Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

James Lawton: Why Sir Alex Ferguson is my monster of the year

Sir Alex Ferguson, right, has criticised Alan Pardew in the aftermath of Manchester United's victory
Sir Alex Ferguson, right, has criticised Alan Pardew in the aftermath of Manchester United's victory

You do not get to win the top prize in any set of alternative awards by being any ordinary monster.

You have to be Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson, who will be 71 on New Year’s Eve and still about as reflectively self-critical as a boisterous toddler who has just laid waste to a shop filled with the most exquisite Dresden china.

Pick up the pieces and don’t bother me, says the expression of the wilful, unrepentant kid.

It was the face of the monster of this year and pretty much any you care to mention when yesterday the Man U boss again ridiculed all of his critics, and most pointedly a Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew, who had had the audacity to suggest that referee Mike Dean and his crew had shown appalling timidity in the face of the latest rampage. The kernel of his remarks forms a paragraph that might serve well enough as a working guide to the side of his nature which remains exclusively about having his way on the football field. It is a flashpoint of insuperable arrogance and worth at least some passing reacquaintance.

“It is unfortunate but I am the manager of the most famous club in the world. Not Newcastle, a wee club in the North-east.”

If Ferguson did not once again bestride English football, if he did not continue to display the staying power of a mule, there would be something quite pitiful about such a declaration.

What a desecration of sporting values, of any sober understanding of your place in the world, you might say. But we cannot say this, at least not with any hope of meaningful effect, because who on earth is more comfortable at the centre of his own existence? Who so easily discharges the pressure of his office with random bursts of outrage? Who regirds himself for the battle with such unassailable self-belief?

Ferguson is beyond criticism. He is football’s supreme existential terrorist. He has, for example, created the phenomenon of Fergie Time, a classic example of institutionalised bullying. Give Pardew, who is no angel on the touchline, a little credit for saying the unsayable.

The truth is that Ferguson has always explored, and always will, the limits of his own aggressive ambition.

It is English football’s problem that on this, as on so many other matters, it lacks the will to impose reasonable checks and balances. One of the game’s most withering critics, Kick It Out leader Lord Ouseley, recently spoke of a moral vacuum at the heart of English football.

He had such a weighty issue as reaction to racism on his mind but it wasn’t hard to fill in some other blank spaces — and one had to be the wholesale intimidation of match officials, an example of which, for all his protestations, Ferguson’s on Boxing Day set a mark not easy to beat.

He said his arguments and language were in order but his body language was hardly compatible with his huge status in football. Yes, with a nod perhaps to the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, he is the manager and recreator of the most famous club in the world, but where was such gravitas on the Old Trafford touchline?

It had been claimed by the imperative of another street ruckus. Of course, it is a little late for him to change and who, anyway, has the nerve and the authority to make a stand?

Who will say that if the game is to pull itself back into the realms of reasonable behaviour, and young people are to get a better example from the highest level of football, than some endless fight for every passing advantage, however dubiously achieved, even an achiever of Ferguson’s order has to be made to see the point.

In the meantime it is also necessary to acknowledge the momentum of the master of Old Trafford. It too is monstrous. It pummels the angst-ridden ambitions of his well-heeled neighbour Roberto Mancini.

It saw off the brilliant devices of Arsène Wenger some time ago. It invites Rafa Benitez, emboldened by his encouraging but still hardly conclusive work with Chelsea, on to the punch. More than anything else, his rivals have to deal with a relentless and impregnable state of mind.

It is one which eschews the weakness inherent in too much self-doubt and here we have to see that, when familiar criticism lapped around him this week, his great strength was once again revealed. For Fergie giving an inch is as potentially damaging as donating a mile.

Yes, it is a monstrous approach to the nuances of right and wrong. But then it works, and in all the years of English football never in such a remorseless way. Why would Sir Alex Ferguson ever change?

Maybe one day he will tire of winning a game, scoring an edge, battering down resistance wherever it has the nerve to show its face.

Perhaps he will recant, walk away with the admission that sometimes he might have smashed a little too much crockery, bent too far the conventions of what used to be known as fair play.

No, it is not likely — no more than that anyone in football will have the guts to say that no one, not even our most familiar and astonishing monster of the year, has the right to make his own rules.

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