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Ferguson growing old gracelessly

By far the most decorated and long-serving of his contemporaries, an Old Trafford great has garnered ever more accolades for his longevity, his quality and his dignity. His ability to excel at an age when others have retired has been rightly praised, his attitude described as an example to others. Enough about Ryan Giggs, though: Sir Alex Ferguson differs from his greatest servant. Indeed, having taught the winger for more than two decades, he could learn from him now.

Whereas the Welshman's popularity outside Old Trafford has mushroomed, the Scot's appears to be shrinking. There is a natural constituency of Ferguson haters in Liverpool, Leeds and parts of Manchester. The significance is that others are increasingly being alienated as Ferguson grows old gracelessly.

It is a shame. The outstanding manager of his generation has a case to be called the greatest of all time. His achievements brook admiration and envy in equal amounts. His remarks, however, invite frustration and even derision from those normally well disposed towards Ferguson.

Saturday provided a case in point. Darren Fletcher's dismissal at Birmingham may have been harsh. It was not, as Ferguson branded it, ridiculous. The previous week, his use of the phrase "an insult to football" to describe either the amount of stoppage time awarded in the defeat to Leeds (though one former referee timed it and argued it was completely correct) or the system whereby referees determine injury time is already acquiring infamy.

Managers as combative, controversial and constantly successful as Ferguson are never going to attract universal sympathy. It is notable, however, that "Fergie time" has entered the footballing vocabulary to such an extent that it has become a chorus from opposing fans. Becoming a serial critic of officials runs risks, though, when his own grasp of the facts is imperfect. The ProZone statistics showing that the apparently "not fit enough" Alan Wiley had covered more ground than all bar four of his own players in the 2-2 draw with Sunderland was an example.

The consequence is that Ferguson has an image problem. The Manchester United manager's view of himself is at odds with the popular perception. Ferguson appears to believe he is a persecuted underdog, not the most powerful manager - or even, some would say, man - in the English game, who is invariably supported by a cabal of loyal allies.

A man who likes to present himself as a moral victor as well as a winner seems to regard himself as a bastion of righteousness, but being a brilliant manager does not tend to provide a qualification for sainthood.

Especially not when there are such levels of distrust. There are occasions when Ferguson has said he wouldn't sign a player only to go out and buy them, or that a player is injured, only for him to subsequently appear on the team-sheet 24 hours later. Having said he would field a full-strength side against Leeds, he promptly made seven changes.

Some regard dissemination as a duty. It is a manager's prerogative, though there is a case for suggesting the fans merit a truthful answer even if the media don't. But it jars with the sort of moral crusading Ferguson regularly embarks upon.

And it produces a credibility gap that explains the current mystery at Old Trafford. As often as Ferguson insists that the Glazers haven't banked the proceeds of Cristiano Ronaldo's sale for their own purposes and that the funds are available for him to spend, many remain unconvinced.

It may be an instance of Ferguson's attributes being obscured by his rhetoric. Deprived of his premier match-winner and without his first-choice goalkeeper and much of his preferred defence for the majority of the campaign, his team remain in contention for the historic 19th title and a record-breaking fourth in succession. Thus far, that has brought comparatively little acclaim.

It is a reason it is dangerous to suggest, as many did four seasons ago, that Ferguson is in terminal decline. But intemperate outbursts, even if they are diversionary tactics to deflect from some of United's less impressive performances, are taking a toll on his standing.

A pronounced competitive streak may make cogent commentary harder. Arsene Wenger has admitted he is a bad loser - and there is plenty of evidence to support that admission - while some of Rafa Benitez' claims scarcely stand up to analysis. Perhaps, in time, the same will be said of Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini as well.

But now the most distinguished manager around is in danger of tarnishing his reputation on the comparatively few occasions he allows a microphone to be turned on in his presence. Ferguson's losses of temper, his attacks upon officials and his attempts to influence decisions are reasons that, no matter how many trophies he wins, for some he will never rank as the greatest figure to lead Manchester United. Sir Matt Busby was equipped with a genuine understanding of tragedy and injustice. It had nothing to do with four, five or six minutes of stoppage time.


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