Wrath: Wanting to confront Dante.
Ferguson’s bloody hell, 1988
When people would speak about Alex Ferguson the football manager, their words would come off as nothing more than the old platitudes we could all do without. “Ferguson sets high standards” – well, who doesn’t? But perhaps it isn’t as empty and banal as we think. His standards were pretty high. In This is the One, Daniel Taylor writes of the time a Rio Ferdinand error in a game’s dying moments prompted Ferguson to rush “out of his seat, throwing his arms in the air and furiously swearing.” What makes this particular tale delightful, and what made Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs collapse into “giggles in the next row,” was that Manchester United had come to White Hart Lane and scored four against Tottenham without reply. The win saw United go six points clear in the 2006/07 season; no wonder Ferguson was seen “laughing and joking in the dugout, totally relaxed” moments before.
Back when things were a whole lot less serious, United went to play Hartlepool United in what Iain McCartney’s Forgotten Fixtures says was “classed as a reserve team friendly.” It was hardly that. “The names of Turner, Anderson, Duxbury, McGrath and Whiteside all appeared on the team sheet,” McCartney wrote, this seemingly an attempt to raise match sharpness with the new season a few days away. But, despite the difference in quality and status, United were blown away. “We were 5-0 down at half-time,” Viv Anderson told the Sun. “And that was the first time I’d really had the hairdryer.”
Nobody wants to see their side concede five goals in 45 minutes to a fourth division outfit, even in a pre-season friendly, but the response at half-time in the dressing-room was distinctly Ferguson. “There’s a table in the dressing room with water, tea and orange juice on it,” Anderson recalled. “He comes in and knocks everything off – hot tea and everything is flying into people’s faces. Then he goes round individually: ‘You fucking think you’re a Manchester United player?’ Every single player. The veins in his neck are standing out. You know he is deadly serious. He didn’t do it all the time. He chose his moments. You can’t do it all the time or it loses its effect. But 5-0 down at Hartlepool is the right time.”
Ferguson was so annoyed that he cancelled the players’ day off, according to McCartney, “furious at them for allowing themselves to be overrun by such lowly opposition.” 6-0 was the final score.
“I let my anger show in the right places,” Ferguson said post-match.
Forlan — wait for it — gets the boot, 2004
It had only been 18 months since football boots figured some way in a Manchester United player’s exit, but it was one Diego Forlan couldn’t say wasn’t coming. Forlan was no David Beckham in terms of impact at the club – and least that’s what it looked like – and his departure, though in circumstances that could easily have been avoided (of course!), was exactly what the Uruguayan needed in his eventual conversion from hapless striker to one of the best in his position.
His last United appearance came from the bench, replacing Eric Djemba-Djemba – those were the days – in the first game of the 2004/05 season, where an early Eidur Gudjohnsen goal had been enough for Chelsea and new manager Jose Mourinho. Forlan’s days by then had looked numbered, but an act of defiance against Alex Ferguson might have helped speed up the process.
“Ferguson wanted me to play with long studs,” Forlan revealed five years later, in 2009. “The interchangeable ones that suit wet pitches, but I feel more comfortable in short ones. I agreed to change but I didn’t and, against Chelsea, I slipped in front of goal and wasted a chance.”
Forlan’s attempts at a cover-up proved fatal. “Afterwards, I rushed to the dressing room to change boots but Ferguson caught me. He grabbed the boots and threw them. That was my last game for United.”
Rooney gets angry and scores, 2005
People are always told to channel their anger in a positive way, but few ever do; anger, says one amateur psychologist, isn’t quite that simple to negotiate with. Just ask Alex Stepney, if he’s taking your calls. The Manchester United goalkeeper, who starred through the ‘60s and ‘70s, once bizarrely dislocated his own jaw in a Division Two game. He had barked orders at his beleaguered defence (they call it “the Docherty years”) with too much force for his own good. That’s how not to be angry.
