Euro disapointment at the heart of Fergie’s anguish



Defeat in the Champions League this week may have been acutely unfortunate, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s pain in the wake of Manchester United’s exit to Real Madrid says as much about the manager’s record in Europe’s premier competition, as it did about the club’s disappointment. It is the Scot’s desire to improve on his two Champions League victories in a quarter century at Old Trafford that lies at the centre of the manager’s heartbreak.

“It’s a distraught dressing room and a distraught manager,” said assistant Mike Phelan after Tuesday’s defeat.

“I don’t think the manager is in any fit state to talk to the referee about the decision. It speaks volumes that I am sitting here now rather than the manager of this fantastic football club.”

Yet, Ferguson’s anguish was not only about one defeat, influenced by an over-zealous referee, but the realisation that time is running out to improve on a European record that includes one Cup Winners’ Cup and two Champions League victories.

After all, there is an argument that Ferguson’s European adventure has underwhelmed given the resources at his disposal. In an era of United dominance domestically and a period of Anglo-Saxon success on the continent, Ferguson has often said “we should have won it more”.

Two trophies and a further brace of defeats in the final is perhaps scant return for just shy of 20 seasons in Europe’s premier competition.

Indeed, United’s elimination at the round of 16, as against Real, has come as often as Ferguson’s side has made the last four, while the Reds have been eliminated at the group stage more often than they have secured the trophy. Ferguson’s base elimination stage is the quarter-final. Or to put it another way, Europe’s leading eight is the sum of Sir Alex’ parts these past two decades.

Those in charge of United’s marketing department spin a different story of course.

It is a cruel analysis of a man whose trophy count stands against few peers, although one that might explain Ferguson’s frustrated response in the past week. In the wake of Real’s victory, the 71-year-old blamed not only Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir for United’s defeat to Real, but officialdom for robbing the club of two further tournaments over the past decade.

“It’s hard to keep your faith when you see these things happen,” said Ferguson of Nani’s 58th minute red card at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.

“That’s three European Cups we’ve been knocked out of due to refereeing decisions. We’d have won two of them. I have no doubt about that.”

In 2004 José Mourinho’s Porto knocked United out in the round of 16 after Paul Scholes’ goal was incorrectly ruled out offside in a game mired by controversy. Dmitri Alenichev’s professional foul on Cristiano Ronaldo was ignored, before Francisco Costinha’s scored a debatable last-minute equaliser at Old Trafford to take the Portuguese through 2-3 on aggregate over the two legs.

“The decision of the Russian referee when they brought down Ronaldo who was right through and didn’t even book him,” claimed Ferguson. “They got the free-kick right after that. We would have won the European Cup that year. They got Monaco in the final, didn’t they?”

Porto went on to beat Olympique Lyonnais and Deportivo La Coruña in the knock-out rounds before dismissing Patrice Evra’s AS Monaco 3-0 in the Gelsenkirchen final.

The other injustice, said Ferguson, was Rafael da Silva’s red card against Bayern Munich in 2010 for two cautionable offences. Harsh on the player, perhaps, but terribly naïve of the Brazilian too. Munich beat Lyon in the last four, before losing to Mourinho’s Internazionale in the final.

Fortune, though, has two sides and United has benefited from a slice over the years. Mehmet Scholl’s shot against the bar moments before United’s equaliser in the 1999 Champions League final comes to mind. Or, perhaps, John Terry’s slip in the 2008 final shoot-out.

Not that Ferguson’s beef is with anything other than officialdom of course. And his frustration at not having achieved personal ambitions in the competition.

Given the tournament’s competitive nature Ferguson may never add another European trophy to his vast haul. After all, a golden period between 2008 and 2011 brought three finals, but only one victory with Ferguson’s side twice succumbing to perhaps the finest Barcelona team of all time.

Nor is the analysis of Ferguson’s record entirely justified. Since Ferguson’s first Champions League campaign in 1993 only Barça, AC Milan and Real Madrid have won the competition more frequently. None has retained the trophy during the Champions League era.

UEFA’s decision to open up the European Cup to non-champions, while merging the old UEFA and Cup Winners’ Cups into a single tournament, now branded the Europa League, has a created a far more competitive environment.

In another era, one where teams dominated in époques, Ferguson’s record may have been more impressive. After all, in the decade between 1970 and 1980 Ajax secured three European Cups in a row, Bayern repeated the feat, before Liverpool and Nottingham Forest each secured a brace back-to-back.

Nor has any manager bettered the Scot’s record during the modern era, although Mourinho may change that fact this season should Real win at Wembley in late May. In mitigation, few managers can match Ferguson’s 202 Champions League games spread over nearly 20 years.

