By Alex Hess
The title race in 1996 may be remembered for the eye-catching brand of attacking football delivered by Manchester United and, in particular, Newcastle, but Kevin Keegan’s capitulation on live television gave birth to one of the Premier League’s longest-serving truisms.
Namely, Sir Alex Ferguson is an ingenious, psychological manipulator.
The pretext had been Sir Alex’s accusation that Leeds had exerted themselves more when playing United than they did against then-rivals Newcastle. It was a masterful dangling of bait by the United boss – and Keegan took it.
Subsequently, Newcastle collapsed, United secured the Premier League crown, and history was written. And ever since, every word the Scot has uttered has been a sinister, measured ploy to destabilise and unhinge his competitors.
|“I can’t understand the Leeds players. If they had played like that all season they’d be near the top. They raised their game because they were playing Manchester United. It was pathetic”
– Ferguson’s quote which sparked Keegan’s rant
The United manager’s irate outbursts are not perceived as the ravings of an unrestrained and angry human being, but in fact subtle manoeuvres that serve to deflect attention away from his own side’s failings.
This reputation is never far from an airing and it has reared its head twice in the past week. Firstly, with Ferguson’s laughable allegation of attempted murder against Ashley Williams, and then on Friday with his contemptuous belittling of Newcastle United as nothing but a “wee club in the north east”.
How else could we read the two rants? Mind games, of course. He’s at it again.
But instead of interpreting such ramblings as cunning attempts to cover up his own team’s shortcomings, or to transform the league’s other managers into jibbering wrecks, could we not just see Sir Alex as a volatile, frustrated man venting his anger at the easiest outlet?
After all, what sort of a title-challenging manager would not be distressed after dropping points at Swansea, or at being publicly criticised by Alan Pardew?
|“I think he was an angry man. He must have been disturbed for some reason. I think you have got to cut through the venom of it and hopefully he’ll reflect and understand what he said was absolutely ridiculous”
– Ferguson on Rafa Benitez’s ‘fact’ jibes
Few can argue that Sir Alex is an obstinate, tenacious personality. It is precisely what has enabled his staggering authority and longevity but the petty underbelly of these attributes often seep into his press conferences and post-match interviews, as they have done in the past week.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this myth is its contribution to the disciplinary imbalance that many feel exists between the Manchester United manager and his peers. ‘Playing mind games’, after all, sounds a lot more fun and forgivable than, say, ‘haranguing a referee’, or ‘airing petty grievances’.
There can be little doubt that Ferguson has often escaped punishment for behaviour that would see many of his peers hauled in front of an FA panel, with his treatment of Mike Dean and his assistant Jake Collin on Saturday the most recent example in his unparalleled history of tormenting match officials.
When Rafa Benitez sat down with his infamous list to articulate this perceived injustice in 2009, far less attention was paid to the content of his so-called ‘rant’ than to the somewhat tactless and confrontational form that it took.
|“It’s City isn’t it? They are a small club, with a small mentality. All they can talk about is Manchester United, that’s all they’ve done and they can’t get away from it”
– Ferguson on Man City’s Tevez poster
Former Premier League referee Graham Poll was in a minority when he noted that “Benitez has articulated what referees have been thinking for years – that Sir Alex Ferguson can say what he wants and then FA will allow him to get away with it”.
Poll’s words hardly mattered as the narrative was already in place: Ferguson had won the mind games – again. Rafa was cracking up.
The news of Ferguson’s latest insult had barely got out this morning before Twitter was awash with the predictable quips about Alan Pardew’s imminent emulating of Keegan’s famous moment. It was all mind games, you see. Except it wasn’t, not this time.
The key difference is that between a well-timed barb and juvenile insults, and the Scot’s labelling Arsene Wenger a “novice” in 1997, or Manchester City “a small club with a small mentality” in 2009 fall into the latter category.
Rather transparently, each was born of an underlying anxiety on part of the Scot that the current establishment was undergoing a fundamental disruption, and that his own access to domestic trophies was to become restricted. Both times, of course, such fears proved accurate.
As well at his cheap snipes at opposing managers, his regular tirades against referees, also a product of frustration, too often cross the line and between criticism and abuse.
But there could well be an end goal for Sir Alex. It is not just the voices of the crowd at Old Trafford that are seen to have helped the marginal decisions go United’s way over the past couple of decades; plenty of noise emanates from the dugout, too.
|“I carry that because I’m the manager of the most famous club in the world. I’m not at Newcastle, a wee club in the north east. That’s simply the facts of life”
– Ferguson on Pardew
Sir Alex himself would doubtless put it down to a shortness of temper, but a great many see his touchline antics as direct – and successful – attempts to gain advantages for his side through vulgar intimidation tactics. Neither explanation legitimises his behaviour.
None of this is to say that Ferguson never engages his peers in a spot of psychological warfare – when a bum-squeaking title run-in appears on the horizon, he more than likely will do, and will invariably do it well.
The trading of verbal blows with Arsene Wenger, almost a decade ago, that prompted the Frenchman into the legendary retort that “everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home” marked a genuine two-way war of words to rival the days of Keegan.
But not every outlandish public statement is a carefully concerted and shrewdly timed attempt at doing these fabled mind games. Likewise, petty and insulting behaviour should not be excused on such grounds.
By all means, let’s enjoy a good managerial rivalry – or a good quote, or even some constructive criticism – for what it is, but at the same time, let’s not give petulant diatribe any more credence or justification than it deserves.