Tag Sir Alex Ferguson

Tag Sir Alex Ferguson

Ferguson’s new Euro challenge

May 2, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 28 comments
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The United States naval Special Warfare Development Group, commonly known as SEAL Team Six, became famous for killing Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan on 2 May 2011. SEAL Team Six, along with its brother unit DELTA, is responsible for eliminating some 3000 alleged terrorists and capturing 9000 more during its deployment in Iraq.

During the war, the elite counter-terrorism unit operated under the mantra of “surprise, speed and violence of action” and it is staggering to think just how violent they must have been – 3000 killed by a few scores of soldiers. Despite the ‘success’, SEAL Team Six has since adopted a new code as its modus operandi – “silence, stealth and decisiveness of action.”

It is beyond the scope of this post, nor is United Rant a proper place, to discuss exactly why, but the SEALs’ change of direction should be rather familiar to Manchester United fans.

Under Sir Alex Ferguson’s stewardship, United has won two European Cups. Yet, the change in tactical approach between successes has been stark.

Take, for example, the 1998/99 season in which the Reds scored 29 and conceded 16 over the Champions League campaign. By contrast, Ferguson’s 2007/08 side scored 20 and conceded six. The reigning English champions scored nine more, despite playing two games less in ’99, and conceded 10 more in the treble-winning season compared to nearly a decade later.

The explanation for the switch from profligacy to parsimony comes in Ferguson’s change of approach.

The tactics deployed by Ferguson in ‘99 were fairly basic – a classic 4-4-2, although some, including Sky pundit Gary Neville, argue that with Dwight Yorke deployed in the hole Ferguson’s formation was closer to 4-4-1-1.

Whatever the formation, it was also a phenomenally tough side. The second leg of the semi-final against Juventus encapsulates the spirit of the side perfectly. While the game is, of course, remembered for Roy Keane’s heroics, to “modern” eyes it is also absolutely astounding just how violent the game was.

Watching the game one again it is noticeable how basic the vertical ‘box-to-box’ runs of Ferguson’s players were. There are no fancy false nines, nor an inverted winger. And while there was little choice with the Scot’s team two goals down, United’s sheer attacking verve is breathtaking – the ball just keeps going forward.

Contrast United’s performance at Stadio Della Alpi to the away game against AS Roma in ‘07/08. Right off the bat the side was infinitely more complex. Cristiano Ronaldo featured upfront as a false nine. Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney and Ji-Sung Park were deployed as defensive wingers. And the midfield three of Anderson, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes did not include an old-fashioned defensive midfielder in Keane’s considerable mould at all.

The game was far more measured. Players didn’t just run in straight lines – instead, they covered each other and tried to progress carefully, with advanced players offering much subtler runs than Yorke or Andy Cole ever did. The game, notwithstanding Ronaldo’s great header, was won mainly on the chalkboard. In fact, Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox declares that “[the game against Roma] will go down as one of the great away performances in Europe by an English club.”

Correctly or otherwise, Ferguson considered the gung-ho style of football United played in Europe as a hindrance to further success in the continent’s premier competition. Or in other words, “surprise, speed and violence of action” could no longer be the order of the day when the manager wanted far more “decisiveness.”

Ferguson was proven right in his conviction when United defeated Chelsea in 2008. Had it not been for the emergence of Lionel Messi-led Barcelona – possibly the greatest team ever assembled – the Scot might have even added one or two more Champions League wins in the past five years.

United’s stark evolution in that decade owes much to the modern media era. Television brings almost any match on the planet to the viewer. Indeed, television has taken geography out of scouting and analysis.

And with so many eyes and brains, with so much money on the line, football is evolving quicker than ever. For example, the blistering pressing game buttressed by careful possession of the ball, championed by Barcelona and used so effectively by Spain, is already in decline.

The modern way has evolved again. Instead, “hip” teams now press hard when the opposition goalkeeper has the ball. The concept is to stop opposition from building from the back, forcing the ‘keeper to launch the ball long, with defenders dropping back and picking up opposition players. After all, why waste energy chasing the ball when one can prevent the ball from ever reaching an opposition player?

Bayern Munich showed how effective the idea is by hammering Barcelona 4-0 in the Champions League semi-final last week and repeating the trick at Camp Nou.

While Ferguson evolved his side in the decade from the ’99 victory, the game as a whole has changed from being “violent” to being “decisive.” It seems that in his final years as United manager, Ferguson, now 71, has another challenge to meet.

Euro disapointment at the heart of Fergie’s anguish

March 10, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 22 comments

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.

Gill’s departure leaves Ferguson isolated

February 21, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 19 comments

David Gill’s surprise announcement on Tuesday, that he is to step down as chief executive of Manchester United after 10 years in the position, comes as a personal “blow” to manager Sir Alex Ferguson, leaving the 71-year-old Scot without a key Old Trafford ally. It is the most serious conclusion to draw from Gill’s resignation, which will take effect after the season has concluded in June.

Gill’s departure comes against the backdrop of the 55-year-old executive’s move into football politics. Gill, who has spent 16 years at Old Trafford first as chief finance officer and then ceo, recently joined the FA as vice chairman, and is applying to join UEFA’s executive committee. He will remain as a non-executive director of the club.

