Dark clouds looming over Old Trafford: a good précis for the media’s coverage of Manchester United since the club’s defeat to Leeds United on Sunday. True to form a defeat has become a ‘crisis’ and more than one, the beginning of the end for Sir Alex Ferguson’s empire. United, after all, shifts papers and nothing sells more than the Reds in crisis.
Ferguson, of course, will brush off the lurid headlines and doom-laden predictions and go about his business in the normal way. Indeed, the Scot loves nothing more than to bask in the glory of another title win safe in the knowledge that it is the gathered press corps who normally share the largest slice of humble pie come May.
This season is different of course with Ferguson selling his best player in the summer, eschewing the call for expensive replacements and leading his team to a worryingly large number of defeats at this stage of the campaign. For all Premier League’s unpredictability this season, United is holding on to Chelsea’s coattails only because of the widespread mediocrity throughout the league.
Sunday’s FA Cup loss to Leeds United only adds to the media fuel of course. Criticism of Ferguson at a personal level is a constant but his professional record can only be disparaged when United is losing. To be beaten by one of the club’s fiercest rivals is, clearly, the opportunity many in the media were seeking to ‘open the vault’.
Take The Times as just one example: England’s venerable paper published seven – yes seven – articles that were broadly critical of Ferguson or United in the aftermath of defeat to Leeds. Critical match reports are then often followed-up with tangential stories and blog posts. In this case the supposed story that Nemanja Vidic ruled himself out of Sunday’s match with a fictitious injury ahead of a likely move to Real Madrid.
Then there is Ferguson’s insistence that United will not spend big in the window, together with the widespread understanding that United is in dire financial straights. The club’s owners’ increasingly desperate search for a refinancing option in the midst of the deepest worldwide recession of modern times adds to a media perception that United is in a spiral of decline – on and off the pitch.
Indeed, Ferguson needs a statement of intent in the market as much as the club needs to freshen up a squad that has a distinctly average look about it. An international-class striker or creative midfielder would do much to spark life into the team when needed the most. Yet, United’s policy of signing only ‘promising’ under-26 year-old players precludes such a buy. Promise, after all, is no saviour for today.
United’s visit to Eastlands for the Carling Cup semi-final first leg on Wednesday offers Ferguson a chance to quell the storm. As ever, the Scot faces a tough decision with an away fixture against Birmingham City to come at the weekend. Ferguson would dearly love to rest his better players ahead of a potential Premier League banana skin but he can ill afford another defeat.
With the same dilemma, Ferguson chose a mixed bag on Sunday with senior players supplemented with youth and the ring-rusty. It conspicuously failed. Yet United’s manager has promised to stick with the youthful selection that played so well against Tottenham Hotpsur in the previous round.
The temptation is surely to choose United’s strongest possible line-up and instill some confidence in a squad that has seems mentally fragile. Defeat on Wednesday and the poison pens will be out in force once again.