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Published:11 MAY 2005

THE NEXT LEVEL
by John Ryan

Last night was meant to be one of those occasions that gives hope for the
future. We would welcome the champions to our turf, show them the respect
champions deserve & then give them a hiding, showing them we are going to
challenge them big time next season. It started well and after Ruud's goal
went in a good night of Chelsea bashing was in prospect. But there the
script was torn up. Chelsea's champions beat the Premiership's most
successful club and took a few of our records with them along the way.

At the end of the game SKY with their cunning use of cleverly
located cameras, took a close up of Fergie walking around the pitch. You
would have thought he was alone given there was nobody else in the area five
feet either side of him, but then they cut to the aerial shot which showed
all the players just behind of him. Richard Keys asked "I wonder what we can
make of this?", doing his usual trick of trying to get pundits to comment on
Fergie's demise and when he will vacate his hot seat. And before I go any
further let me say I think Fergie is a proud man and if this time next year
he feels we are in a worse off position, he will know himself if it is time
to go. Richard Keys, or Sky's cameras will not push Fergie out.

The mind wanders back to the early eighties and what used to be our
bread and butter. And then there's the comparisons to now. In the last four
seasons we've won the Premiership, the FA Cup, been in the League Cup final,
been in the Champions League semi final and finished third in the
Premiership on three occasions. If we take any four year period from the
eighties, our best period would include two FA Cup final wins, a League Cup
final appearance and a Cup winners cup semi final appearance (1981-85). And
here we are just over a week away from possibly winning back to back FA Cup
finals. Even if we win it we will be disappointed with our season. Is that a
measure of just how far we've come, that the expectation is for a lot more.
Arsenal winning the title at Old Trafford in May 2002 hurt, hurt a
lot. Tony Adams visited Old Trafford to give a speech on drugs and alcohol
abuse early in the 2002-2003 season and immediately predicted United to be
champions. He saw that hurt in players eyes, that desire to return United to
the summit, the will to be the best. Arsenal's incentive to win at Old
Trafford was to win the title on our turf. In a close game they managed that
and it was a shock to the system. Last night was not a shock, it was gut
wrenching, sickening, like seeing your dad getting beaten up by a local
thug.

It's easy to sit back and put Chelsea's success down to money but
personally I think it's a lot more than that. Last night in several
positions we had better players but Chelsea's drive, teamwork and sheer work
rate made it a no contest. On four occasions Joe Cole tracked runs made by
Gary Neville to his own end line to stop him crossing the ball. This is the
same Joe Cole who looked down & defeated at being a substitute or
substituted by Mourinho early on in the season. And then there was
Mourinho's post match comments. Already he's looking towards July 6th to the
start of next season. His players know that although they've achieved so
much, that in less than two months time the pressure is on again. These are
the things our players and manager used to do season after season. Chelsea
seem far better placed to take on our mantle of repeated success than
Arsenal. Arsenal's title wins have seen far too much patting themselves on
the back and proclaiming themselves as the best team in the world, letting
their decent achievements make them believe they are world beaters. They
thought they'd broken Liverpool's stranglehold on success by winning the
title in 1991 only for us to step in with four titles and three second
placed finishes before they won it in 1998. The fact Mourinho is already
talking of next season shows a man driven, almost Ferguson--like.

So many times I've heard idiots speaking about taking us onto "the
next level". They reckon Ferguson is past it and we should allow five or six
players to leave. In 1974 our next level was to get back into the top
flight. Between those years and 1992 it was a quest for the holy grail: the
championship. Although we had near misses and some say Fergie's job was
never under threat, just fifteen short years ago winning the FA Cup meant a
good season for our newly acquired squad and reputation on the line manager.
Fast forward twelve years and this talk of the next level has cropped up.

What is the next level? To me the only thing it could be is to win the
European Cup again. We've won 8 titles in 13 years. Had anyone told us in
1992 that we'd achieve that they'd probably have got punched in the nose for
being sarcastic. But the fact is that only one team can be champions of
Europe and nobody has defended the European Crown since 1990. That year
rings a bell - oh yes it was the first trophy Alex Ferguson lifted as our
manager. And here we are fifteen years on and it feels almost like a
consolation prize. Personally, I feel as guilty as anyone in that I too have
thought we need to go up one more level. I've thought that a manager who has
won so much with our club needs to go up one more level. I should be shot.
What Alex Ferguson has done for our club is help put it on a plateau
where the next level can only be achieved by winning back to back European
crowns or for example two domestic titles and two European Cups in three
years. That is a measure of the job this solemn faced figure who saluted our
fans last night has done. Real Madrid won three European Crowns in five
years but it was still not good enough for them. They chopped and changed
managers if they could not win the domestic league AND European crown in the
same season. Ferguson landed them all in the one season in 1999 and followed
it up with the next two domestic championships. Mourinho will have to make
Chelsea the English Champions next season to match that.