Meanwhile, 40-year-old Edward Woodward, very much the Glazer’s man, will take up his new role with a remit to further strengthen United’s commercialisation strategy. Woodward becomes ceo after a highly successful campaign to broaden United’s commercial reach over the past seven years, which has seen the club’s commercial revenues nearly triple to £117.6 million.

Woodward, formerly executive vice chairman at the club, led the team that globalised United’s commercial reach and diversified the portfolio of sponsors. Under Woodward’s executive leadership United’s aggressive commercialisation is highly unlikely to slow down.

But it is the impact on Sir Alex that is of primary interest to supporters, who have witnessed just three chief executives during Ferguson’s reign; Gill, Peter Kenyon and Martin Edwards. Indeed, Gill has become Ferguson’s close confidant in the past seven seasons, and a central link between the playing side of the club and the detached Glazer family in Florida.

“I have worked alongside the finest manager in the history of the game and been part of what I consider to be the best club in the best sport in the world,” said Gill in a statement released shortly after United informed the New York stock exchange on Tuesday.

“I have always been conscious of the fact that, as a member of staff, I was always just a temporary custodian of this marvellous institution. I am also of the view that all businesses need to refresh themselves with new management and ideas and after 10 years in charge I believe it is appropriate for someone new to pick up the baton. I’m delighted Ed has accepted the role.

“I am looking forward to continuing my involvement on the club board. And I hope to be able to make a contribution to the game on a wider national and European level.”

Without Gill, Ferguson’s political position at the club is challenged. After all, it was Woodward, not Gill, that was the primary driver of United’s IPO roadshow last summer, at one point promising potential investors that the Reds will not spend more than historical norms on transfers and wages. It was a promise that many people took at face value – an average net transfer budget of less than £20 million per season.

Recent analysis by blogger Andy Green forecasts that United’s surplus cash flow could reach more than £100 million in the coming years, putting Woodward on a collision course with Ferguson over budget, should the septuagenarian Scot remain at the club.

No wonder Ferguson admitted his dismay at Gill’s departure, with the man dubbed ‘Safe Hands’ no longer in the boardroom to facilitate his manager’s relationship with the American owners.

“I have been at United for over 26 years and for 23 of those years my boss has been one of only two men: Martin Edwards, who brought me to the club, and David Gill,” said Ferguson on Tuesday.

“Of course we have had a million arguments, but I have always enjoyed them because I know that David has two great qualities: he is straight and he always puts Manchester United first. No disagreement is ever personal with him. He always wants the best for United, whether it’s the players, the training ground or the staff.

“Him stepping down is a big loss to me but the fact that he is staying on the board encourages me that the reason for his departure is heartfelt, that he believes it is time for the club to move on. If I could have found a way of persuading him to stay I would love to have done that.”

In a decade as ceo, first under the Plc regime and latterly working for the Glazer family, Gill has generated significant controversy. Gill was integral to much of United’s first wave of commercialisation, provoking criticism from the media for United’s marketing approach, and from fans for the evolving nature of the Old Trafford matchday experience.

Gill also led the board’s strategy to increase ticket prices ahead of the Glazer’s leveraged buyout, justifying rises under the mantra of retaining the club’s ability to fight off a hostile takeover. It did little good.

Most controversially, Gill initially rejected the family’s approach for full control of the club in 2005, infamously stating that “debt is the road to ruin” and that the Glazer family’s business model was “overly aggressive”. Gill’s hostility soon morphed into support for the Glazer regime once the takeover was completed, although there was little material difference in either debt leverage or business approach.

It takes not a cynic to suggest that Gill’s salary, which has more than doubled since 2005, has bought significant loyalty to the new owners, who have sought to retain the executive’s involvement in a non-executive capacity.

“David has played a significant role in the success of Manchester United in his 10 years as CEO and he can take great satisfaction at all that has been achieved on his watch, both on and off the field,” said Joel Glazer, co-chairman in a rare statement from the family.

“I am very pleased he has agreed to remain on the board, so that his experience and counsel are not lost to us. I hope that the decision he has made will be to the benefit of the game in Europe as a whole, as he seeks election to Uefa’s executive committee.”

Meanwhile, Woodward called his appointment a “great honour,” adding that he is “humbled” to work with Ferguson. Yet, the obsequious words can do little to mask the new chief executive’s remit, which is to drive home the club’s profit goals, generating ever greater margins as the Glazer family seeks to extract equity from the business.

It is an objective that, as one reporter put it on Wednesday, completes the ‘Glazerfication’ of Old Trafford; an entity that now exists primarily to extract profit for its owners, and to be a football team as a by-product.

This process was once anathema to Ferguson, the socialist ship worker’s son, now working for the game’s most commercially geared organisation and under the leadership of the Glazer’s prodigy.

Poll: can United win another treble this season?

January 20, 2013 Tags: , , Polls 25 comments

With Manchester United top of the Premier League, through to the knock-out stage in Europe and into the FA Cup Fourth Round, Sir Alex Ferguson believes his side could seal trio of trophies this season. Mirroring the 1999 ‘treble’, says Ferguson, is possible due to the depth of resources now available at Old Trafford.

