The Dark Knight Returns for two-faced Fergie
“It’s not who you are underneath. It’s what you do that defines you,” Rachel Dawes tells Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. The billionaire playboy had spent his evening gallivanting with models in the pool of a high-class restaurant before bumping into his childhood friend. The carefree attitude, he pleaded, was nothing but a façade; deep down there’s more than meets the eye. Dawes’ profound, if clumsy, rejoinder leaves an impression on the man who would become the Caped Crusader.
Manchester United’s very own dark knight, Sir Alex Ferguson, also had a few things to say when he sat down with Sky Sports this week. Ferguson is far from the callow protagonist Christian Bale portrays in the first of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy. The Scot, if anything, more closely resembles the grizzled, world-weary, incarnation in Frank Miller’s seminal comic book mini-series, “The Dark Knight Returns.”
Ferguson knows that his every statement will be dissected and analysed. Despite his seemingly diminished status at United the Scot’s public remarks resonate. His interview, this week, may not be a power-play as such, but it is a reminder of the knight’s ability to influence the conversation.
Speaking to Sky Sports’ Jim White, the former United manager discussed an array of topics; the headlines, of course, all focused on United.
Of the Premier League title race he opined that he can “only see Tottenham being a danger to Leicester.” Spurs, he says, “are playing some of the best football I’ve seen from” the North Londoners in many years. But Leicester, he concludes, has the edge.
On Dele Alli he notes that the 19-year-old is “the best young midfield player” he’s seen in England since the mercurial Paul Gascoigne. Ferguson also lauded Mauricio Pochettino’s work, before mischievously suggesting that Spurs’ biggest task this summer is to retain the Argentine. He might not be wrong given the shortening odds on Pochettino’s potential arrival at Old Trafford.
The former United manager also lavished praise on Pep Guardiola, noting that Manchester City pulled off a coup in signing the Spaniard, and that the former Barcelona boss will succeed with the Citizens. There was, however, a warning that that Pep will find life in the Premier League tough.
But it was Ferguson’s comments on Louis van Gaal that garnered the headlines – and merit the greatest scrutiny from United fans.
"The bigger question is Ferguson’s ulterior motive, because there is always one. Not all observers will conclude that Ferguson’s support for Van Gaal is genuine."
“It is dead easy to be critical,” he said of the Dutchman’s troubled second season. “You have to be realistic about some things – the number of injuries he has had: Phil Jones has played only seven games this season, Ashley Young, Valencia, and Shaw, these are big losses.
“There are also five new players in their first season at United, and two are young players in Martial and Memphis, and their promise is good. You have to have some patience being a Manchester United fan and they have shown that over the years; in Matt Busby’s time, in my time. For 150 years of history it is worth having a couple of years on the quiet side of success because they will always come back and come back strong.”
It is a robust defence from Ferguson and more importantly the most high profile support for the Dutchman from any senior United figure. In turn, it is tempting to unpack Ferguson’s comments – to analyse the injury situation that has spanned across Van Gaal’s two seasons, with a concurrent changing squad and necessity to blood young players, and conclude that faith in the manager is indeed required.
The bigger question, however, is Ferguson’s ulterior motive – because there is always one. Not all observers will conclude that Ferguson’s support for Van Gaal is genuine; not when the Scot failed to raise his voice when his disciples, such as Paul Scholes, were so forthright in criticising the Dutchman. Some, indeed, believe that Ferguson’s move is an attempt to stem the clamour in some circles for a certain Portuguese super coach.
In a message that will always sit well with United’s support, Ferguson commended Van Gaal for playing youth teamers before singling out Marcus Rashford for praise.
“You have to give him credit, he’s given nine young players their debut. I think the future is good,” the Scot said. “Rashford is an example of what I think is Manchester United. They are the one club in England who will always identify a Rashford and give a young kid a chance. There is no better club in England at giving young kids a chance. Rashford is a sensation and one of the best in years.”
Simple, innocent, statements designed to highlight the positive work Van Gaal has done at United or something more Machiavellian afoot? Given that Ryan Giggs recently spoke to Inside United about the club’s history of nurturing youth players there is more than a whiff of coincidence in the air.
The former United boss shouldn’t be, and probably isn’t, surprised by the intrigue and forensic deconstruction of his interview. He has, after all, conditioned supporters and the media alike not to take his comments at face value. There’s always an underlying message.
With rumours that a power struggle is rife behind the scenes at Old Trafford, it’s easy to assume that Ferguson’s play is one designed to influence the wider debate about United’s future. And, more importantly, to get his way.
Despite being marginalised, Ferguson is well aware that he is one of the few figures in the boardroom who can speak to the media with authority. Impunity, event. The Glazers, as is the family’s modus operandi, choose to remain mute, while Ed Woodward does not hold the same clout. Hence the frequent briefings off-the-record.
Ferguson is still the man with the most football expertise at United and he is using that leverage to influence the club’s direction. And while he got it badly wrong by championing David Moyes’ appointment, there is still no effective or credible counter-weight to challenge Ferguson’s views in public. Woodward has not the force of personality to rein in the Scot, while Ferguson is firmly entrenched in the Glazer family’s corner.
"With rumours of a power struggle behind the scenes, it’s easy to assume that Ferguson’s play is one designed to influence the debate about United’s future."
The former United manager is also wily enough to know how to present his case in public without being overt in his strategy. After all, with a compliant media ready to lap up his every word, Ferguson has a ready outlet to relay his opinions without the nuisance of being challenged about his past misdeeds.
Of course, it could simply be a case of over-analysis. Perhaps this is much ado about nothing and the Scot’s interview was a rare, upfront and honest insight about what he really believes. Yet, Ferguson’s record means that nothing passes without scrutiny – nor a hint of agenda.
For better or worse, by defending Van Gaal, Ferguson is defined as a purveyor of continuity, the Dutchman’s defender-in-chief and, critically, anti-Mourinho. Sir Alex is a man who is not quite ready to let go.
Perhaps that’s the way he likes it to be as he enjoys retirement. But if that’s the case any comparison with the Dark Knight is wide of the mark. If anything Ferguson is far closer to Harvey Dent’s criminal moniker: Two-Face.