IT’S easy to see why Manchester United are the most hated football club in England after the events of the last couple of weeks.
Even after they were named the most hated company in Britain two weeks ago – ahead of much-maligned budget airlines and banks – United couldn’t stop piling the dirt on themselves.
As usual, manager Alex Ferguson led the way. Having been slapped with a five-match ban for his comments about referee Martin Atkinson – where he said he “feared the worst” when he learned that Atkinson would be refereeing their crunch tie against Chelsea – Ferguson nevertheless said his criticism of referees constitutes “fair comment”.
Then it was of course Wayne Rooney’s turn, in the image of his footballing father. Having also received a two-match ban for his rather inexplicable F-word outburst on live TV, Rooney seemed unrepentant as he defiantly announced he “won’t be the last” player to swear on TV.
Another popular hate figure at United, Patrice Evra, then wrapped it all up nicely when he claimed that he wasn’t worried at all that he had given away a penalty against Chelsea, even though the only way he could have made it a clearer penalty was to rugby tackle Ramires.
He said: “I honestly wasn’t expecting the referee to give a penalty. I tried to go for the ball and you could see I touched it.”
He wasn’t even close. It was a horrible tackle, one that could have severely dented United’s Champions League hopes had the referee made the right call on it.
Yet Evra was confident as ever, as he was when he called Arsenal merely a “football training centre” that won’t win trophies, and that it was “11 men against 11 boys” after United beat them in 2009.
Former United players like Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gary Neville were all the same. They usually made more sense than Rooney, but they had the same devil-may-care attitude towards the system, and public sensibilities. Even David Beckham was the same, though his PR department obviously kept him more diplomatic.
United players in the Fergie era have always angered football fans, both rivals and neutrals, to the point where Britons now perceive them as even more disgusting than the bankers who received huge bonuses while the country wallowed in the depths of recession.
But make no mistake – that’s exactly how Ferguson wants them.
Ferguson has moulded and transformed many players. Just look at Nani. Formerly petulant, inconsistent, mercurial, unpredictable. Now he’s one of the best players in the league, and he’s maturing with every passing week (though he can still be a drama queen sometimes).
Before Beckham, Ryan Giggs was well on his way to becoming the biggest celebrity footballer of his day, but Ferguson put an end to it.
United fans all know the story. About 19 years ago, when Ferguson found out that Giggs was attending a party at the house of teammate Lee Sharpe, United’s biggest party animal at the time, he crashed the party and got Giggs out of there. Giggs would later describe Ferguson as a “bull in a china shop” when he got there, and was “red-faced with rage”.
This is also the same Ferguson whose wily PR tactics convinced Wayne Rooney and that greedy agent of his to refuse Manchester City’s millions. They don’t call Ferguson the greatest for nothing.
So yeah, if Ferguson wanted Rooney or Evra to be any different, he’d make his case known. He’d do something about it. If he didn’t succeed, they’d be out the door, just like Keane and Beckham.
But Ferguson knows better than to water down the confidence and swagger of these players. He knows that they are the ones who will step up to the plate when you need them most, like Rooney did against Chelsea.
These are the players that will drive your team through, the characters on the pitch that others will look to and draw confidence from when the chips are down. They take the pressure away from the supporting cast in the team. Who cares about how Michael Carrick or John O’Shea played, when Rooney was cussing at the camera?
Steve McLaren, Ferguson’s former assistant at United, revealed a bit about that philosophy last week when speaking about Rooney: “You can’t change them too much. I remember once trying to do that with Roy Keane, saying, ‘Look, you are every season missing five or six games through suspension, calm down a little during the games.’ He did for six months and it was hopeless.
“(We told him to) get back to normal, we’ll miss you for five or six games … We accepted that because we knew in the others he would win the games.”
Arsenal can play all the pretty football and be as popular with the neutrals as they want, but they don’t have that swagger of champions. The last time they won anything? When they had winners like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Sol Campbell and Dennis Bergkamp, who were just as unpopular as United are now.
Chelsea used to have that aura under Jose Mourinho, and his generals – John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba – are still the same. But Carlo Ancelotti doesn’t know how to harness that as well as Mourinho and Ferguson.
Ancelotti wins titles by being a supreme tactician. But what happens when tactics fail? You need your leaders to take over, to let adrenaline and pure belief push you over the finish line.
That’s how Ancelotti’s AC Milan, the most cultured, skilfull team in Europe at the time, lost the 2005 Champions League final to Liverpool. Steven Gerrard stepped up. He’s also the same guy that would step up for a brawl in a Merseyside pub, but that’s the kind of player you need.
Ferguson understands, and manipulates, that better than anyone else. To him, as long as those players come up with the goods, they can be as bad as they want.