If there were such a thing as a footballing prophet, then Sir Alex Ferguson would probably be it. So, when he says Manchester United will take the league by storm in the New Year, you’d pay attention if you were a rival.
In an interview for a BT Sport Christmas special, the old master was back at his best, subtly pushing his Manchester United agenda in a series of calculated quotes, which included effusive praise for the oft-maligned Michael Carrick, and a prediction that the real Robin van Persie will soon be back.
The full BT Sport interview with Alex Ferguson
C’mon, you can’t possibly believe that the greatest football manager of all time, that master manipulator of the media, the inventor of footballing Mind Games™, the serial (and slightly obsessed) winner, would make remarks like that just to make an interviewer happy, would’ya? Not a chance. Ferguson knew exactly what he was doing, and what he was saying.
He has done it before, obviously, delivering foreboding messages of United’s inevitable victories and taking calculated swipes at his opponents. Remember the “Noisy Neighbours”? Coining that term and making it stick was clearly an attempt to create an inferiority complex among United’s great rivals, Manchester City. Did it work? Who knows! But City did win just one league title in Ferguson’s career despite an unprecedented spending spree.
The term “noisy neighbours” (catchy, innit? We all love a good alliteration) was repeated by media all over the world. Every bad result, every lavish signing and every Mario Balotelli moment of madness would invariably lead to talk about how City were the Premier League’s noveau riche — those gaudy, flashy but ultimately classless neighbours everyone loves to hates. City weren’t all that, obviously, but Ferguson did his best to convince the world otherwise.
He was the best at that kind of thing, Fergie. While he would give his own players unshakable belief in their abilities (that’s why he never publicly singled out players for criticism) and Manchester United’s god-given right to win, he would also be planting seeds of doubt among the opposition.
And his recent revelation that he used to point at his watch towards the end of games not to influence referees (who obviously have their own timepieces) but to scare the opposition shows just how effective his little mind games were — how many times have United scored late on in games? All that watch-pointing must have worked to some degree.
It seems Ferguson has has mastered the art of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Like a skilled medium or fortune-teller, he makes assertions about the future that are so full of conviction, you subconsciously start making it real.
He’d tell his players the second they join the club that they would be world-beaters, that United are bigger than any other club, that they always play attractive football and will somehow score late on in games. In time, the players themselves would believe it. His coaching staff, the kit man, the tea lady… everyone in the club would buy into it, and the prophecy would eventually, most of the time, be fulfilled.
In his last season in charge of United, he proclaimed that summer signing Robin van Persie was the final piece of the puzzle, that he would bring the goals to ensure Manchester United never lose to City because they didn’t score enough. It was a bold prediction, because United’s squad was frankly nowhere near City in terms of attacking quality — and van Persie was joining from an Arsenal side which played a very different style of football to United. No one could guarantee he’d hit the ground running.
No one except Ferguson. As predicted (or prophesied?), van Persie brought goals galore, ending the 2012/13 season as the league’s top scorer. More important, United outscored City by a full 20 goals.
So, with the new year just a couple of days away, let’s take a closer look at Fergie’s latest series or proclamations over his beloved Manchester United, and see how many are willed into reality over the coming months:
1. Michael Carrick is the best English player in the game.
Now this is something most Manchester United fans already know — partly because Ferguson has never let anyone forget how good Carrick is.
Aside from a torrid season under David Moyes, where a combination of injuries (he struggled with his Achilles tendon all season) and United’s complete lack of identity on the pitch affected his form, Carrick has been consistently — and quietly — patrolling United’s defensive third to great effect.
I remember reading an article once criticising Carrick, making him out to be some kind of pretentious football connoisseur’s favourite, and saying that none of his fans within the game (managers, pundits, fans, etc.) could really put a finger on what’s so great about him. They just think he’s great because everyone else says so.
But, hopefully, his last few games (apart from that tired display in the goalless draw with Tottenham) and Ferguson’s latest appraisal will have finally put all doubts to rest. Michael Carrick is quite simply a phenomenal footballer.
He has dictated the pace of United’s football for almost a decade now, whilst expertly protecting a defense which during the era of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Edwin van der Sar was almost impregnable. Carrick rarely got credit for that, but the fact is, he was the quiet force protecting that defense.
Nevertheless, Ferguson’s latest announcement would have been met with derision by rival fans. Many would say the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Raheem Sterling or even his own teammate Wayne Rooney are more talented players; footballers blessed with enough genius to win matches on their own.
While that may well be true, Carrick’s influence on games as a whole makes him arguably a far greater asset to his teams (which unfortunately, rarely includes England), and in that respect, it is much harder to argue with Ferguson. But will his words bring about enough confidence for Carrick to truly assert himself as one of the best in the league? We’ll see.
