How a Gruff Scot ruinedanother gruff Scot’s day

IT WAS only the third time he had faced a game on his birthday in 25 years at Old Trafford. Everything, it seemed, had been set up to mark the occasion, including the prize on offer: leadership of the Premier League at New Year.

This is, of course, a particularly appealing proposition, given that on five occasions in the last seven seasons the team sitting in top position at this time of year has gone on to win the title.

All Manchester United had to do was win a football match, or, indeed, even draw one. Then all would be well in the 70-year-old world of Sir Alex Ferguson. The Manchester United mascot, Fred the Red, even handed him a card as he made his usual walk along the side of the Old Trafford pitch, saluting well-wishers as he strode on with the purpose that not many septuagenarians could hope to share.

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A choir sang Happy Birthday, though in an ominous sign of what was to come, the microphone did not work.

It felt like a procession. Heck, it was expected to be a procession. Who were United playing, as if it mattered? Blackburn bloody Rovers, a team riven by discord and sitting plum bottom in the league. Steve Kean must have looked on at this Fergie love-in with a certain envy. There have been few pecks on the cheek for the Blackburn manager in recent months. It’s probably fair to assume that no choir was assembled on the pitch at Blackburn to mark his 44th birthday in September.

Few sides can have been priced at such long odds to win a football match in the Premier League. Blackburn were down as 33-1 outsiders, and, to make matters worse, were relying on several teenagers and players in their early twenties.

Ferguson settled down to watch a football match that he and everyone else expected would see Manchester United end the year and begin the new one in their customary spot at the top of the Premier League. The birthday boy’s day was shaping up rather nicely.

But then 13 stone of prize Blackburn beef had to go and ruin it for him. Or, to be more accurate, some good old Dumfries and Galloway-reared beef.

Grant Hanley, who grew up in Dumfries, has been labelled The Gruffalo by fans of the Ewood Park club. Still only 20, he looks like a centre-half who has been kicking chunks out of centre forwards for years. Just to make the scenario even more delicious for everybody except Manchester United fans (and those Blackburn supporters who remain so vehemently anti-Kean that they wish their own team ill) we later learn that his late winner in the 3-2 win is Hanley’s first senior goal.

Born in the same month as when Ferguson celebrated his fifth anniversary at Old Trafford, Hanley provided his fellow Scot with a reminder of just how perverse football can be, and just how wrong it is to imagine that a knight of the realm can arrange for the stars to align themselves in order on such a significant day.

Indeed, it was Ferguson who long ago came up with the phrase which sums up football. It was even used as the title for a recent biography on the man, published in the run-up to his 70th birthday.

That phrase is of course: “football – bloody hell”. He no doubt whispered it again yesterday afternoon, when watching Manchester City slip to a 1-0 defeat at Sunderland after an injury-time winner for Martin O’Neill’s side. Although City remain on top of the league, it is by the slenderest of margins. Ferguson’s birthday present proved only delayed, although he would prefer it if the celebrations had been to mark the success of his side rather than the failure of their rivals.

There are those who think he should be free of all this tension. Rather than tinkering with his team-selection he should be messing around with his grandchildren’s Lego. Michael Carrick and Phil Jones were brought back from midfield to play at centre-half together on Saturday. It wasn’t a success. Wayne Rooney was seated in an executive box, his apparent punishment for an illicit Boxing Day meal out with his wife and two team-mates, Darron Gibson and Jonny Evans.

And yet Ferguson, in an interview prior to Saturday’s match, says he wants to continue in management for another three years. One thing he knows is that he will never stop learning. Perhaps that is what he was thinking last night as he settled back with a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Kean’s birthday gift, and prepared for this week’s chores. Top of the list include player discipline and what to do with an expensive goalkeeper suffering from a confidence crisis. Welcome to your seventies, Sir Alex.