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Published: 28 February 2002

'THE WIZARD STAYS FOR ANOTHER SPELL'
by Red11 Statman Paul Hinson

The news that Sir Alex Ferguson is to stay as manager of Manchester United for a further 3 years is wonderful news for all United fans around the world, but less so for those who were visualling the end of the Ferguson era and with it Manchester Uniteds domestic stranglehold.

THE DECISION TO RETIRE

Back in 2000, Ferguson looked at his achievements, the stresses of the job, the absences from his wife and family, and decided that 2 years on, the age of 60 was the right time to step down, after 16 years at Old Trafford and 28 years in football management. After an unpredented 1999 treble of Premiership, FA Cup and European Cup, he had surpassed the honours acquired by the legendary Sir Matt Busby, and perhaps sensed that it was approaching the time to hand over to a younger man.

REPLACING THE WIZARD

From the day that he announced his intention to retire, speculation mounted over his replacement. Ottmar Hitzfeld, a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, plus 5 Bundesliga titles in total, was mooted. Also Fabio Capello, who claimed La Liga with Real Madrid, a League title with Roma, and before that, 4 League titles and a European Cup with AC Milan. Louis Van Gaal, European Cup winner with Ajax in 1995 together with 3 League titles, then 2 more titles with Barcelona.

Nearer to home, the credentials of Martin O'Neill were examined. A Treble winner with Celtic, guiding Wycombe Wanderers into the Football League, and winning trophies with Leicester City. These and numerous others were named by the media.

I believe that the plc secretly craved England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson. Ideally he would have agreed to take over immediately after the 2002 World Cup, but having signed a 5 year deal with the FA, the Swede was not prepared to bow out so soon, and feared that announcing such a move before the World Cup would have caused a national outcry.

Having sounded out others, the plc discovered that most were tied until around 2003, so the only option would be to appoint someone lower down the list of candidates, and risk the clubs' future prosperity. Time was passing, and a suitable replacement was no nearer.

WHY THE CHANGE OF HEART?

Having made the decision in 2000, I think that Fergie wanted to bow out with another European triumph. The failure against Real Madrid in 2000, and then in 2001 at the hands of old foes Bayern Munich, brought it home to him that changes had to be made to the squad that went all the way in 1999.

Having fought hard to gain substantial investment in new players, Fergie peruaded the plc that either big money was spent now, or the club would continue to fall short in Europe, with even the domination of the Premiership being placed in jeopardy.

In the summer of 2001, 50 million was made available, enabling Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and Roy Carroll to be signed. Whether the subsequent sale of Jaap Stam and the cost-free replacement in Laurent Blanc was a condition of this is debatable.

Now the manager had the new lethal forward he craved, plus the skilful midfielder to add more unpredictability to the side, a factor in recent continental defeats. Having got his 'new toys', he knew that he had just one season with them before retirement.

The start to the 2001-02 season was patchy. Experiments with formations and tactics merely produced inconsistent performances and results. Before Christmas the Reds had lost 6 games in the League, an unheard of amount of reverses for United at such a stage of the campaign. Add to that home and away defeats to Deportivo La Coruna in the Champions League, and the word 'crisis' was being bandied about in the media.

One thing that Sir Alex has never shied from is a challenge. From mid-December the Reds pulled up their socks and put together a run of 12 wins in 13 Premiership games, shooting them from 9th to top. The Wizard had again defied his critics.

In the midst of this revival, with his team again scoring goals for fun and captivating the nation with their customary flair and exciting attacking play, his thoughts perhaps began to turn to the seasons end. His final visits to Anfield and Highbury had been damp squibs, his side meekly surrendering, not the Ferguson way at all. The FA Cup, a competition he had tasted glory with in 1990, his first trophy at Old Trafford, and again in 1994, 1996 and 1999, was abruptly cast away in a mundane showing in Middlesbrough in January.

Having got his side showing the required competitive edge, desire, hunger, was he sure he could walk away in a matter of weeks? I think the doubt was in his mind before Christmas, and the fateful discussion with his wife Cathy and his sons, which led him to change his mind.

The real reason to me is simple. Like many other before him, the club, its glory, tragedy, history, has got into his blood. Just as the fervent Red, paying hard-earned money to watch idols on the biggest stage, the drug that is Manchester United has proved too hard to wean himself off. The man is healthy, still committed and can still produce a performance from his players that mirrors his own beliefs. He must have looked at Bobby Robson, 9 years his senior at Newcastle United, and asked himself how could he give it all up at this stage of his life. The plc gave a sigh of relief. Their predicament had been resolved for them.

A possible farewell in his home city of Glasgow for the Champions League Final on May 15th had no bearing on his decision. Fergie is not a man ruled by sentiment, and there was never any guarantee his side would scale those heights in 2002. But to be cast away in oblivion, with a token role on the sidelines, with the Final at Old Trafford in 2003? Maybe that would have been too hard to bear....

Red11 Statman Paul Hinson


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