Regardless of one’s opinion of Alex Ferguson, you can’t help but admire the way that he plays everyone around him. With the security blanket of twenty-three years behind him and the status of being more or less completely unsackable, he seems to have an affect on other managers that utterly disables them, turning into fuming wrecks of men, blustering and shouting about perceived injustices being forced upon them by a Premier League that loves Manchester United to the extent that it will fix the season so that they win.
The latest manager to fall victim to the gaze of Alex’s evil eye is Rafael Benitez who, at a press conference this morning, launched into a quite astonishing attack on Ferguson – an attack so demented and other worldly that even those of us that have no time for him couldn’t help but be taken aback by some of the allegations being made. “Mr. Ferguson can talk about the fixtures, can talk about referees and nothing happens. We need to know that I am talking about facts, not my impression. There are things that everyone can see every single week”. He went on to add, “”Maybe (Manchester United) are nervous because we are at the top of the table. I want to be clear, I do not want to play mind games too early, although they seem to want to start”, Benitez said, a small bead of froth forming in the corner of his mouth.
Ferguson has this affect on other managers. Kevin Keegan lost his rag live on Sky Sports in 1996, and Newcastle blew their best chance in decades of becoming the English champions. What’s interesting about Keegan’s outburst is the way that we remember it. It has become remembered as the defining example of a manager losing his nerve as all around him crumbles, but that it is only really half true. There was no doubt, as he shouted and yelled, that he was losing his mind. The pressure was clearly getting to him. All, however, as not turning to dust on that night at Elland Road. Newcastle United had won four out of their last five matches at that point. The collapse started as the guffawing at him began. He’s not the only manager to have been baited into a war of words with Ferguson. Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger are just two of the managers to have been lured into the same trap.
What’s interesting about what Benitez says is that he is right, but we shouldn’t rush to acclaim him as the new voice of football’s moral conscience. The fact of the matter is that he is at it too, and all of the rest of them are as well. Consider these two statements. The first is from today, and the second is from August 2007:
“Two years ago we were playing a lot of early kick-offs away on Saturdays when United were playing on Sundays. And we didn’t say anything”.
“I would like to ask the Premier League why is it that Liverpool always plays the most fixtures away from home in an early kick-off, following an international break? We had more than the top clubs last season and we have four already to prepare for this season.”
Do these things matter? Well, they do and they don’t. They don’t so far as that ninety-nine per cent of claims by made by football managers are, to put it bluntly, bullshit. There is no inherent bias in the Premier League that is hidden away. All of the bias in the Premier League is quite open, and indeed is quite accepted, and it comes in the massive financial disparity between the biggest clubs and the smallest. Strangely, you never hear Alex Ferguson or Rafa Benitez say, “You know, we should probably give Wigan Athletic £10m to even things up a bit”. However, you will hear of them whining on and on about how the whole word is one big conspiracy to ruin their lives. Depending on your mood, it’s either hilarious or mind-blowingly infuriating, and it isn’t going to change any time soon. The drip, drip, drip effect of this constant drone of complaining never has a negative effect – the worst that can happen is the feeble charge of “bringing the game into disrepute” and a paltry fine. If complaining about every single refereeing decision that goes against you alters referees’ thinking (even if subconsciously), they’ll continue to do it. How long, after all, did Manchester United go without conceding a penalty at Old Trafford?