HUMBLE PIE ON THE MENU
“All empires crumble from within.” So began a piece in these pages just over a year ago, speculating on the imminent end of Sir Alex Ferguson's reign. Manchester United had just been knocked out of the European Cup by Benfica, they trailed Chelsea by 10 points in the Premiership and were less than a month away from being taken to a replay in the third round of the FA Cup by Burton Albion of the Nationwide Conference.
Even United's own fans were beginning to agitate for change at the top. So I was not the only person to have got it utterly, absolutely, laughably wrong.
On the eve of his 65th birthday, Sir Alex was reflecting on the victory over Reading that had taken United six points clear of Chelsea in this season's title race. Some newspapers, he recalled, had been "suggesting I was past my sell-by date and presiding over a crumbling empire". Apparently there was a festive smile on his lips.
Being taken to task by the master of Old Trafford is not always a pleasant sensation, but this time it was almost a privilege. For if Manchester United win the Premiership this season, for the ninth time in Ferguson's 20 years at the club, it will represent the finest of all his achievements, a feat even more remarkable than that amazing period of 11 days in May 1999 when his players secured the treble.
We can see that Ferguson has survived it all, and perhaps nothing illustrates more clearly the persistence of his ability to confront his rivals on at least equal terms than the fortunes of Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, his two big purchases in last year's January sales.
Once again United's forwards are playing the sort of flowing football that links them to earlier generations. Prompted by the resurgent Scholes and the ageless Ryan Giggs, the young front three of Ronaldo, Rooney and Louis Saha are performing like a collective reincarnation of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law.
People who see a lot of Ferguson report that he has never looked more relaxed. Maybe he has finally reached the sunlit uplands where experience and wisdom rule and there is no sell-by date. And those of us who are more interested in the triumph of good football than in the fulfilment of our own predictions had better shut up and join the applause.
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