“We want to be involved in everything. We’ve got all three trophies to go for – and we’ve got the squad to do it,” said Sir Alex Ferguson on Saturday.

“It’s absolutely ­brilliant for everyone connected with Manchester United. We have got the excitement of going to Real Madrid in the Champions League and them coming here. We’ve got Fulham in the FA Cup as well after winning our ­replay against West Ham. And if you go back to the year we won the Treble, we had a Cup replay against Chelsea and ­another one against Arsenal.

“The squad is looking very strong at the moment with players coming back in. It’s a period of the season that could be crucial to us if we can keep our momentum going. These are big opportunities for us – and we don’t want to miss them.”

Certainly, Ferguson’s team is ahead of many pundits’ expectations after failing to secure any silverware last season. Ignominiously defeated in Europe, usurped domestically by Manchester City and knocked out of the FA Cup by Liverpool, 2011/12 is a season many supporters would like to forget.

But could this season match United’s greatest ever with three trophies heading back to Old Trafford in May?

Can United win another 'treble' this season?

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Size (and what you do with it)

December 30, 2012 Tags: Opinion 12 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has been in fine form of late, first fearing, quite preposterously, for Robin van Persie’s life and then deriding 120-year-old Newcastle United as “a wee club in the north-east.” Quite a put-down for the four-times champions of England that attracts regular crowds in excess of 50,000. But Ferguson’s jibe, provoked by manager Alan Pardew’s sanctimonious criticism, raises an interesting question: what exactly determines the ‘size’ of a football club in the modern game?

Ferguson’s wisecrack comes with the inherent backdrop of Manchester United’s grandiose. Indeed, United is self-styled as the world’s biggest, with management often touting a flawed Kantar survey that estimates the club has more than 690 million “followers” worldwide – a figure far in excess of rival institutions, domestically and abroad.

The Kantar survey, which includes any ‘fan’ who looks out for United’s results and news even if they follow another team, was conducted ahead of United’s New York IPO last summer. Previous surveys had put United’s supporters at more than 330 million, but either way the club can boast a genuinely huge global supporter base.

Still, the Reds’ average home attendance is also among the globe’s largest, with more than 75,000 packing Old Trafford each week despite steep price rises under the Glazer regime between 2005 and 2010. In Europe only Barcelona at 84,119 and Borussia Dortmund, with 80,521 packing Westfalenstadion each week, can better United’s figure. It is not without reason to suspect that United supporters would fill a substantially larger stadium if prices were more in line with continental rivals.

Meanwhile, Newcastle can boast average gates of just under 50,000 in the Premier League, up from a historic low of 16,000 in 1991. It makes the Magpies England’s fifth best supported club, and the 15th biggest in European football.

Then there is the silverware factor, with United boasting 19 domestic league titles, 15 further English cups and seven major continental or international trophies. Real Madrid, by contrast, has claimed La Liga 32 times, Rangers 54 Scottish titles and Juventus 28 Serie A trophies. Borussia Dortmund, with those huge attendances, has won the Bundesliga just eight times, including those in the past two seasons.

The contrast between the biggest and that “wee club” Newcastle is stark, with the Geordies having claimed England’s top division on just four occasions – the last in 1927 – a further six FA Cups and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969. The haul still places Newcastle in top 10 most successful clubs in English history. English champions Manchester City can claim to be England’s finest on just three occasions, including last season’s last-gasp victory.

Yet, the modern game is built above all on finances and the attendant ability to compete in the transfer market. City’s rise has come since Abu Dhabi’s Royal Family pumped in more than £1 billion of sovereign wealth into the club. Meanwhile Roman Abramovich has financed Chelsea to 11 major trophies in the past decade.

Neither City nor Chelsea can match the world’s top three revenue generating clubs: Real Madrid (annual revenues £420 million), Barcelona (£407 million) and United (£320 million). City’s annual revenue was last reported at £254 million, Chelsea’s at £255 million and Newcastle’s at £88 million.

Yet, for all that revenue generated United’s debt pile means that the club has consistently posted losses since the Glazer family acquired the club in 2005. Chelsea has only recently recorded a profit under Abramovich and City has posted cumulative losses of  £510.9 million in the past four years. Meanwhile, owner Mike Ashley has steered a listing Newcastle United to safer financial ground in recent years.

Indeed, only an elite set of clubs – United included – can claim the triumvirate of large revenues, a huge fanbase and a history of consistent silverware. Real Madrid and Barcelona are similarly well-endowed, while there are merits to including Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Juventus, Ajax, Arsenal, Liverpool in any list of the world’s biggest.

Yet, there is something else that determines a club’s size; a certain je ne sais quoi that surely includes ‘history’ in the mix even if a club has fallen on hard times. There are plenty of clubs for whom success has been ephemeral, but might rank more highly than Newcastle in a subjective list of England’s biggest – twice European champions Nottingham Forest, Football League founding member Aston Villa, and three-times England’s best Leeds United, for example.