In the past twenty years through triumphs of sorts and defeats, very
little (family apart) can have had such an impact on our lives as Manchester
United. I know that there have been times when life has been tough but
watching the swashbuckling style of the red machine has made up for the
downsides of life. Alex Ferguson's empire was built to last and it has
forced others to raise their game. While Arsenal and Chelsea have thrown
down the gauntlet, they have still not reached our level of success.

In a way, Fergie was damn unlucky that the European Cup changed
format as his side rose to prominence. In the Cup Winners cup finals of 1983
& 1991 he masterminded European final wins over Real Madrid and Barcelona. I
wonder if any other manager has that on his CV? But then the European Cup
became the Champions League with the number of games expanding, the demands
on the management and players increasing and no side retaining it since it's
inception. The tournament in 1998-99 was practically a knockout tournament
as we started and finished it as a cup competition. And the group stages saw
us pitted with two of Europe's elite where we acquitted ourselves with some
aplomb. But then the following season it changed format again - with six
extra games placed on the calendar. Clearly huge squads were then needed and
squad rotation became the norm. And since losing to Real Madrid in April
2000 our game has changed and we no longer have 5-6 players playing 50+
games a year. Maybe this quest for "the next level" has unsettled Fergie
more than we will ever know.

And then back to the Chelsea game last night. For five or six years
Chelsea have been knocking on the door to success. Two Champions League semi
finals and a quarter final in 5 years, as well as their rise in League terms
from third in 1999, to second in 2004 and finally champions in 2005. But
they way in which they demolished our beloved red XI on our turf might just
have laid down a marker not just to us but to all football followers
everywhere. These boys are her to stay. The plain fact of the matter though
is the man who raised the bar to this level is Alex Ferguson. He is the most
successful British Manager ever. Not even Liverpool managed the treble or
eight tiles in an eleven year period. Will Wenger or Mourinho reach that
level? I doubt it. Fergie must see his situation now almost like when he
joined Aberdeen. He has two main title rivals he must defeat and of course
there's his burning desire to win in Europe. Back then he was a young
manager ready to take the world by storm. Now he's won the lot and you
almost have to ask yourself where does he get his motivation from.
Personally when I reach his age I'd like to be on a continental beach
sampling the local delights. Yet there he is in his office every morning at
7AM looking at ways to take us to the next level.

We're blessed to have had a manager as good and clearly Mourinho has
taken a lot of advice from Ferguson. Mourinho is quick to acknowledge that
Ferguson is the master. While Wenger would probably be appalled if anyone
drew comparisons between him & Ferguson, Mourinho thrives on it. Maybe some
of our supporters are quick to forget what Ferguson has put into our club -
but a manager who could arguably be called the world's best clearly
acknowledges it. In our search for the next level we should not forget the
part Alex Ferguson has played because in ten years time our next level could
be back to winning the FA Cup and finishing respectably.

Last night as Chelsea carved us open, the thoughts of John O'Shea
skinning the Newcastle defence on Tyneside in 2003 before thundering a shot
off the crossbar crept into my mind. It seemed a distant memory of a
fantastic end to a season. Later the thoughts of Stevie Bruce's two goals in
93, Eric's goal to win the double in 96, the goals in the Nou Camp in 99,
all came flooding back. I challenge anyone who thinks our manager cannot
take us to the next level to watch the celebrations after our first goal in
the Nou Camp. Fergie did his usual hip jerk, run and celebration, but there
was an air of magic in his demeanour that suggested he knew exactly what our
team could achieve. All great times and great memories. Those times can
return and hopefully will. Ferguson has raised the bar for others who have
challenged. Now lets give him another chance to raise it again.

John Ryan
Copyright 2005 Red11. All rights reserved.
Not to be reproduced without permission of the author.

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