“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”
When referee Michael Oliver blew the final whistle to confirm Manchester United’s first draw of the season, it was not hard to imagine Roberto Mancini gleefully rubbing his hands. Manchester City’s last-minute winner the day previous proved to be even more valuable after United, in a forgiving Christmas spirit, failed to score a much-needed second goal in Swansea.
Despite Mancini’s rivals sitting comfortably on the top of the Premier League table as the weekend kicked off, the Italian was just one of many cheering United’s result, waiting for the pressure to increase on Sir Alex Ferguson’s team as the packed festive season began.
However, much of the post-mortem ado had little to do with game itself, or even the narrowing gap in the title race. United’s missed chances, questionable individual performances or the timing of Sir Alex’ substitutions are lost amid the ridicule and outrage caused by the United manager’s post-match interview. Even United’s dropped points have been lost amid the hysteria.
“Robin van Persie is lucky to be alive,” blasted the Glaswegian in his post-match interview. “It was a disgraceful act from their player and he should be banned by the FA. Robin could have had a broken neck.”
On the surface it looked like Ashley Williams intentionally slammed the ball into van Persie’s head from just yards away, although few people were as concerned about the Dutchman’s life as Sir Alex. Fan’s take on Ferguson’s interview differed, but whether supporters considered the manager’s words strange, funny or embarrassing, it takes a drama queen to second the manager’s fears.
Indeed, van Persie proved to be very much alive seconds after the ball struck the 29-year-old; a case could even be made that the striker is lucky a slip of the foot came between him, Williams and a certain lengthy ban. The avoidance of death seemed a very long way from the action in that moment.
While many have taken on board a glorious opportunity to ridicule Sir Alex, it is not difficult to spot the great Scot’s true intentions. It is, after all, Sir Alex all over – what he always does after a bad result. And what do you know, the great British press have gladly taken the bait.
The Daily Mail featured a match report and one, two, three articles connected with the van Persie incident and Ferguson’s reaction to it – each has attracted more than twice as many comments as the actual match review. SkySports went further, leading with four pieces on the controversy to date.
Meanwhile, many other outlets – ESPN, the Guardian, BBC included – feature at least two articles dedicated to the affair, often simply commentary on the FA’s inaction. Cheap copy – after all, who really wants to see Williams banned? It’s what stands for a mainstream media article these days, diverting attention from far more important issues, in football and the wider world.
That is to say nothing of the legion of wannabe experts for whom Sir Alex has brought an opportunity at their fifteen minutes this Christmas – a river of anger, hate and and retweets only an army of ABUs can deliver.
Flash forward to Wednesday; another day, another game and whatever some supporters may claim, Ferguson can’t buy games. But the legendary manager is always able to buy himself time. As for the critics? Ferguson can take the slings and arrows. To keep the team out of the dramedy is result enough.
The irony is that our nation’s media, and the fans that read, revels in a swathe of “Fergie’s lost the plot!” headlines. Few can deny themselves the pleasure of composing yet another list of supposedly outrageous actions by United players, simply because the opportunity is present. “In your face, Sir!” comes the cry.
Yet, as opposition supporters indulge in a game of hate the real winner, as always, is Ferguson. Those who have cried the loudest since Saturday provide the most compelling evidence that Ferguson still owns the plot. And unlike the Scot’s method of dealing with media at his weekly press conferences, this time fans can make jokes without that feeling of embarrassment.
Ferguson’s media theatre won’t make United defend better, but it is nonetheless impressive. Press drowning self-righteousness; ABUs going wild; Piers Morgan outraged.
But of course the only plot that really matters has United four points clear on Christmas Day. Despite the hysteria, life for United’s supporters is good. Roll on Wednesday and Newcastle United at Old Trafford.