In fact some of Europe’s biggest match few of the aforementioned criteria. Liverpool, well behind United, Real Madrid and Barcelona in terms of revenues generated, and attendances achieved, can still boast a global supporter base built on years of success in the 1970s and 80s. Meanwhile, Juventus – Serie A champions in 2011 and 2012 – fills its compact new stadium, built to a 40,000 capacity based on the Old Lady’s historic attendances.

Few doubt either club’s right to ‘big club’ status. It’s that ineffable thing again.

European Attendance Top 20 (2011/12 average)
1 – FC Barcelona – 84,119 – Camp Nou
2 – Borussia Dortmund – 80,521 – Westfalenstadion
3 – Manchester United – 75,387 – 2011–12 Old Trafford
4 – Real Madrid – 74,678 – Santiago Bernabéu
5 – Bayern Munich – 69,000 – Allianz Arena
6 – Schalke 04 – 61,139 – Veltins-Arena, Gelsenkirchen
7 – Arsenal – 60,000 – Emirates Stadium
8 – VfB Stuttgart – 55,089 – Mercedes-Benz Arena
9 – Hertha Berlin – 54,259 – Olympiastadion
10 – Hamburger SV – 53,635 – Imtech Arena
11 – Borussia Mönchengladbach – 51,846 – Borussia-Park
12 – Milan – 51,442 – San Siro
13 – Celtic – 50,904 – Celtic Park
14 – Ajax – 50,044 – Amsterdam ArenA
15 – Newcastle United – 49,935 – St James’ Park
16 – Internazionale – 47,913 – San Siro
17 – FC Köln – 47,647 – RheinEnergieStadion
18 – Manchester City – 47,044 – Etihad Stadium
19 – Rangers – 46,324 – Ibrox Stadium
20 – Napoli – 45,789 – Stadio San Paolo

Deloittle Money League 2012 (€millions)
1 – Real Madrid – 479.5
2 – Barcelona – 450.7
3 – Manchester United – 367.0
4 – Bayern Munich – 321.4
5 – Arsenal – 251.1
6 – Chelsea – 249.8
7 – Milan 235.1
8 – Internazionale – 211.4
9 – Liverpool – 203.3
10 – Schalke 04 – 202.4
11 – Tottenham Hotspur – 181.0
12 – Manchester City – 169.6
13 – Juventus – 153.9
14 – Marseille – 150.4
15 – Roma – 143.5
16 – Borussia Dortmund – 138.5
17 – Lyon – 132.8
18 – Hamburg – 128.8
19 – Valencia – 116.8
20 – Napoli – 114.9

* 2012 money league, some clubs have more recently reported financial information

England’s most successful clubs (number of major trophies won)
1 – Liverpool – 41
2 – Manchester United – 40
3 – Arsenal – 26
4 – Aston Villa – 20
5 – Chelsea – 18
6 – Tottenham Hotspur – 17
7 – Everton – 1995
8 – Newcastle United – 11
8 – Manchester City – 11
10 – Blackburn Rovers – 10
11 – Wolverhampton Wanderers – 9
11 – Nottingham Forest – 9
13 – Sunderland – 8
13 – Sheffield Wednesday – 8
15 – Leeds United – 7
15 – West Bromwich Albion – 7
17 – Sheffield United – 5
17 – Wanderers – 5*
19 – Bolton Wanderers – 4
19 – Huddersfield Town – 4
19 – Portsmouth – 4
19 – Preston North End – 4
19 – West Ham United – 4

* now defunct
Does not include Charity/Community Shield

How Fergie stole Mancini’s Christmas

December 24, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 36 comments

“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”
Jim Morrison

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.

Di Matteo’s demise underscores Ferguson’s enduring value

November 22, 2012 Tags: Opinion 27 comments

It has been a week for managers; one which has often reminded Manchester United supporters just how fortunate the club remains to keep Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm after more than a quarter century. True, the cantankerous 70-year-old Scot has many faults, more of them personal than professional, but whatever the legitimate criticisms, Ferguson’s stewardship continues to avoid the managerial dramas prevalent elsewhere.

Indeed, Wednesday’s commotion at Stamford Bridge, in which Champions League winning manager Roberto Di Matteo was unceremoniously sacked and replaced with out-of-work Rafael Benitez, says much for Old Trafford’s contrasting stability. Benitez is the 10th manager employed by Roman Abramovich in nine years. Ferguson hasn’t hired that many deputies in more than 25.

Fitting, than, that yet another tribute is paid to Sir Alex this week, with the manager’s statue unveiled in front of the renamed Sir Alex Ferguson Stand on Friday. The statue, marking 26 years of the Scot’s tenure in Manchester, is set to be placed above the main entrance, with Ferguson-themed artwork adorning the lower concourse.

Little wonder, while there is sympathy for Di Matteo in football circles, the real plaudits have poured in for Ferguson this week; a man still without peer in the game.

“He’s unique, especially in the modern day,” said Jose Mourinho, whose Real Madrid side knocked City out of the Champions League on Wednesday night.

