RoM: Do you like Fergie?
DT: Well, I’d probably like him more if he re-admitted me to his Friday press conferences! I certainly find him fascinating, I admire his achievements, his longevity, the way he has beaten the system for so long. He’s always got an opinion, he’s never dull. He’s the last of his kind really, and I’ve said before that if I could arrange some kind of football dinner-party XI his name would be one of the first on the list. Even though, deep down, you know he wouldn’t come. Or even reply.
It’s a strange one because there are times when he can be exasperating beyond belief. That little episode with the AP reporter, for example, and “we’ll get him…” Someone, I think, in Fergie’s position should really be better than that. But I’ve been following the guy around the world for long enough now to know there’s more to him that. Out of press conferences, he can be totally different – relaxed, full of anecdotes and insight, good company. You see strangers meeting him for the first time, he can be utterly charming, and you can see on their faces they’re thinking ‘wow, that was a pleasant surprise.’ And then again, I’ve also seen him turn on fans for getting a little too close with a camera-phone and it’s ugly, brutal stuff. There’s plenty to like, plenty to dislike.
The difficulty is getting past that wall he has built around himself and into his trust – and, let’s be honest, if you’ve got an NUJ card it isn’t going to happen. He keeps you a very long arm’s length away.
RoM: Do you think the FA unfairly targets United?
DT: At times, yes. Sometimes it gets overplayed and I hear supporters with their conspiracy theories about David Bernstein with his Man City background etc, but overall I do think there is a trend of the FA taking action against United that we don’t always see elsewhere.
They seem to be selective in what they act upon and too easily swayed by what is highlighted on Sky or Match of the Day. That’s the most legitimate grievance, I think, for United, because television will inevitably focus on something one of their players does more than someone from, say, a mid-table club.
For example, Wayne Rooney’s elbow at Wigan attracted a serious amount of debate on Match of the Day, which is fair enough, but the same programme (and the FA) didn’t seem to care less a few weeks later when Emile Heskey lost the plot and barged into a ref (then waited for him in the tunnel). Or when Rob Green and Mark Noble scrapping with one another for West Ham at Bolton. So there is a clear disparity, and it’s not a new thing. Fergie has been banging on about this but for over a decade now, going back to when David Dein was involved with the FA. I don’t always agree with it, but it’s happened too many times now to be paranoia on United’s part.
RoM: Which midfielder do you think would be the best fit for United? Who, if any, is the most likely?
DT: I think United need some more craft, someone elusive who can dink the passes through for Rooney and Hernandez. Modric would be a good choice, though I’m not sure he is quite as amazing as Harry Redknapp says. I’d say Nasri would be the better choice – scores more goals, cheaper. Or, at least, the Nasri we saw for the first half of last season.
However, I’m not entirely convinced it will happen. I don’t detect any great optimism behind the scenes. They know, put it this way, how hard they would fight to keep one of their top players moving to Arsenal. Wenger’s desperate not to sell him to an English club.
Otherwise, Wesley Sneijder’s name keeps being mentioned but – and I know I’m in the minority here – I’m not as sold on him as everyone else. He’s obviously a very good player, sometimes a great player, but I don’t think he’s the world-beater that is sometimes portrayed. He’s also 27 whereas United have a policy in place not to buy players for big money if they are 26 or above, their reasoning being there is no resale value (Berbatov being both the exception to the rule). If it could be anyone, I’d say Cesc Fabregas would be the perfect United-fit midfielder. It’s obviously not going to happen, but what a player he is.
RoM: During your years following United what has surprised you the most?
DT: The first time you witness the Hairdryer is always an experience. Not sure you’d call it a “surprise” as such, because you’ve been warned about it, you’ve been told to watch out for it and that you will never forget what it’s like, but nothing can quite prepare you it. You’re just grateful, to be honest, if it’s someone else in the firing line. And if it is, I’ve got to be honest . . you’ll never butt in to say ‘Come on, that’s a bit unfair.’ We’re bastards like that.
RoM: What is your take on the Owen Hargreaves saga? Do you think Ferguson was right to cut ties when he did, or do you think he should have gone for the much banded around ‘pay as you play’ contract model and see what happened?
