United front masks deficiencies
Manchester United have become a club shrouded in uncertainty. The full effects of the Glazer takeover are yet to be realised but the club enters its second season under American rule as a force regarded by most to be fading. And growing dissatisfaction may yet become greater should the team again fall short on the field.
Roy Keane's overbearing presence has gone from the dressing room and the wage bill and perhaps joining the Irishman in the irreplaceable stakes will be Ruud Van Nistelrooy, sold to Real Madrid for looks a cut price, taking his 20 goals a season with him. Though losing such a guaranteed goal tally does not always mean a team becomes less of an attacking force, any games that see United profligate in front of goal will always lead to reminiscing for Ruud.
In many fans' eyes Ferguson is staking a hard-fought legacy through his continuing involvement with the club. Diminishing returns are the accusation, with last season's Carling Cup a mere bauble compared to the silverware the Scot has hauled into Old Trafford in the last fifteen years. For the fans, a challenge for the title is the least they expect, though the suspicion is that for the Glazers, a 3rd-placed finish and some near-guaranteed Champions League cash to pay off the club's £800m debt is all they require to be happy with a season.
The difference between being an also ran and a champion is never as pronounced on a football club company balance sheet as it is on a club's roll of honour.
The Michael Carrick deal's high eventual price masks an overall transfer spend of not very much at all. Van Nistelrooy's £10.5m and the £12m that came into the club through the mysterious Mikel John Obi affair with Chelsea, the money for the England midfielder and a mooted deal for Villarreal's Marcos Senna hardly burn a hole into the £25m-a-season transfer injection mooted on the Glazers' initial PR drive, even taking into account January deals for Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, a mysterious addition to Fergie's left-back collection.
That the relationships that Keane and Van Nistelrooy had with Ferguson had come to a close is undoubted. That both had seen better days is undoubted in the case of Keane and with the jury waiting on the Dutchman's first season at the Bernabeu. And Ferguson has made a career of falling out with stars to claim glory in short succession.
From Joe Harper and Gordon Strachan at Aberdeen to David Beckham via Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside, success has usually followed, though since Beckham's departure in 2003 the return of an FA Cup and League Cup is hardly enough for Manchester United or, one suspects, Ferguson.
Much has been made of Ferguson building a third team to succeed the Double winners of 1993/4 and the 'Fledglings' that swept all before them in 1999. There may well be a newer look to this team, with only Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes remaining of the fabled class of '92. But that trio remain mainstays of a side that looks a shadow of its precursors and does not share their financial eminence over Premiership rivals.
Another issue to sweep under the red-coloured carpet is the enticing prospect of supposedly warring factions Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo lining up in attack together. Rooney's autobiography has put a positive spin on the pair's falling-out in Gelsenkirchen while the Portugese player's mooted dream move to Madrid has failed to materialise, perhaps in no small part to the presence of old adversary Van Nistelrooy in the Real ranks. Only the end of the transfer window will confirm the pair will have to become friends again for the next season
Both players have looked sharp in their minimal pre-seasons. However, Rooney's chip over the Porto goalkeeper in Amsterdam was followed by a sending off that may preclude early involvement in the Premiership. Similarly, Paul Scholes, whose stupid tackle in the same game saw him dismissed may stop that 'new broom' of his being involved. And, even more catastrophic is the ankle inury to Carrick, who limped from the scene when United beat their Ajax hosts. A month out is the projected length of absenceand the Geordie may have to sit out two or three of the opening weeks of the season and though an opening trio of Fulham, Charlton and Watford look hugely winnable for United, the next pairing of Spurs and Arsenal less so.
Ferguson, for whom another pre-season mantra is to 'hit the ground running' has been hit by an injury list as bad as those he has used as an excuse in previous seasons. Carrick joins Ferdinand, Neville, Vidic and Smith on the injury list, a grouping that may yet deprive Ferguson of three of his chosen back four.
The bright side of the pre-season injury crisis in Holland was the performances of some of his youngsters. Jonny Evans, a young defender set to spend the season at United's Belgian finishing school at Antwerp was the brightest star after a late call-up to replace Rio Ferdinand and his twisted ankle. Fellow Irishman Darron Gibson showed his ability in the centre midfield in pre-season and will be joining Evans in Belgium.
Of the younger players set to feature this season, and despite being linked with many a loan move, striker Giuseppe Rossi has been given his head and, while short of goals in pre-season, has shown glimpses of his burgeoning talent. Another young man whom fans have been waiting to see play for some time is David Jones, a young midfielder who spent half of 2005/6 at Preston North End and the rest, more successfully, at NEC Nijmegen in the Dutch Eriedivisie where his box-to-box style made him a real favourite.
For Ferguson the breakthrough of this talented quartet may yet come too late. Time is not on his side and results have to be good from the start of 2006/7. He has not been able to access the galaxy of the stars that Chelsea have signed, nor has he been able to add players in the quantity that Liverpool have. And Arsenal may well have lost some proven class in defence but seem to be producing faster maturing talent at a quicker rate than United.
So, pressure will have to be heaped on Wayne Rooney's shoulders, an expectation that he has not always succeeded in dealing with. And the days when a midfield quartet of Giggs, Scholes, Keane and Beckham bestrode Europe are long gone with the two remainders on the wrong side of 30.
Have United become also-rans? Do the Glazers have what it takes to win over the disaffection? And, the question that will be repeated every summer until he finally retires, can Ferguson prove everyone wrong again?
Three questions for which some may claim to already have the answers. The new season of 2006/7 should go a long way to answering them to all of us.