“If you go back many years, then you will find somebody like him but [it’s amazing] in the modern day at the highest level, where it is really difficult to survive in our job. He’s absolutely incredible at what he does and we can’t even imagine when he’ll stop. He’s unbelievable.”

Over at Cobham, Benitez, whose anti-Ferguson rant remains a career highlight, will take his first training sessions ahead of the west London outfit’s trip to Manchester City this weekend.

Chelsea, having lost twice and drawn another brace in the past month, is hardly in a tailspin other than that self-induced by the owners. Yet, out went Di Matteo as the sun rose on Wednesday morning, seemingly on the capricious whim of a narcissistic owner. For all Abramovich’s investment, which is running at more than £1 billion over just shy of a decade, the Russian has repeatedly hamstrung his own club.

Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, and perhaps even Andre Villas-Boas, each went far too early. Elsewhere, the Russian’s bizarre recruitment policy seemingly owes more to the latest hype than a genuine process.

True, Abramovich’s spending is in stark contrast to the Glazer family’s drain on United. The Americans’ cost to the club is estimated at north of £550 million in debt servicing, interest and other payments. But the family, for all the insidious drive to exploit United’s fame, has at least retained the good sense to hold keenly the club’s playing stability.

At the core of that is Ferguson. Infuriatingly stubborn, an aggressive supporter of a hated regime, and often embarrassingly myopic, but the Scot is still utterly peerless. It is a quality recognised in high circles.

“He’s one of these people that has a strength of character that immediately marks him out as a leader of people,” said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“He’s a great competitor but he’s also got huge integrity, to himself and to what he believes in. I think that’s quite unusual in life to find people like that.

“If you’re in a tough situation and everything is coming down on top of you and you feel you’re slowly getting surrounded by the people that want to put you in a deep dark pit, Alex is the type of person you’d want standing alongside you. He is a great leader, a great character, and a great human being.”

Which, of course, leaves the oft-debated question of Ferguson’s successor out there – in this week of tributes and tribulations in managerial circles above all others.

Turning 71 in the New Year, Ferguson cannot last much longer. Indeed, the no-fly order prescribed by his doctors in the summer may be a sign of things to come. Sir Alex has often claimed that health, rather than age, will dictate his long-term future at Old Trafford.

Still, as Chelsea flit from one fashionable manager to the next, David Gill and United’s board will face the mother of all managerial appointments when Ferguson’s replacement is finally required, whether that comes next summer or beyond.

The usual suspects – Mourinho, Abramovich’s favourite Pep Guardiola, and perhaps David Moyes – will head a very short list of candidates. Whomever the new man, none will match Ferguson’s achievements. Few his aura and universal respect among his playing charges, says Paul Scholes, who at 38 has only known one club manager.

“He’s been brilliant for every single player that’s worked for him,” adds the midfielder.

“There is such a hunger and desire about him that really drives his players on – he knows how to keep you motivated throughout a season. It’s something that he’s managed to do for the last 20 years and I’m sure he’ll carry on doing it for the next few years as well.

“Somebody’s going to have to come in one day and manage this team and if they do half as well as he does they’ll be successful. There’s nobody like him I know that – but somebody’s got to give it a go.”

There could, of course, still be a left-field choice. How many have have come and gone in the decade since Ferguson’s ‘first’ retirement in 2002? Once chic Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes will be nowhere near Gill’s short-list. Neither, thankfully, will Sven-Göran Erikson, Sir Alex’s mooted replacement a decade ago.

Then there is former player Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a romantic choice among United’s support. The 39-year-old is unlikely to be offered the job either, despite two Norwegian championships with Molde in as many years. After all, United’s drive for revenues and profit under the Glazer regime is anathema to inexperience.

To paraphrase the great Marcello Lippi, Solskjaer’s appointment at Old Trafford in 2013 or 14, would be akin to handing the keys of a Ferrari over to a learner driver.

Meanwhile, at Stamford Bridge, 52-year-old Benitez is certainly no learner, although the Spaniard hasn’t taken the wheel of a supercar in some time either. It remains to be seen whether the former Liverpool coach is given time in west London.

History dictates Abramovich’s whim will bring Benitez reign to a swift and unstable end. It is a lesson United learned to the club’s benefit some time ago.

Smoke and blank mirrors

September 30, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 55 comments

After seven games where Manchester United has deceived more than flattered this season there was perhaps no surprise that the Reds came unstuck at Old Trafford on Saturday. After all Tottenham Hotpsur has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past week, while Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have picked up points and not plaudits in the campaign to date. No surprise either that Ferguson’s side began Saturday’s match in much the same fashion it had spent much of last weekend’s fortuitous victory over Liverpool: disjointed and lacking in urgency.

It is tempting to ponder whether something is not right at the Theatre of Dreams; Sir Alex certainly has much to ponder. Not least his role in failing to provide a midfield platform on which the Reds’ plethora of attacking players can effectively perform, nor addressing the worryingly complacency that has creeped into the Reds’ game.

Instead, the 70-year-old Scot offered an old-time diversionary tactic following United’s first defeat to Spurs at Old Trafford since 1989: blame the officials for the lack of injury time awarded. Was the excuse not quite so risible, supporters might find humour in Ferguson’s classic smokescreen.