There have been plenty of near misses too; those seasons when Ferguson’s side was just a shade short of the best. Defeat to Real Madrid in both 2003 and 2000 hurt, as did the semi-final loss to Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Indeed, Ferguson’s team in the four years between 1998 and 2002 achieved far less than the sum of its considerable talents.

Which, perhaps, is why the injustice of the past week has hit Old Trafford so hard. Ferguson is building a team better than many had believed, evidenced by a healthy Premier League lead. But it is in Europe that the standard is set, and the Scot’s side has now been eliminated in the group stage and first knock-out round in the past two campaigns.

“I probably haven’t felt that disappointed for a long, long time,” says veteran Ryan Giggs of defeat to Real.

“But somewhere in your head there are so many positives as well. Because I think that we performed so well, we made Real Madrid look ordinary at times. It was a proper European performance.

“The manager always says about games in Europe: ‘Be careful because the roof can fall in.’ And it did, but not in a way in which you can really blame the players, tactically or some of the performances. It was shock. I’ve never seen a stadium in shock like that.”

The disappointment will wear off though, leaving Ferguson with perhaps two more campaigns to add a third Champions League victory to his roster.

There are no guarantees though. Ferguson is acutely aware.

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  • marlon

    That was depressing. Don’t have to worry about Mourinho winning it this year though. Milan or Juve will do it

  • Anantax

    Great article. i have also often pondered why we dont do better, despite our imperious form domestically.

    One intermediate conclusion: we just dont do well in cups and knockout rounds in general. Last FA cup win was 2004 right? In UCL you have the excuse of there maybe better teams than yours, but domestically this just doesnt exist. Except fo Chelsea under Mou and the Invincibles, we should have had a better team than any other English club. Not saying it should be automatically ours, just saying we should have won it far more often than we currently do

    My far from solid conclusion: we just lack the killer instinct culture, which then comes back to bite us in knockout rounds. We like to do things the hard way, we let teams off the hook, never quite finishing them off, and this usually comes back to bite us.

    Porto comes to mind…as does Leverkusen.

    I think this comes down to the players, the English? (Dnt kick them when theyre down stuff) culture and perhaps a little bit the manager….

    This needs to change. We need to be ruthless. But not sure where that change is gonna come from…a 71y old legend wont change his stripes too much

  • Julian

    I really don’t think its a surprise really. For however well United may have done in the league we are off the pace in Europe. Ok we stretched Real in these two games but when you consider possession in the home leg was 37%/63% in their favour (even in the first half)it gives you an idea that we are not really good enough to win it. Even if we had somehow triumphed over Real, I’d imagine we would have found it very difficult to overcome the likes of Bayern or Dortmund or indeed Barca – maybe Milan or Juventus too. We have some great players but how many world class ones? Proper investment in the team – particulalrly in midfield – has not taken place. Fergie should not be over distraught when surely he must know he is a signing or two away from having another great team.

    • Damian Garside

      I wonder if Fergie has ever heard the idiom “to spoil the ship for a halfpenny of tar”. If we bought one great CM before the beginning of last season how different it might all look now.

  • C

    Good article. I think we can actually take alot of positives from the match. As Julian says:

    “Fergie should not be over distraught when surely he must know he is a signing or two away from having another great team.”

    Welbeck in particular was excellent, which is very promising. Giggs too, although his time is near. Not too bothered about possession stats (especially considering we were up against probably the best counterattacking team in the world); I think the tactics were spot on.

    But for two (nigh unstoppable) goals and a shifty red card, we were comfortable. But that’s the game for you…

  • Anantax

    That fucking debacle vs Chelsea is a perfect illustration of my point

    We were 2 up in ELEVEN minutes….then we just never landed the killing blow….we took our foot off the gad, we were complacent, we were outhustled…

    If there was no replay rule, and it went to extra time and penalities, do you doubt that we would’ve lost? Chelsea looked the far more likely to score the winning goal…

    That is EXACTLY WHY we dont win UCL. Or bloody cups in general

  • RobDiablo

    Anantax said:
    We were 2 up in ELEVEN minutes….then we just never landed the killing blow…

    Reminds me of the time the England & Wales boss (Cricket) took the side to Manchester in the hopes that they would learn something about winning from visiting United. That made me laugh because, even in those days, United liked to make hard work of winning. I suggested that I’d like to see Fergie take his troops to visit the Aussie Cricket setup, because there was a side who knew how to get on top of an opponent and never let them up again.

