Sir Alex’s pronouncements about the virus trotting through United’s squad has been met with no small amount of scepticism from some quarters, mostly weary hacks tired of being told that one or other player is definitely out, writing their previews accordingly, and looking a trifle foolish when their definite non-starter jogs on to the field at five to three (or, this being United, almost any other time of the weekend).
Is Ferguson misleading Mancini? Can we expect any, all or none of the afflicted to line up at Eastlands? What in the name of God can we write about until the actual football starts again?
In fact, Ferguson’s reputation for mind games is a cheap and easy media construct, a lazy narrative offered in lieu of considered comment or reporting. The idea that Ferguson can destabilise a team by making unsubtle jibes through the media is based on the commonly accepted version of one of the Premier League’s most entertaining and misunderstood moments, the Curious Meltdown of Kevin Keegan. To refresh your memory …
Not a man you’d want handling a Fabergé egg.
Ferguson’s suggestion that Leeds United’s players were “cheating” their manager by trying harder in their games against United, while underperforming in other fixtures, was ineffective: Newcastle won 1-0. Yet Keegan lost it anyway. And he did so not because of the comments themselves, or because he was outraged on behalf of the good name of Stuart Pearce, but because his stuttering team had been under sustained pressure for three months, and they had finally cracked.
Since that now-notorious 12-point gap, on 20 January 1996, United had played 14 games, dropping a mere 4 points. They had scored 29 goals and conceded only eight. In the same period, Newcastle had lost five — including a “Cantona! One-nil!” special at St. James’s Park — and a 12-point lead had become a three-point deficit. Having begun the campaign with David Ginola in his pomp and Les Ferdinand at his most destructive, he was now struggling to integrate the brilliant-but-bonkers Faustino Asprilla into a tiring team.
If I had to pick an exact point at which the cold hand of fate closed around Keegan’s neck, it would be two back-to-back away losses. The first was a one-nil to Arsenal at the end of March that saw United go top for the first time in the season. The second was that ludicrous and magnificent 3-4 Liverpool game in early April, one of the greatest Premier League games (not involving United) I can think of. That game saw Keegan’s philosophy tested to the fullest, and found wanting; they had been pushed to the brink, then over, by a remorseless United side.
To point to mind games is to confuse catalyst with cause, and is to deny an excellent United team – the kids gelling around a fit-and-rehabilitated Eric Cantona – the credit they deserve. Ferguson may or may not be being economical with the truth, but if we beat City it’ll be down to the players on the pitch, not the stories in the papers, however entertaining they might be.