Yet, it took barely two minutes for Ferguson’s bizarre midfield plan, such as it was, to come unstuck against Andre Villas-Boas’ side on Saturday, with Jan Vertongen waltzing through United’s defence to score at the Stretford End.

By the time Clint Dempsey prodded home Tottenham’s third early into the second period the game was very much afoot, despite a valiant attacking effort by the hosts in the final half-hour.

Shinji Kagawa scored a fine goal in the moments following Dempsey’s strike – and United struck both bar and post in a breathless final third – but the real damage had already been inflicted. Much of it self-flagellatory.

It was certainly not the first time this season that United’s open formation, in which the Reds’ midfield offers minimal defensive cover, has contributed to a costly performance. Nor, one suspects, will Saturday’s misshapen defensive unit be the last seen in the campaign ahead.

Yet, for all of Ferguson’s many gifts self-scrutiny is seldom one of them. In 25 years at Old Trafford’s helm the 70-year-old has rarely, if ever, admitted an error in judgement. Saturday tea-time, Ferguson’s decision to select Ryan Giggs and Nani – two of the squad’s least productive players at Anfield – wide of ball-playing Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, looked every inch a glaring error come the game’s end.

No surprise, then, that Ferguson railed not at self-inflicted wounds, but the officials who “insulted” the game by providing ‘just’ four minute’s of injury time at the end of a pulsating match.

“They gave us four minutes, that’s an insult to the game,” claimed Ferguson after United’s first home defeat of the season.

“It denies you a proper chance to win a football match. There were six substitutions, the trainer came on, so that’s four minutes right away and the goalkeeper must have wasted about two or three minutes and they took their time at every goal kick.

“That’s obvious to everyone today and it’s a flaw in the game that the referee is responsible for time keeping. It’s ridiculous that it’s 2012 and the referee still has control of that.”

In that Ferguson’s argument has some technical merit, although William Gallas and Steven Caulker defended with such determination that there is no guarantee that 40 and not four minutes of added time would have brought United an equaliser.

Indeed, for all United’s possession – 75 per cent on average and rising fast by the game’s conclusion – it was Spurs that offered the greatest cutting edge. At least on the break.

While Vertongen drifted  into United’s box without challenge for the visitor’s first, the second was a lesson in incisive attacking play. Moussa Dembélé’s pass cut through the Reds’ midfield, and Gareth Bale’s pace swept the Welshman past Rio Ferdinand, before the winger proffered an expert right-footed finish.

“The most important thing was the first half,” Ferguson admitted.

“We didn’t start, we were lackadaisical and lost a goal after two minutes, and you give yourself an uphill fight with that situation. In the second half we were terrific, it was a great performance by them, and we were unlucky not to win it. If we had held the scoreline at 2-1 for a few minutes I think we would have won the match.”

By the end Ferguson had thrown on four strikers as United chased an equaliser. Wayne Rooney’s introduction for the highly ineffective Giggs at half-time changed the balance of United’s attacking play, if not the fundamental shape.

With Kagawa now operating from a narrow left-sided position, Rooney was at his creative best 10 yards deeper than Robin van Persie. But it was 36-year-old Paul Scholes that caught the eye, commanding United’s tempo and pattern of play as Tottenham regressed into defensive entrenchment following Kagawa’s 52nd minute goal.

There were a more than a few United supporters pondering the stark change in the game’s pattern, although this had more to do with Spurs’ changing ambitions than United’s tactics.

Defeat – United’s second of the Premier League season – inevitably brings with it questions, not least the Reds’ inability to retain a clean sheet. More worrying still, this was the third occasion this season in which United has conceded at least twice. This time there were no injury excuses to fall back on, with Ferdinand and Jonny Evans starting for the second week in succession.

Nor too has Ferguson addressed the fundamental, and potentially season-defining hole in a central midfield that is now packed with ball-players, but appears ill-equipped to deal with opponents that attack at pace.

After all, this was a game that United thoroughly dominated except in the most telling aspect. The hosts hogged three times the visitors’ possession, making three-fold more passes, taking 60 per cent more shots, and forcing Tottenham to make almost four times as many clearances.

The key statistic, however, has always been goals. On Saturday, Spurs’ triple was aided on each occasion by United’s lack of defensive nous.

“This is what happens when you only play for 45 minutes,” said Patrice Evra on MUTV with telling introspection.

“The game is 90 minutes long and we deserved to lose because we only played for 45. To concede three goals at Old Trafford is not good enough when you want to win the game.”

Nor, some might add, is failing to address a very long-term weakness.

Fortunate Reds gain points and praise at Anfield

September 24, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 47 comments

So there it was – a result at Anfield at last. Nearly five long years of struggles, ending not with a domineering performance so many travelling Manchester United fans sought, but a huge slice of fortune. It favours the brave, doesn’t it? At least those ‘brave’ enough to deploy a midfield axis of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs.

United’s 2-1 victory on Sunday, after four defeats in the past five visits to Anfield, came not on the back of a great team performance. Not even near it. Nor indeed, any real moments of individual genius – although Rafael’s fine goal came close – but two refereeing decisions that swang the match United’s way. First robbing Liverpool of all midfield momentum, and then handing United the match 10 minutes from time.

