I am sure I speak for a lot of people when suggesting that I feel I have seen enough of the craggy face of Alex Ferguson this week. You could say the week ended well for the guy; Man. Utd. won at Stoke and Rooney is on a new 5-year contract. Too many lines have already been written about the talented striker who has been throwing the toys out of his pram to get what he wanted, a higher salary and a potential £100M investment of new players at the club.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with Sunderland? Well it goes back in part to the way he unsettled a very gifted French striker, David Bellion, who scored his first senior goal for the Black Cats against Aston Villa in September 2002, as related in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bellion). United won at the SSOL in October 2002, and Ferguson complimented Bellion after he had come on as a substitute.
Following that, Bellion completely lost interest in playing for the Black Cats, and went AWOL to France at a time when the team needed him most. Upon returning, he claimed he had been visiting his sick grandmother, and made himself temporarily unavailable for selection, claiming he was "mentally unfit" to be playing in a relegation battle. At the time, speculation was rife that Bellion had been "tapped up" by United, and sure enough he agreed a move to the "Red Devils" after his contract expired in June 2003. Luckily, Bellion was under the age of 23, and Sunderland were eligible for compensation, eventually agreeing a fee of £2 million out of court. Even former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein claimed Bellion had been offered to Arsenal by his agent illegally and that United had been paying for Bellion's mobile phone bills whilst still at Sunderland.
You could fault the star-struck player for never really seriously kicking a ball again for Sunderland, but I put the blame firmly at the door of Alex Ferguson, who unsettled a talent that Sunderland had unearthed, and essentially made him into an ineffective wreck during a season when The Lads just avoided relegation. If the Scot had just kept his mouth shut and approached a player he obviously rated through the normal channels, and kept FA rules, then Sunderland would have been able to benefit from Bellion's talent for much longer, and I feel strongly that under Peter Reid's excellent man-management, the player would have prospered like many others.
These sleaze-ball tactics have made Ferguson less popular than such a hugely successful manager should be. I presume he has an innner belief that as manager and supremo of United, arguably one of the most famous clubs in the world, he can break the rules, because he is untouchable. He clearly hates all those Liverpool pundits on the BBC who have said things like "You don't win anything with kids", and since he can't bully them, he treats them as if they do not exist, and refuses to speak to them. Brilliant tactician, mind-games player and spotter of stars he may be, but you get the impression that he can bear a grudge on a geological timescale.
I read the excellent unauthorised biography of Ferguson, “The Boss” by Michael Crick, and he came over as a controversial and controlling figure. It seemed that he ran the club by fear, and on an occasion when Crick tried to visit the office of the Manchester Evening News to read back issues, they would not let Crick in until he had a fax from United authorising his entry. Needless to say it was not forthcoming, just like those interviews with the BBC which we have not seen.
Why should all this concern Sunderland concern fans now? Well, it may be happening again. I was listening to Sky Sports and a commentator said that Jordan Henderson, the Cats’ most talented home grown player for some time, was attracting attention from Chelsea and, you guessed it, Manchester United...and now we hear that Ferguson is blaming Rooney's agent for the events of the last week. Butter would not melt in his mouth...
We don’t want to see history repeating itself, and judging by Henderson’s highly motivated, box-to-box performance on Saturday, He was clearing the ball of the line one moment, and then setting up an attack at the other. Steve Bruce is helping to keep his feet on the ground. At times like this we need his management skills, and long may he keep Henderson committed to Sunderland and playing like he does!
©Lars J.S. Knutsen