2. Robin van Persie will finally get going in the New Year
Some are already discussing RVP’s terminal decline, and there have been times this season when it did look like it.
RVP is a player who has struggled with injuries throughout his career, so it’s natural to think that at 31, his best years are already behind him.
Even after his goal-scoring exploits over the last few games, RVP’s overall play has been very disappointing. His movement has been laboured, and quite a few of the goals he scored were honestly presented to him on a platter.
Ferguson, however, clearly believes a renaissance is possible. It wouldn’t be the first time he has revived a career — think Rio Ferdinand’s final season under Ferguson, Teddy Sheringham’s move to United in his 30s, and of course, Ryan Giggs.
Ferguson made a point to mention RVP in the interview, saying he will be back on form in the second half of the season. The Tottenham game gave no evidence of this happening anytime soon, but Ferguson’s words would have stirred RVP, who is a huge fan of his ex-manager.
As a former center-forward himself, Ferguson always knew how to get the most out of his strikers. Any time one of them had goalless streak, he would simply brush it off like it were a blip, like he did when RVP went over a month without scoring in 2013.
Back then, he drew on his own experience to predict a quick return to form for van Persie. “I didn’t have dry spells (as a striker)!” he joked. “I remember I had a spell at the start of one season when I had a little knee injury and didn’t score until October and I still ended up with 30-odd goals!
“You have to get through that period and not lose your faith and belief in yourself. My dad always used to say make sure you batter the ball when you’re in there, don’t tap it or try and sidefoot the ball in the net, batter it!
“That’s what I always tell strikers – when you get in the position make sure you hit it. If the goalkeeper saves it, you can say ‘what a great save’. But if you try to sidefoot it in and the keeper just catches it easily, you’ll get criticised for that.”
That obviously worked for van Persie back then. Now let’s see if his ex-manager can still have the same effect on him in retirement.
3. Wayne Rooney is flying again — and he will always get you a goal.
One of Ferguson’s last acts as Manchester United manager was to very publicly set the wheels in motion for Wayne Rooney to leave the club. He rarely commented on transfer requests or contract issues until they were done deals, so to see him reveal that Rooney had asked to leave the club during his final pre-match interview at Old Trafford was telling indeed.
Clearly, he had grown tired of Rooney’s demands, and felt the club was better off without him. It was very much in line with a policy that has served Ferguson well in the past — the minute a player thinks he’s bigger than the club, he’s no longer worth the trouble. The club moves on and replaces the troublemaker with someone who is fully committed to the cause. Shinji Kagawa appeared to be Ferguson’s preferred player to take Rooney’s No. 10 role, and he did start well there alongside van Persie until injuries wrecked his debut season.
Now, Ferguson seems to be making a U-turn, just as Rooney has started to appear more settled at United. In the same interview, Ferguson even named Rooney alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, etc. as one of the great players he has managed.
United fans would be pleased to hear that from Ferguson, as there was simply no point in the pair continuing their passive-aggressive feud (which Rooney calmed to a certain extent with some kind words during an interview in Sept celebrating his 10 years at United). Rooney is back on form, and he’s driving the team forward as its new captain. Ferguson’s backing of Rooney will only do the club good.
In fact, Ferguson made another bold claim with Rooney — he will always get you a goal. Not quite true, given Rooney has never been considered among the best goal-scorers in the league (Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez, RVP, etc.). But it would’ve given Rooney some encouragement (he promptly scored two goals against Newcastle), and maybe have a psychological effect on his opponents too.
4. Louis van Gaal is a great coach, and the team will be a major force once the injury situation lets up.
Now this one’s a pretty easy prediction to make — any team would have struggled to perform with the amount of injuries LVG has had. You don’t need Ferguson to tell you that.
Nevertheless, the confidence and assured manner with which Ferguson spoke about United’s chances in the second half of the season will have done wonders for the players’ confidence.
Of course, van Gaal did his best to downplay the whole thing. He even went as far as to say that Ferguson’s words places more pressure on him.
But that’s van Gaal for you. He is a purist. He is all about footballing philosophies, formations and tactics, not mind games. On the other hand, Ferguson employed knowledgeable assistant managers (Steve McLaren, Carlos Queiroz, Rene Meulensteen, etc.) to handle first-team training so he could focus more on managing the club as a whole. Imagine what a team Ferguson and van Gaal could’ve been!
So, now that Ferguson has played his hand, all that’s left to see if how far it will go in determining the success of United’s season. Based on purely footballing reasons, van Gaal has effectively written off United’s title challenge. Could Ferguson’s prophetic intervention beyond the managerial grave inspire them to defy all footballing logic? We’ll see.