The 2009 Champions League final between Manchester United and FC Barcelona, and United’s eventual, comprehensive defeat, posed interesting questions of a tactical nature about the psychological mindset of their manager Alex Ferguson.
Sir Alex’s status in the game as an over-achieving top-flight manager is unchallengeable. Since his early days at Aberdeen through to his long tenure at Man United he has consistently produced successful winning sides.
He has brought through fabulous young players; Giggs, Beckham, Scholes come to mind. And he has made great signings, never being afraid to put his chequebook where his convictions led him.
Rio Ferdinand came in for a (unheard of for a defender) fee of £30 million. Wayne Rooney (as a teenager) for £26 million. Both have repaid their patron’s faith and judgement.
Arguably, or maybe not, his greatest signing in all his years in football was the capture of Eric Cantona from his influential (but bit-part) role as a super-sub at championship winning Leeds and the transformation of the player into an iconic legend of Manchester to rival George Best.
Alex Ferguson and Eric Cantona are inextricably entwined. The ‘enfant terrible’ of French football had finally found a manager who had faith in him and who recognised his talent. Under Ferguson he blossomed, he did more, he bloomed.
From late in 1992 to 1997 Cantona starred at Old Trafford and Ferguson revelled in his play. He supported him through thick and thin. Cantona’s assault trial (when he kung-fu kicked a Crystal Palace fan at a game in 1994) came and went. Ferguson later made him captain.
In 1997, when Cantona realised his form was waning and promptly retired from the game, the red half of Manchester mourned. For Ferguson there wasn’t that luxury. He had responsibilities; he had one of the largest clubs in the world to manage.
Outwardly dour working-class Scot that he is Ferguson applied himself to the task in hand. He rebuilt, he continually rebuilds. He won the Champions league in 1998, won it again in 2008. This year he was defeated in the final. And it was this year that the first hint appeared of how he had missed Eric.
In the 2008 final Carlos Tevez played as the central striker and was Manchester United’s unheralded man of the match. Tevez is small, compact and powerful with superlative close control.
The ball came up to him, it stuck. He laid it off, he chased everything, every lost cause. Tevez is a two-time South American footballer of the year and one of the best players in the world. But he wasn’t Eric.
In his secret heart, Sir Alex still pines for Eric. He misses his tall imposing target man with the exquisite touch, the colossal vision. This season he made an attempt to assuage his yearning. He bought Dimitri Berbatov from Tottenham.
Berbatov is in aspect a similar player to Cantona and in other ways similar to another Ferguson centre forward, Teddy Sherringham. Tall and cerebral, with a fine touch and a flair for the game. It looked for a time as if Berbatov could be the new Cantona but subtle differences soon emerged.
Berbatov does not possess the same anger or pride that drove Cantona, the same sternness of self belief. He is not the grand conductor of the orchestra that Cantona was, instead he is more the temperamental flutist. Ferguson eventually recognised that.
In the selection for the 2009 final Sir Alex had decisions to make, Berbatov hadn’t evolved into what he had hoped so he dipped into his great wealth of attacking talent and came up with a different proposition; Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo is a wonderful player, a once in a lifetime player; fast, a great dribbler, a master of the step-over, a goal-scorer. Blessed with a fine physique he is also (for a flair player) surprisingly good in the air.
What’s more, he had played the central position before, and with aplomb. Ferguson knew he could rely on Ronaldo, but playing Ronaldo there could produce other problems; Wayne Rooney.
Wayne Rooney is, and has the potential to be, the British player of a generation. Naturally loaded with more tools in his armoury than Paul Gascoigne, Rooney is powerful, strong, and creative; he is a natural goal-scorer.
Who could forget his startling introduction to the national team in the European Championship in Portugal? Who could deny the suggestion that England would have won that tournament if he hadn’t been injured?
But Rooney has been injured, injuries, in the main part, that he’s overcome, but in that period he has seen Ronaldo, by his individuality, by his brilliance, surpass him as the dominant creative force in the United team.
Rooney is a better team player than Ronaldo, less individual, a natural inside-forward, great at bringing other players into the game. However, on occasion his touch deserts him, his temper betrays him, and Ferguson didn’t fancy him for the central role. He preferred the taller Ronaldo and Rooney was forced out wide. Tevez confined to the bench.
Played in a sweltering hot Olympic Stadium in Rome, the first 10 minutes of the 2009 final were a vindication of Ferguson’s selection; Ronaldo was virtually unstoppable. He rained in shots on the Barcelona goal; it seemed only a matter of time till one went in, then Barcelona scored and Ferguson’s selection unravelled.
In many ways it was bad luck, football is a game of luck, events turn on small moments. If Edwin Van de Saar had got a stronger hand to Samuel Etoo’s toe poke, if Ji-Sung Park’s follow up was a nanosecond quicker, if one of Ronaldo’s efforts had gone in.
One wonder’s, as the game went on, as it slipped away, if Ferguson’s thought didn’t turn to his ideal target man then. To Cantona, sitting further west along the Mediterranean coastline in the seasonal film-festival capital of France, in Cannes. Life would be a lot simpler with Cantona.
There would be no decision then about who played in the central forward role, Ferguson could rely on his general, the rest of the team would fall into place, the balance would be right. Ferguson could trust Cantona, because in an unspoken way, Cantona is Alex Ferguson’s spiritual son.
Not the biological son carved out in near direct image, but the son of Ferguson’s soul.
Cantona played football in the way you imagine Ferguson would wished to have played himself if you could only take away the slights, the hard upbringing of his youth, the grimness of a childhood spent in the Glasgow slums of Govan.
And Cantona symbolises what Ferguson’s United stand for—the skill, the creativity, the passion, combined with a bloody-mindedness to stand up for what you believe is your right, your due; no matter the concerns of others. The Romans had a word for it; Dignitas; your own personal sense of worth in the world.
Both Cantona and Ferguson possess this near-mystical quality in abundance. In Cantona it is apparent, the football career, the highs and lows; the acting career, the divergence into beach football, all embarked upon in a seemingly effortless tapestry of a man concerned with leaving his own indomitable mark on the world.
With Ferguson this air is more confined, dwelling within the auspices of Manchester United Football Club, and more complicated. Ferguson has to keep the board happy, the media pacified (sometimes), the players motivated, but underlying all this is the same steadfastness of will, of vision.
One imagines what Cantona made of the unravelling of United on that hot Rome night. Sitting there, next to film director Ken Loach with his Martini cocktail (shaken and stirred), in a lounge of a boutique hotel in Cannes.
Did they discuss the game or was it solely film ideas? Did working-class chronicler Loach tell Cantona he’d make a brilliant Sub-Commandante Marcos in a project he had on the Mexican Zapatista movement, or was it Cantona, on the marginalisation of Wayne Rooney out on the wing.
And when Ferguson made his postmatch comment about United coming back better next year and you wondered who he was thinking of bringing in, whether it was new midfielders, or possibly a new target man. Did Ken Loach then turn smiling to Cantona and say.
“It’s not only Manchester postmen who are looking for you Eric.”
While Eric smiled to himself, took a sip of his cocktail and nodded sagely.