Old Fox gets it right again

Old Fox gets it right again

Old Fox gets it right again

Alex Ferguson plotted Manchester United’s return to the top with meticulous care this season.

The next time that someone tells you, as they surely will, that age diminishes the joy of striving to win, show them video of Alex Ferguson.

Rerun the moment at Old Trafford on Monday night after three of his players turned defence into attack in three blinks of an eye. The celebration that followed Shinji Kagawa passing to Wayne Rooney, Rooney passing long to Robin van Persie, and Van Persie passing into the net.

The sequence ends with an elderly, bespectacled man -- Sir Alex -- leaping like a child off his seat in the stands.

The goal, combining the skills of a Japanese, an Englishman and a Dutchman, encapsulated the life’s work of Ferguson. As a player, he was a striker (though not, he will agree, quite as special as Van Persie).

As the son of a Glasgow shipyard worker, Ferguson carried his father’s Calvinist work ethic into his preferred trade.

Fergie’s 56 years in soccer, and his 71 years of life, were meant for nights like Monday. He likes to see “the bloody net bulge.” He doesn’t wait for it to happen; he cajoles the American owners of Manchester United to buy players he thinks can get the job done.

And he bridles -- how cantankerously Fergie bridles -- when the neighboring Manchester City, fueled by Abu Dhabi money, takes the English Premier League as it did last year.

The trophy was not allowed to rest on the blue half of Manchester for long. Ferguson persuaded Van Persie to join his Reds rather than take a bigger financial offer from City, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Van Persie’s goals helped to win many a contest, notably one against City at the latter’s Etihad Stadium last December. But the Dutchman then had a dry spell of 10 matches without scoring.

Ferguson could have dropped his Dutchman. He has alternatives in Rooney, Danny Welbeck and the Mexican poacher Javier Hernandez.

Instead, Fiery Fergie became Fatherly Fergie. He put an arm around Van Persie, reminding him that he hadn’t altered his opinion of his ability. Keep working, said the Scot, and I’ll pick you until the goals return.

Three came on Monday when Van Persie’s hat-trick destroyed the relegation-haunted Aston Villa in half an hour. It was merciless, another Ferguson trait.
It was also beautiful, particularly the second goal.

Kagawa, like Van Persie, is in his first year at United. His value is two-fold -- an Asian player who helps sell the United brand, and a clever and committed athlete who gets around the field to wherever his energy best serves the team.

After 13 minutes, Kagawa did the simple thing: He side-footed the ball to Rooney.
What followed was simple only in its breathtaking brilliance. Rooney looked up, saw the run of anticipation being made by Van Persie, and delivered a pass from the right of the centre circle to the left of the penalty box.

That 40-yard pass would have been rehearsed a thousand times on the training ground where work ethic prevails. But a handful of people, much fewer than a thousand, could pinpoint it so that it would drop to Van Persie’s favoured left foot. Try it sometime. Try chipping the ball as you might with a golfing iron, and landing it not to the right shoe, but the left of your mate.

While you’re at it, try what Van Persie did on the receiving end. He watched as he ran and as the ball dropped over his right shoulder. As great strikers do, he had made the run so surreptitiously that Villa’s defenders were caught completely unaware. Maybe he sensed it, or maybe time affords the specialist striker a split second glance, but he knew where goalkeeper Brad Guzan would be.

Sure enough, as the American Guzan rushed out toward him, Van Persie volleyed it, without the ball touching the ground, at an angle inside the far post.
It has taken far longer to describe than to score.

And, given that van Persie had also notched a goal less than two minutes into the contest, that was game and championship over.

When Ferguson came to rest after the celebrations, he smiled at his neighbour’s expense. Yes, City had ruffled his feathers somewhat last May when it won the crown with almost the last kick of the 10-month Premier League marathon.

Yes, everyone at Old Trafford had had sleepless nights about the spending power emanating from the Gulf. But if it wasn’t City, it would be someone else, like equally financed Chelsea, keeping the knight of Old Trafford on his toes.

It was the 49th trophy in Ferguson’s career -- to date, from his first success in Scotland to the 13th Premier League title for United since the league formed in 1992. He will be thinking already of the 50th, and no doubt phoning the Glazer family, United’s owners in Florida, suggesting that they go buy Luka Modric, a creative Croat he has his eyes on to improve the team’s midfield.

First he will drink wine with his players, from the evergreen Ryan Giggs, who has played in all the 25 years Ferguson has managed Manchester, to the galvanic young Brazilian full-back Rafael, whose improvement this season is equal in the boss’ eyes to the goals of Van Persie.

Down the road, City’s manager, Roberto Mancini, was heard to say that United was not better than City; that the difference was attitude. To put it in Ferguson’s native Glaswegian, you get what you work for.

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