Referee Mark Halsey got both of those key moments right though – JonJo Shelvey’s 39th minute dismissal for a high tackle on Jonny Evans, and the 81st minute penalty that enabled Robin van Persie to seal United’s first win at Anfield since December 2007. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men deserved very little of the luck though, with the Scot’s midfield completely – and predictably – overrun until Shelvey’s red card changed the game, and the canny Paul Scholes was brought on to ruthlessly exploit the additional space.

In truth, while United defended far better than in many recent matches – Rio Ferdinand on the day of John Terry’s international retirement was immense at the heart of the Reds’ back-four – Ferguson’s men created very little. This was a match in which United’s 70-year-old manager got his tactics all wrong, but came up trumps anyway.

Relief, then, for Ferguson whose team stole the points from a Liverpool side raising its game, once again, for United’s visit.

“In the last four years here we haven’t played well,” Ferguson told MUTV.

“Today at least we’ve got a result. Hopefully that’s a turning point for us because if you look back over the years we always did really well here. I think it was about five, six, seven years in a row we did exceptionally well, but it goes in cycles anyway. Before we had that run they had a period in the late ’80s of getting results against us, so it’s maybe our turn to start.

“I thought we were poor, to be honest with you. I think the last four years we’ve allowed the crowd to get to us a little bit – they give fantastic support to their team and they really dominated the first half. Second half they got a great start.

“With ten men I thought that was a great boost to them because it was something to hold on to, but credit to the players in that respect; the second half we played much, much better, but we were against ten men. I think Scholes, Carrick and Giggs’ experience got us through.”

Predictably, Liverpool’s players and manager complained about the refereeing, although it was almost impossible for Halsey not to have shown Shelvey red for a tackle that crossed the line from reckless to excessive. Meanwhile, other marginal calls fell United’s way, with little evidence for Liverpool’s complaint. Evans cleanly tackled Luis Suarez, with the Kop baying for a penalty, while Glenn Johnson felled Antonio Valencia ;under the official’s nose for the winning spot kick.

The pre-match ceremonies had brought a measure of détente between the camps, but it was shattered five minutes before half time when Shelvey refused to take his punishment with any grace. The former-Charlton midfielder, having already hit Ferdinand with a barrage of four-letter expletives on the pitch, aimed further ire at Ferguson before departing for the dressing rooms.

“I think it’s a clear sending off, I’ve absolutely no doubts about it,” added Sir Alex.

“I’ve seen the replay. It was reckless. Jonny Evans, who has dived in, went for the ball and got the ball, no question about that, but Shelvey was nowhere near getting the ball and could have given Jonny Evans a real bad injury. He was very lucky, actually.

“Shelvey came and blamed me. Why not? Why look at himself in the mirror? Just blame someone else. I think the boy’s young and when he looks at it again he’ll realise the stupidity of it. He may apologise, he may not.”

The midfielder later claimed on Twitter that he had apologised to United’s septuagenarian coach, before deleting the statement. It takes not a soothsayer to predict why, not least after the 20-year-old later accused Ferguson of being “a grass” for the manager’s perceived role in the decision.

Meanwhile, in a week when United supporters came under fire for singing “Always the victim” at Old Trafford last Saturday, Ferguson came perilously close to echoing the sentiment if not the dark spirit of that particularly divisive chant.

But there were positives for United, not least Ferdinand’s outstanding defensive display, and another buccaneering performance from Brazilian right-back Rafael da Silva. The youngster retains many critics, especially with loose defensive work too often complementing fine attacking skills. But with United on the rack for much of the fixture, Rafael demonstrated maturity in defence and an outstanding goal, curled in with his left foot.

“Rafael’s goal got us out of the mire,” added Ferguson of the 51st minute equaliser.

“It was a fantastic goal, a good bit of football and it put us in the position where we didn’t need to panic and worked our way through the rest of the game. [The penalty] wasn’t easy for him [van Persie], but he’s taken it well, just the way I envisaged he would take these penalties. When he was at Arsenal, either side he would thunder them home. Reina’s had a good attempt, he got a hand to it, but the power of the shot has made it safe.”

Off the pitch United played a full part in commemorating those lost at Hillsborough 23 years ago, with Sir Bobby Charlton handing 96 roses to former Liverpool striker Ian Rush. The flowers formed part of an extensive pre-match ceremony, which Ferguson had ensured United did not shirk.

Meanwhile, Steven Gerrard released red balloons over Anfield, followed by the usual pre-match rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Visiting supporters, warned to behave by Ferguson pre-match, sang through the anthem as is always the way at Anfield. “U N I T E D,” sang almost 3,000 travelling Mancunians in support of their team. ‘Foul’ cried a select few – ill-informed – journalists on social media.

While, Sky Sports deliberately sought to stoke the controversy, and the Mirror’s Martin Lipton claimed disrespect, there were no complaints from more sensible observers. After all, nobody claims “United Calypso” and dozens of other club anthems across the land are sacrosanct.

