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Nov 18, 2010

Fergie Jnr in the shadow of Sir Alex

A surname confers advantages and brings expectations. It makes comparisons inevitable and, at the moment, they are unflattering. Because when it is asked how you follow one of the most successful managers of all time, his son's current fortunes provides a short answer: you can't.

Darren Ferguson is accustomed to questions about Sir Alex. He handles them with an eloquence, though privately they must frustrate. Indeed, by speaking readily and willingly, he provides a contrast with his reclusive, bad-tempered father.

His problem is that there are few similarities in their fortunes either. Ferguson junior's Preston side sit bottom of the Championship with the worst defensive record in the country. Two decades after a section of the Manchester United support tried to call time on Sir Alex's reign, some of the North End fans have tired of Darren.

Instead of escaping the shadow of his father, the younger Ferguson has actively moved into it. In his time at Peterborough, he was unwilling to ask for favours, only taking two players, James Chester and Ben Amos, on brief loan spells from United. At Preston, he has raided Old Trafford rather more regularly: he borrowed Danny Welbeck and Matty James last season, Josh King and James (again) this year, and Ritchie de Laet has become the latest to follow the familiar path up the M61. That the promising James, captain of England's Under-19 team, ended up at Deepdale prompts questions if nepotism is a factor.

Nor do the circumstances of Ferguson's appointment serve to reassure. Some are suspicious about the way that the well-regarded Alan Irvine was unceremoniously bundled out of the door, seven months after reaching the play-offs, with whispers that Sir Alex's friendship with Preston's owner, Trevor Hemmings, accounted for the change in managers.

If Darren Ferguson's career is being propped up by his father, it is being undermined by the results. Preston have lost their last two games, both at home and to potential relegation rivals in Barnsley and Hull. Their six defeats at Deepdale, a fortress for much of the past decade, also include losses to Doncaster and Scunthorpe. In between the frequent setbacks, Preston conjured a startling 6-4 win at Leeds, becoming the first visiting team ever to strike six times at Elland Road.

But as that scoreline indicates, defending has its difficulties. It is epitomised by the fact that, twice within three weeks, they conceded a late winner at home because of an under-hit backpass from a centre back - Craig Morgan against Scunthorpe and Sean St Ledger versus Barnsley. "Costly mistakes are costing us," the manager said then, the unintentional repetition ramming home the recurring nature of errors.

Morgan is a signing to cast doubt on Ferguson's judgment. Part of a porous Peterborough back four last season, he has been reunited with the manager at Preston, but conceding has been a constant. Both the manner and the sheer number of goals conceded reflect badly upon David Unsworth, the former England defender and first-team coach, but the lack of organisation is still ultimately attributable to Ferguson. United have struggled to keep clean sheets this season, but North End, without one since August, appear strangers to the concept.

There is a naive look to Preston, a side who could benefit from a couple of stereotypically battle-hardened Championship performers. Yet, besides cutting the wage bill, Ferguson's policy has echoed his father's. Sir Alex has spent recent weeks in the familiar position of being an advocate of youth. "Young people surprise you when they are given the opportunity" has become a familiar quote. With five more senior players loaned out, Preston's most eye-catching performers this season have been Keith Treacy, 22, and Adam Barton, 19, two former Blackburn footballers who have provided an injection of quality in midfield, suggesting Ferguson has some skill as an attacking coach.

It means that, in the opposition's half of the pitch, Preston are not playing like a relegation-threatened side. That, however, is the reality of their predicament. While chairman Maurice Lindsay has blamed the previous regime for their financial problems, they are being exacerbated by the public's rejection of the current side. After a decade in the division, much of it spent in and around the play-off places, failing on the field has brought falling gates. Fewer than 9,000 attended the defeat to Barnsley, Preston's lowest league attendance for 11 years.

Moreover, many supporters don't share Lindsay's belief that the problems can be attributed to the past. A remodelled side is very much Ferguson's team: five of his recruits started against Hull.

With a trip to QPR, second in the league, on Saturday and a visit to table-topping Cardiff a fortnight later, there is no obvious respite for Preston. The pressure on Ferguson could mount.

His travails provide different conclusions. One view is that, after playing a part in two promotions and one relegation for Peterborough, Ferguson is trying to take every team he manages into League One. The broader picture is that, amid the ongoing debate between nature and nurture, managerial success may not be in the genes after all.

Coaching dynasties are a rarity and, while fourth-placed Derby County are exceeding expectations near the Championship's summit, the oft-heard comment is that Nigel Clough takes after his mother more than his idiosyncratic father Brian anyway. The surname is the same, but the style very different.

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