays like he is.
Now I could pick gaping holes in these claims all day long – and believe me I’m very tempted – but what I found particularly interesting about the interview was not what was said but how it was received. There is nothing remotely new or newsworthy about Ferguson making outlandish, falsified claims. Far from it. The media and United supporters not swallowing them wholesale however is a novel development that has potentially far-reaching implications.
The Sun for one took great glee is picking out the erroneous ages attributed to his examples of youth and when that organisation calls you a liar you really are in trouble.
As regards to his comparisons to City there was also this on a well respected website yesterday –
“We can play 18-year-olds because it’s part of our history. City won’t do it. They definitely won’t play any young players who have come up through the system. Their buys are all 25, 26, 27-year-old established players with a good maturity, experience and good ages.”
It’s an argument that would, of course, have more weight had City’s average player age not been two years lower during the Manchester derby last April. Or if the young United players that started the game – the ones who ‘came through the system’ – weren’t Ryan Giggs, 38, and Paul Scholes, 37.
Was this published on a City or Liverpool forum? No, it was the superb and very red United Rant.
To a large extent Ferguson brought this in-house criticism on himself by also stating in the interview that ‘real fans’ will view the Glazer’s debt-crippled ownership of Manchester United since 2005 fairly and conclude that it ‘has not effected the team’.
So now we have the bizarre intimation that United are somehow an ethical Crewe Alexandra of the Premier League (thereby making Ferguson himself a Dario Gradi figure which, considering the regularity United have poached the talent from such nurturing clubs over the past decade in order to compensate for a failing youth system is quite frankly insulting) and needlessly alienating a large portion of the club’s loyal fan-base all in one short interview alone. Impressive work and perhaps it’s no surprise then that Manchester City fans responded with a collective and gleeful suggestion that the aging Glaswegian is indeed ‘cracking up’ after all.
But of course he’s not and the twaddle he’s currently peddling is born out of necessity with Ferguson merely toeing the new party line. With $500m of shares to flog in New York and United desperately trying to rustle up investors a large amount of smoke and mirrors is required to hide the true stricken state of their finances brought about by the Americans saddling the club with a £425m net debt. Just like their forlorn chase of Sneijder last summer United must be seen to be pursuing the world’s elite so they make unrealistic bids that have no chance of getting through. They then utilise every media contact they have under their influence to make it appear as if they’re seriously in the running then, once reality strikes and the player signs elsewhere, they ‘pull out’ claiming ethical reasons.
It’s all quite sad really; like a bankrupt millionaire pawing a Ferrari in a car showroom he can no longer afford feigning disgust at the emissions it churns out before loudly declaring to anyone who’ll listen ‘Well I’m going down the road to buy a Prius instead because I value this planet of ours’.
The erroneous Hazard hunt is a perfect case in point. In Ferguson’s own words – “The agent’s fees are getting ridiculous now. I mean Hazard, Chelsea paid the agent £6m. Seems absolutely ridiculous doesn’t it?’
Yes it does Fergie, but no more ridiculous – in fact significantly less so – than your £34m capture of Rio Ferdinand in 2002, of which £5m was pocketed by the player’s agent. Using football inflation we can conservatively double that for today.
But those were pre-Glazer days when United could afford to pay such ‘ridiculous’ figures.
It really does take some front to attempt to disguise your failings as a moral crusade and though some degree of hoodwinking is necessary for the reasons I’ve stated above where Ferguson has erred is mistakenly thinking he can still show blatant disregard for the truth and expect the media and fans to suitably fall into line.
When City snatched the title in May they also grabbed hold of the microphone and for a supposed master of media manipulation to fail to realise he is currently dwelling in the proverbial cheap seats is a serious misjudgement on his part. The aura of success that has afforded him the opportunity to bully, spin, and accuse with little-to-no scrutiny is fast fading and there are sections of the press – and swathes of his own club’s supporters – who are no longer seeing an intimidating manager of the biggest and best club in Europe but rather an old man telling porkies.
Will he realise his propaganda days are over before it’s too late? Or will be become a noisy neighbour banging on the wall demanding that the celebrations are toned down because his kids are trying to sleep?