Sir Alex Ferguson is something of a managerial enigma, with many distinct traits and trademarks in his managerial locker. One of the most famous of his little ruses that he uses to great effect is his love of making snide little comments in the run up to matches, so as to slightly undermine their opposition – his mind games. And this week, ahead of the first Manchester derby of the season, he’s at it again.
When asked whether Man City and their new found wealth are now a threat to the empire like structure that is known collectively as Man Utd, he responded with little more than cynicism, seemingly shocked that one could even consider such a notion. He suggested that Man Utd are a league apart from Man City and that the Eastlands club has a very long road to becoming serious contenders to his own Manchester based empire.
And he may indeed have a point. Though Man City’s new found owners wealth is indeed formiddable, it is one thing to have the money, and quite another to use it effectively. It’s almost like having games in hand – ask any manager and they’d rather have points in the bag than games in hand. Man City have the potential at the moment, but they are yet to really make strides towards fulfilling it.
This is shown by their patchy form in the Premier League so far this season, where they have struggled for consistency especially away from home and find themselves in 11th position, even though many had thought they may have enough to put in a realistic challenge to the top four, in a similar manner to which Everton have done over the past few seasons and Villa are doing at the moment.
United meanwhile, though having started a little shakily, seem to be on course to challenge as usual for the top prize. Over the Premiership era they are the only club that has realistically challenged every season, and that is tantamount to the hard work that Ferguson himself has put in. The current crop are young and formidabbly talented all around the pitch and so Fergie perhaps has a right to be as confident as he seems to be, given the current situations of the two clubs.
However, by resorting to making these comments about their city rivals, it seems quite possible to me that Ferguson perhaps is a little concerned at the events that are unfolding on the blue half of Manchester. After all, such comments and mind games are usually reserved for such revered adversaries as Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho in particular, as well as (famously) Kevin Keegan when Newcastle gave the Mancunians a run for their money.
Perhaps then Alex knows that something big is brewing across at Man City. After all, they have installed a good manager in Mark Hughes, who has proven that he knows how to organise a team and get them playing together, which Ferguson prides himself on being able to do. He also knows that the owners have faith in their man, after they came out strongly in support of him after some rumours began circulating earlier in the season. Alex Ferguson, the longest serving and most successful manager in England at the moment, knows that those two stats are no accident. He knows better than any one that patience and building is required to bring sustained success.
He is also well aware of the importance of a club having a good youth academy, and a good central spine of homegrown talent. That was the backbone for his treble winning team, arguably his best, with the likes of Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Butt and the Neville brothers all reared through together in the United academy. And now Man City have a top notch academy too. In recent years they have spurned out a number of great talents, the likes of the Wright-Phillips brothers, Micah Richards, Michael Johnson, and have others like Daniel Sturridge and Ched Evans on their way too.
And thirdly, the final piece of the jigsaw, is money. Manchester United would not be where they are today if they had had no money. They started off under Ferguson as a regular club, but through clever business management and the rise of the Premier League coinciding with their success, they were able to ride a big wave of cash into the bank, and it is this sustained income that has enabled their success to be continued to such a consistent extent over the past two decades. And of course, Man City now have money. More than any other club in the world it seems, and Ferguson knows this.
Ferguson knows that these three factors, the stability in a managerial sense, the youth setup and homegrown spine and the cash flow, have been key to the establishment of Man Utd as more than a football club. It is a global brand, an empire, and it is these foundations that have let the team itself be so successful. Ferguson knows that City are now setting out on that route too. In fact, they aren’t just setting out. The money is there, the youth is there. The manger is even there, he just needs time.
So Ferguson, in attempting to play mind games with Mark Hughes and his Man City side, is probably actually giving them a bit of a nod of respect. In any case, he knows that the pressure is well and truly on his side if any. They are the big club in Manchester at the moment and everyone expects them to win. They’re also the team in form, and so should be doubly assured victory. But form goes out the window when the derbies roll around, and as City showed last year by doing the double over their more glamorous neighbours, David can bring down Goliath.
Of course, Fergie may actually believe that Man City are no threat to his empire. He may simply be as brash and obnoxious as he likes to pretend. But I think deep down Fergie knows that the other Manchester team is on the up. He also knows that he can’t go on forever, and that United will experience a time of great upheaval in the near future. When such a figure as Ferguson departs, replacements are nigh on impossible to find (look how hard it was for him to replace Peter Schmeichel).
At any rate, I just hope that the Man City players are spurred on by Ferguson’s comments. He is attempting to cast doubt over their club, to make them doubt themselves. Most of the country expects the Red Devils to stroll across to the City of Manchester Stadium and expose the ‘young pretenders’ there. But I for one hope that City can hold their own and make Fergie eat his words. To get one up for the blue side of the city, as I hope Everton can do in the next Merseyside derby against out arrogant neighbours. As Kevin Keegan once said so passionately, I’d love it if they can beat them.