Indeed, this was a match when – save for a few muted cries of “Murderers” and one unfortunate burst of “Where’s your famous Munich song?” after 13 minutes – the majority came to pay respect and enjoy a fine, if fortunate United victory. By the end two Liverpool supporters ran across the Anfield turf wheeling their arms in an all-too-familiar aeroplane motion to provoke another round of anti-Liverpool songs in an empty stadium. There’s always a few to break the mould.

On the pitch United is yet to reach anywhere near top gear this season, having only ever played well in short bursts. There were rarely any moments at all on Sunday, save for the goals. In that there is at least hope; United can only get better in the season to come. Unless, the pessimists among us might add, Ferguson’s luck simply runs out. It certainly didn’t on Sunday.

But after a week in which the 70-year-old has forcefully built a bridge between the two clubs, perhaps he deserved it.

Ferguson plays on fans’ conscience

September 22, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 9 comments

Will Manchester United supporters attract the ire of the nation’s press this Sunday? Perhaps, although there can be no guarantee of the cause ahead of the weekend’s clash with Liverpool at Anfield. Certainly, while the fourth estate awaits the merest glimpse of anti-Liverpool sentiment from away supporters this weekend, controversy could rear its head, whether real or augmented, for any manner of reasons.

This is, after all, the biggest game in the country, and Liverpool versus United has become the premier flashpoint of the domestic season. Last season’s clash at Anfield where Luis Suarez racially abused Patrice Evra is a case in point.

But it is to the fans’ songs that attention will be firmly focussed on Sunday – a day that promises to be an emotional one for Liverpool supporters, and a test of nerve for those at the other end of the East Lancs Road. Indeed, such is the desire for the day to pass off without incident that United on Friday published a letter in Sir Alex Ferguson’s name calling on Manchester’s Reds to observe the ‘best traditions’ of the club.

“The great support you gave the team here last season has seen our allocation back up to near-full levels,” wrote Ferguson in a letter that will be given to United fans entering the Anfield Road turnstiles on Sunday.

“I want you to continue that progress today. But today is about much more than not blocking gangways. Today is about thinking hard about what makes United the best club in the world. Our rivalry with Liverpool is based on a determination to come out on top – a wish to see us crowned the best against a team that held that honour for so long. It cannot and should never be based on personal hatred.

“Just ten days ago, we heard the terrible, damning truth about the deaths of 96 fans who went to watch their team try and reach the FA Cup final and never came back. What happened to them should wake the conscience of everyone connected with the game.

“Our great club stands with our great neighbours Liverpool today to remember that loss and pay tribute to their campaign for justice. I know I can count on you to stand with us in the best traditions of the best fans in the game.”

Indeed, had United beaten Nottingham Forest in the 1989 FA Cup quarter-final, Ferguson’s team would have joined Liverpool in the Hillsborough semi. It could so easily have been 96 United fans who failed to return as those from Merseyside.

In truth, while Ferguson makes no direct call for United supporters to refrain from singing the ‘always the victim, it’s never your fault’ chant that caused so much media furore, any rendition of that particular song is what the United manager most fears.

With the nation’s media in no mood to hear subtleties of argument, the reproach will likely be severe should even a modicum of Mancunian animosity be heard at Anfield. Whether it relates to Hillsborough, or not.

Far more likely, however, is that United fans will direct any hatred – despite Sir Alex’ call for détente – not at Hillsborough’s victims, but Suarez – an easy target in the circumstances. On a day when Liverpool will remember those who were not only lost at Hillsborough, but betrayed by the state, even the most bone-headed among United’s support  know where that Rubicon lays.

On the Kop attention will be elsewhere; certainly far enough away to distract Liverpudlians from the kind behaviour that United supporters have been accused of in the past week. However, Patrice Evra is unlikely to escape Anfield’s venom for his part in being racially abused last October. It remains hard to square media reaction to Evra’s victimisation on the grounds of race with coverage of United’s ‘chanting’ over the past week.

“We want this day to be remembered for the right reasons before the game, and the footballing reasons”, added Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.

“A lot of work has been done and hopefully Sunday will pass off peacefully and we can talk about the tributes and football. It is an emotionally-charged game. I wouldn’t sit here and tell Liverpool supporters how to behave. I know how they have behaved over many years has been fantastic.

On the day captains Nemanja Vidic and Steven Gerard will release 96 red balloons over Anfield, while a mosaic along three sides of the ground will read “96, Justice and Truth”. Ferguson, alongside Sir Bobby Charlton, will lay flowers at the Kop. It is a reminder that while England’s fiercest rivalry has lost none of it’s intensity, some events transcend the game.

Then, prior to kick-off, Premier League rules demand that Evra and Suarez come together for the handshake that never was at Old Trafford last February. It is an event that may yet set the tone for the game to come.

In the stands there will be more United fans at Anfield than in previous years, with Liverpool council now content that supporters will not block exits and gangways following a high profile supporters’ group campaign last season. It means Ferguson’s side will receive full and rowdy support from the Anfield Road.

Manager and club hope that it will be support in the very best spirit. In that there is responsibility not solely on United supporters, but those in the home end too.