Sir Alex Ferguson simply knows the right button

As the Premier League title race begins to gather speed I can’t help but picture the two Manchester monarchs locking horns in some kind of Napoleonic battle. In the red half, Ferguson is currently enjoying the fruits of his labour having guided his troops to an impressive 25 points (from a possible 27) since losing back-to-back games at the turn of the year. Mancini however appears to be sprouting more grey hairs by the day as he searches for the fabled land known only as ‘consistency’.

On Saturday evening the Citizens salvaged a point against Stoke, after witnessing the rare spectacle of a Peter Crouch strike that didn’t involve his head or a trademark lofty set piece. Mancini slumped away into the darkness to evade the media spotlight and sent out his first lieutenant David Platt to address the gathering of journalists. Platt was keen to point out that the apparent ‘mind games’ between the two clubs did not influence their performance, but many will see this as another example of how Ferguson has burrowed his way under the skin of a fellow title contender.

This most recent verbal ‘conflict’ erupted earlier in the week when Patrick Vieira, Manchester City’s football development executive, stated that United’s decision to haul Paul Scholes out of retirement was a sign of weakness.

“For him to come back just shows a little bit of weakness in United, because they had to bring a player back who was 37.”

“I think it shows that, in the next few years, it will be really difficult for United to cope with other teams because, with all the respect I have for Scholes, him coming back shows that they don’t have talent in there to replace him.” (Telegraph)

Ferguson was quick to offer his retort insisting that, “If it’s desperation bringing back the best midfielder in Britain for the last 20 years then I think we can accept that.” The heavily decorated Scot was also adamant that “there will be plenty of ammunition for that,” an obvious reference to any psychological disputes that may commence in the coming weeks.

Despite not being a particularly articulate manager, Ferguson has a wonderful knack of dropping his subtle digs at the most opportune moment. He must have a sixth sense that detects when his opposite numbers are at their most vulnerable because some of his remarks have instigated a number of infamous outbursts.

In 1996 Ferguson provoked the Kevin Keegan “I will love it” rant when he questioned whether teams (specifically Leeds) were trying as hard against Newcastle as they were against his side. Despite the fact the Toon Army managed to overcome Howard Wilkinson’s men in the next game, Keegan’s post-match blast effectively signalled the plunging of their very own self-destruct button. United overhauled Newcastle to secure the title and Ferguson was credited as the key factor in unsettling a previously rampant Geordie outfit at a vital stage in the season.

In more recent years, we’ve witnessed the bizarre Rafa ‘facts’ reaction after the United boss claimed Liverpool were destined to choke in the title run-in. However, it’s fair to say Ferguson’s little taunts in the media don’t always have the desired effect. Just a year prior to Keegan’s meltdown, the United boss questioned Blackburn’s ‘bottle’ as they began to stumble over the finish line. His comments appeared to motivate Rover’s keeper Tim Flowers who made a string of fine saves in their 1-0 win over Newcastle, before pouncing on the nearest Sky Sports journalist.

“Don’t talk to me about bottle,” he said, “don’t talk to me about bottling it, cos that’s bottle out there. That’s quality players out there, giving their all … we’re gonna fight to the death, cos we’ve got bottle … all we can say is we’ll give exactly what we’ve given today, exactly what we’ve given all season, and that’s 100% bottle.”

I think he may have touched a nerve, which that brings me onto another important issue. Surely with Ferguson’s history of ‘mind games’, any comments he makes in the future should only serve to further inspire the opposition. It’s clear that he only makes such observations when he himself feels threatened or he is goaded into such arguments, in which case teams should be suitably prepared for any possible comeback.

Can we really attribute Ferguson’s ramblings to the faltering of another team? Or are they perhaps an effective way to shift attention away from your own struggles. On paper United’s league form is impressive but they’ve needed a last gasp winner to overcome newly promoted side Norwich, plus their 3-1 victory against Spurs failed to hide an inadequate, below-par performance and their dismal exit from the Europa League was conveniently forgotten in a matter of days.

Ferguson’s ‘mind games’ are merely a sensationalised part of his managerial repertoire; it’s the words he utters in the dressing room that are the most important. So often we’ve seen United emerge for the second half looking transformed after a 15-minute cycle on the hairdryer and convert an unavoidable defeat into a comfortable victory. United are the team who will always be graced with the phrase ‘the sign of champions’ when they emerge victorious despite failing to play at the expected level.

Last year Fergie turned 70 but he shows no signs of sinking into the stereotypical traits of an ‘old man’. His memory remains sharp. he’s still wise beyond his years and when he talks, everybody listens.

If you’re on Twitter why not follow me @theunusedsub where we can talk about facts and bottles all day long.

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