DT: What gets overlooked a lot of the time is that Hargreaves had his knee issues when United signed him. They knew he had tendinitis but they still ticked off the medical and, in hindsight, it was one expensive mistake. There’s no way of dressing it up: they bought a crock and they got a crock.
As for whether it was right to release him, I don’t think the club had much of an option. People talk about these pay-as-you-play deals, but how many clubs actually implement them? We’ve seen the same thing at Spurs with Jonathan Woodgate. There comes a time when you just have to be business-minded and say enough’s enough. Hargreaves is 30 now. I don’t think his situation was handled particularly well – and I’m told he has his own grievances – and it was clearly a mistake to put him straight into that Wolves match. Even so, he had become a tragicomedy. He was earning £4m a year and there has hardly been a stampede of other clubs wanting to sign him.
RoM: Who do you think should replace Ferguson when he retires? Who do you think will?
DT: It’s all about timing, isn’t it? Fergie could be with us another four or five years and there might be another outstanding candidate by then. For now, though, Pep Guardiola would be my choice. He’s the manager of the best club side many of us have probably ever seen, he speaks perfect English, he’s not Mourinho-esque but he’s still got a definite aura and the respect of his players, his team play beautiful football, he’s used to managing big-name stars (he might even bring some with him), he’s used to winning trophies . . . and yet, for whatever reason, he barely gets a mention. I find that strange, especially as he has said himself he will not always be at Barcelona. Beyond him, Mourinho would tick a lot, if not all, the boxes. Journalist hat on, I’d certainly like Mourinho here.
RoM: Why do you think the press jumped on the “United in decline” bandwagon when they went one year without a trophy in 2005, but have waited six years and for the best players to start leaving until talking about Arsenal in a similar way?
DT: I covered that season in my first Fergie book and, to be fair, it was probably the most troubled season of the last ten years or so, with Keane being bombed out, Van Nistelrooy following at the end of the season, the Champions League flop, the arrival of the Glazers and all that stuff about the young players not being up to it. I take your point, though, because it’s a valid one. The press don’t subject Arsenal to the same scrutiny. They will criticise them, ask questions, look into the reasons behind their failures etc but, overall, it’s nothing like as demanding as United. A single defeat for United tends to mean a full-on inquiry. Two in a row is crisis time.
RoM: Last year, lots of Guardian journos predicted City would win the league. Are they eating humble pie now?
DT: I’m not sure they did, did they? I can remember only one tipping City as champions. Otherwise I thought the majority went for Chelsea. It was strange, though, that so few people tipped United, especially considering the number of players Chelsea had moved on. I think it will be different this year, if that makes you feel any better.
RoM: What is your opinion on the current bunch of youngsters coming through our Academy? Which ones do you think have what it takes to push through to United’s first team?
DT: The three who stand out are Tunnicliffe, Pogba and Morrison, but I still think it’s premature for people to be talking about them as future United stars. They all have a good chance, but it’s a big leap from academy to the first team and, to put it into context, Pogba or Morrison won’t even be on the USA trip.
Tunnicliffe’s the one I really like. He’s a proper old-school meaty bastard, isn’t he? I hope he comes through because I thought that kind of box-to-box player had gone out of fashion. Pogba looks like he needs to bulk up a little before he is ready, but he’s tall, lithe, good on the ball, sees the pass, plays with his head up.
Then there’s Ravel and, Christ, who knows what will happen there? But there are at least the first signs that he might slowly beginning to ‘get it.’ I’ve got to be honest, he really didn’t look like he could give a shit when he was in court for the witness intimidation case. But at his court case this week he was in a suit, he hadn’t brought any of his hangers-on with him and, overall, he just seemed a little bit older and wiser. The reports from the youth offending team were all positive and – if it was genuine – there was no longer that sense that he thought he was untouchable.
These quotes didn’t get in the paper but this is what the judge said: “I’ve been given a glowing report on you. It indicates you have attended all of your appointments, you are working with Manchester United and the youth team to improve your maturity and, in particular, you are dealing with anger-management issues. In group work, I’m told you have engaged positively with other young people. Someone in your position has achieved a deal of fame – you can use that to make the world a better place and, if this referral order makes you understand that, it can only be a good thing.”
So maybe there is hope. It would be a bloody great waste if he did screw it up – and there isn’t much worse in sport than seeing some not fulfilling their talent.
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