  • Damian Garside

    Great teams with the right attitude for Fergie to learn something: New York Giants, South African cricket team, Canterbury Crusaders rugby, Barca-effing-lona, German football team

  • Damian Garside

    Interesting isn’t it how “hype” rhymes with “tripe”. My prediction: we lose the replay, City destroy Chelsea, as they did at the Etihad. We go into a slump and City get rejuvenated and start gobbling up our points but just land up a couple short.

    Even so, I’ll be happy we won the league — and hope that Fergie will retire and successor take over (beginning to suspect it will be Mourinho — I mean, he says things like “I’m sad Man United have gone out of the Champions League, they deserved to beat us” — so unlike him to say such a thing, unless he knows he is talking about the team he is going to manage).

  • Alfonso Bedoya

    Commenter said:
    Interesting isn’t it how “hype” rhymes with “tripe”.

    Mind blowing…

  • Pikey McScum

  • Stevie D

    Regarding Fergie’s Champions League record, I know some people question his success in Europe. And yes, there were certainly a couple of years where we messed up. But how do people feel about this Dr. Fuentes scandal going on in Spain? Should we actually feel aggrieved by some of the recent victors possibly cheating their way to Champions League glory at our expense? Have Barca and Real got questions to answer? Has Fergie’s record been unfairly skewed?

    Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming all of our European failures on cheating or doping (and I don’t have a conspiracy-theories fetish), but are some of our failures are less failure-like and more swindle-like?? I do think this is something worth considering. Am I alone on this??!

  • Coach Herbie

    Fergie said his team was tired and their legs were gone in that second half. He claims the Real Madrid game took its toll. How could that be? The Madrid game was on Tuesday, the Chelsea game was Sunday, is he telling me that his players are not fit? This is a professional team, how could they be tired in the second half? There is got to be a problem with their fitness level. I know Rooney has been struggling with his fitness and yes the team did look burnt out in that second half of the Chelsea game.

  • captainhormone

    Commenter said:
    Fergie said his team was tired and their legs were gone in that second half. He claims the Real Madrid game took its toll. How could that be? The Madrid game was on Tuesday, the Chelsea game was Sunday, is he telling me that his players are not fit? This is a professional team, how could they be tired in the second half? There is got to be a problem with their fitness level. I know Rooney has been struggling with his fitness and yes the team did look burnt out in that second half of the Chelsea game.

    What do your mates have to say about it herbie?

  • Anantax

    I think the impressive Barca comeback must be comforting in a strange way to heal the anguish…
    I did not watch the game, but for those who did, one question: do you honestly believe that we can win 11 v 11 vs the Barca team that showed up tonight?
    Treble has always been a pipe dream. I doubt we are anywhere strong enough to beat a Barca side in top form. Losing a pipe dream shouldnt be heart breaking…
    Lets focus on the league…

  • sidney

    I saw the highlights. Their first 3 goals were fucking ace. The keeper didn’t dive for any of them. He just stood there looking disappointed before the ball had even gone into the net.

    Villa being back has reinvigorated em.

  • sidney

    I think Barca are quite susceptible to emotion, and change, more so than other teams maybe.
    It’s based on nothing more than the fact they looked lifeless for a while when Guardiola had told them he was going to leave at the end of the season. This was before it was announced officially like, you could just tell someone had dropped a bombshell – and the most likely one was that Pep was leaving – because they were flat.
    Same with Vilanova being treated for cancer. I reckon that has taken its toll on em.

  • Damian Garside

    It’s nice to find posters sometimes expressing a wistful feeling that I would be so wonderful if we could have a team that sometimes rose to the kind of heights that Barc have risen to recently. We have been there before, who knows? But as Manchester United, that’s where we need to be.

  • SKW

    We are not that good.

    Madrid were the better side and the English league is down. Way down. We need a creative midfielder. This has not changed. Ozil or Modrich would completely change our side.

  • uncleknobheadffs

    i thought kagawa was meant to completely change or side

  • ForeverRed

    None of us should have sympathy for Fergie. He’s paid a lot of money to do his job and as a manager gets judged on his performance. Judgments are not made on a single game with a dubious call, but on the assessment of multiple games against the better teams. In that sense despite being the richest sports club in the world, we are not translating it into European success.

    We’re not producing world class players through our academy and nor (with the exception of RvP) are we buying them. It is therefore not surprising that we are not competing at the highest levels of the game. Why are we surprised then when we fail to deliver outside the PL?

  • Alfonso Bedoya

    I don’t get all this Euro negativity… we gave Real 2 bloody good games, and should have gone through… the sending off completely threw the team into chaos, which shouldn’t have happened… but considering who Real drew for winning, I see no reason why we shouldn’t have made it to the semis, at least, if not for bad luck.