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bred devil Man United being steered by compassionate Solskjaer but they need Alex Ferguson's icy impulses


Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson's demented need to win saw the club lift 38 trophies

Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson's demented need to win saw the club lift 38 trophies

Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson's demented need to win saw the club lift 38 trophies

EVEN when it came to choosing his holiday destination, Alex Ferguson – the Old Trafford Caesar whose portfolio of achievement is a triumph with no expiry date – could not contain the competitive urge to reach for the stars.

“Some people want to go to Blackpool, others to Spain and some want to go to the moon,” Ferguson announces in his first autobiography, Managing My Life, a tome written in the afterglow of the 1999 treble that was the crowning glory of his 27 years as Manchester United’s merciless, magnificent Chief Whip.

His natural-born inclination, of course, was to pursue the Neil Armstrong option.

Inevitably, he realised his ambition, achieving an immunity to gravity long before he would re-enter the earth’s atmosphere for the final time in the summer of 2013.

Ferguson’s demented need to win carried United to the distant cosmos: A gluttonous haul of 38 trophies on his watch included the 13 Premier League titles that made real his consuming vision of knocking Liverpool off their perch.

Qualities that might be frowned upon in ordinary life – a kind of emotional deformation that manifested itself in a ruthless, Machiavellian, bristling, one-eyed, insatiable, often unhinged obsession with conquering the football world – underpinned the Scot’s quarter of a century rampage.

As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tonight pursues the battle ribbon of a first visit to the Premier League summit in his 25 fitful, humdrum, inoffensive months as Theatre of Dreams caretaker, the yawning void left by the unrelenting Glaswegian laird again looms into focus.

What is it Ferguson, the wild, uncontainable competitor who viewed every rival to his dominance as an enemy to be brutally put down, sees when he contemplates the monochrome, benign, well-rounded Scandinavian who has inherited the keys to his kingdom?

If Fergie was as pitiless as Attila the Hun in chasing the horizon, Solskjaer is as reasonable and decent and bland and uninspiring as a UN undersecretary.


Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane celebrate

Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane celebrate

Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane celebrate

Where the current manager indulges the openly mutinous and perpetually underachieving Paul Pogba, the Scot – who chased Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam and even his greatest general, Roy Keane, out of Old Trafford the moment he perceived them as a threat to his authority – would long ago have impaled the French midfielder’s insubordination on his sharp-toothed claymore.

“I had to remember that I was manager of Manchester United, not their father and I had to go and tell them their time had come,” explained Ferguson of his culling of former allies.

He might as well have been a godfather in Little Italy sending a mutinous underboss to sleep with the fishes.

Any insurrection – perceived or real – against his authority was crushed quicker than you could say Posh Spice.

Solskjaer’s impulses, for he is a kindly human soul, more closely resemble those of the forgiving village parson.

And so, the debate about whether he has the reptilian coldness, not to mention the tactical sophistication, required to make Manchester United great again intensifies even as top spot in the table beckons.

Yes, tonight at Burnley he can offer United a rare glimpse of the Premier League penthouse to which they once held the title deeds. But even that would feel like an illusion.


Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Few, outside of the most partisan Stretford Ender, imagine his team as authentic title contenders. The oddsmakers who quote Manchester City at 4/5 and Liverpool at 13/5 are happy to offer 7/1 on United claiming a 21st title.

In truth, even after a ten-game, 24-goal unbeaten league run that has yielded 26 points from a possible 30, it seems a realistic appraisal of their chances.

For all that Bruno Fernandes, with his 27 goals and 17 assists in 46 appearances, has been undeniably transformative, last week’s tame Carabao Cup surrender to City had Keane mocking any comparisons with Eric Cantona.

Half a dozen games in all competitions against traditional 'Big Six' opponents or Leicester this season have yet to yield a single victory. A tame Champions League eviction was one more damning exhibit in the case against Solskjaer.

United accumulated a greater harvest of points than City over the calendar year of 2020 (66 to 65), but Pep Guardiola’s side, with their recently rediscovered swagger and their proven pedigree, retain more convincing title credentials.

Ferguson would regard a statement victory over Burnley as a minimum requirement for a club that has spent a billion euro in the transfer market since his departure and which has the Premier League’s highest wage bill.

The notion of popping the champagne corks simply for briefly reasserting what was the natural order across his years of dominion would appall Solskjaer’s old capo.

Ferguson, under whom United resided for more than 2,300 days at the summit, would see any celebration of a mid-January league table as a kind of betrayal of the standards that were less an aspiration than a biblical, Tartan-hued commandment during his endless days of thunder.

He would, however, salivate at the opportunity to gut Liverpool twice in a week, a chance presented by Monday’s FA Cup draw that guarantees the ferocious rivals must reconvene just a week after what might be their most far-reaching Premier League collision of the post-Fergie era on Sunday.

Certainly, he would not be offering dignified, balanced responses – as Solskjaer did last week – to Jurgen Klopp’s barbed comments about the number of penalties the Manchester reds have been awarded this season.

Ferguson would instead by plotting how best he might add a bloody German fillet to the pot in which, over the years, he pitilessly stewed Rafa Benitez, Arsene Wenger and Kevin Keegan.

Of course, if Solskjaer was to seize top spot at Turf Moor and follow up with a bold, impossible-to-ignore statement at Anfield against a Liverpool side with a gaping hole at the heart of their defence, it might redraw horizons.

But for now, the sense is that United are being steered by a compassionate, humane soul, the type of caring citizen who almost certainly carries an organ donor’s card in his wallet.

When what they need, if they are to reconquer territories where the Red Devil standard once flew, is the refrigerated stare and icy impulses of Attila the Hun.

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Online Editors