Now the bonhomie is over, it’s back to business. Sir Alex Ferguson was unusually sentimental after originally stating, ‘I’m nae getting into that’ when quizzed on his silver jubilee at Manchester United on Thursday. The word ‘fairytale’ isn’t supposed to be a part of such a tyrant’s lexicon, but his eyes twinkled when he recalled a tremendous tenure that shows no signs of ending. His celebratory dinner at Old Trafford Cricket Ground saw Cristiano Ronaldo, José Mourinho and Fabio Capello, amongst others, in attendance. How could he not be taken aback?
Ferguson will perhaps be grateful that his 25th anniversary has arrived less than a fortnight after his most chastening defeat in 50 years in football, let alone at United. A football match lasts much longer than 90 minutes. It begins before the first whistle and continues beyond the final whistle, and anniversaries are the same. The outpouring of eulogies for Ferguson has deflected concerns that persist over his present management and his team’s resolve.
Conveniently, Sunderland are visitors on this commemorative week. Managed by an ex-United player, who has never beaten his mentor as a manager, they boast five squad members who began their trade at Old Trafford. Their only win on the road this campaign came against the forlorn flounders at Bolton a fortnight ago and they lie in 14th. Auspicious.
United-Sunderland is one of the most unmemorable memorable games of the Ferguson era. Two years ago he selected a starting 11 that was so unfathomable that the attendants could have been forgiven for checking that they were attending a Premier League game. The tombola was out in force as eight changes were made from a hard-fought midweek win against Wolfsburg, with Danny Welbeck carted out to the wing as Sunderland ran riot.
The Mackems were 8th in the table and six points behind United, who had enjoyed an atypically sanguine start to the season. Underestimating Bruce’s side spurred them on to such an extent that Lee Cattermole impersonated a footballer successfully as Darren Bent and Kenwyne Jones fuelled anxiety in the home ranks. Ben Foster signed his death certificate with a cowardly display as he was at fault for both the visitors’ goals, spared only by a stoppage-time own goal from Anton Ferdinand.
Ferguson has alluded to the August-November period as unsettling the rhythm of teams thanks to the number of international breaks.
It’s one of the greatest draws United have ever earned because they were so abject, especially in a nonplussed first half that was an exhibition in incoherence. Ferguson however decided that instead of candidly conceding his selection error or indirectly citing certain individuals’ shortcomings, he would berate referee Alan Wiley’s fitness. Even for someone with a track record for keenly eviscerating the b******s in black, it was an astonishing outburst that no one watching could have possessed the blinkered perception to air.
Masterfully though, he had deflected attention away from one of the worst home performances he had overseen which the Reds hadn’t lost. Part admirable, part lamentable; United were the victims of egregious refereeing in the forthcoming weeks domestically and in Europe, with sympathy in short shrift after the Wiley critique.
Excuses though will be scarce if three points aren’t acquired on Saturday by the Red Devils. Ferguson has alluded to the August-November period as unsettling the rhythm of teams thanks to the number of international breaks, but it masks his team’s malaise courtesy of negligence. He’ll be relieved when he looks at the fixture list between now and the New Year and notices that the big hitters have already been dealt with – for now. But having not sufficiently strengthened he has no choice but to do so in January if he seeks a second consecutive title this campaign. City were a beast that toyed with its prey last season, now they go in for the kill and implosion ranks as United’s biggest hope of Roberto Mancini’s Mancs derailing.
Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick are both unavailable for the Guy Fawkes clash, which further underlines why, much like last week’s unconvincing victory over Everton, the result outranks the performance. The duo are the next midfield pairing for their manager to adopt, at least until the end of January.
As Ferguson and United continue on the road to redemption for their demolition in the derby five points behind their neighbours, they can’t afford the Black Cats to put a spell on them.
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