When Wayne Rooney was one day angry on a football pitch – this apparently happens a lot – he was able to find a positive outlet. Trailing 1-0 to Newcastle United, Rooney, wandering up the field, multi-tasked: he was both watching the game and arguing with Neale Barry, the referee. Then, as the ball hung in the air from a defensive clearance, the referee that irritated him so no longer mattered. He hit the sweetest of volleys and everything was good again. To be fair, it was pretty special.
Even for a scorer of great goals, this one was right up there, and always will be. The context made it better: United struggled up until then, as did Rooney. He had also been booked for a belated challenge on James Milner and, says one amateur body language expert, looked like he would soon be sent off. This is not to forget that he was set to be replaced because of a niggling injury anyway. As it went, they kept him on and he helped his team to a 2-1 win.
A lot of things have happened with Rooney since then that is seems a little regrettable, in hindsight, for this moment to feel so bittersweet. It was enjoyable beyond its aesthetics because it was, quintessentially, a Wayne Rooney goal. A young and unpredictable Wayne Rooney, whose whatever-it-was burning inside of him so often had the potential to swing a football match.
Neville learns a lesson, 2007
“If the coach has no control, he will not last.” In 2012, the Harvard Business Review looked for some words of wisdom from Alex Ferguson and found them. “If the day came that the manager of Manchester United was controlled by the players – if the players decided how the training should be, what days they should have off, what the discipline should be, and what the tactics should be – then Manchester United would not be the Manchester United we know. You have to achieve a position of comprehensive control. Players must recognise that as the manager you have the status to control events. I wasn’t going to allow anyone to be stronger than I was.”
In a Champions League knockout tie at Lille in 2007, Ryan Giggs took a free-kick quickly while the opposition were still trying to assemble a wall and scored. It stood, and Lille walked off in disgust. Multiple narratives were being formed. Gary Neville recounts in Red: “‘Come on, get on with the fucking game,’ I said to their captain, following him towards the side of the pitch. The next thing I knew the manager was charging down the touchline shouting at me. ‘Neville, what are you doing? Get back on!’ He had really snapped. As far as I was concerned I’d been doing the sensible thing … so I snapped back – ‘Fuck off’ – and walked away.” He’d never told the manager that before.
Neville dreaded facing up to the Scot – and quite rightly, because Ferguson was never one for lenience. He always had to achieve a position of comprehensive control. Called into his office, Neville received a “bollocking” and was fined a week’s wages. It didn’t end there. The right-back was dropped for the following game against Fulham in favour of Wes Brown, reasoned with the aerial threat they posed. “Imagine how chuffed I was when we got down there and they had Alexei Smertin on the left flank, all four foot six inches of him, or whatever he is,” Neville wrote. “‘I could have played you after all,’ the manager said in the dressing room, looking at their teamsheet. He was laughing.” It still didn’t end there.
He’d be taken down for the next game at Reading – and miss that, too. “The trip was a total waste of time, but the boss had asserted his authority. I wouldn’t be swearing at him again.”
Cantona was just being Cantona, 1995
Everyone knows everything they need to know about that incident with Roy Keane and Alf-Inge Haaland. They know that line from Keane’s autobiography. Some may have forgotten – it’s conceivable, in a way. It goes like this: “I’d waited long enough. I fucking hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you cunt. And don’t ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries.” They know of Keane’s many rants, of Big Time Charlies, and of flying boots (though nobody can quite decide on whether it was thrown or kicked). Some of Manchester United’s wrath is so well-documented that there’s no need revisiting it, because it’s been discussed as often as prawn sandwiches have been eaten.
There’s all of that and so much more, and then there’s what Eric Cantona did one evening at Selhurst Park. It can’t be ignored. That’s wrath. A sending-off – a kick out at a Crystal Palace defender – and an hour-long battle with the referee saw a man full of rage but composed in walking off anyway, only to be pushed over the edge at the sight of a home fan, foaming with obscenities. In a revealing interview with Darren Tullett of the Observer, Cantona gave an insight into his mind. “There was a barrier between us so I had to jump over it,” he said. “That’s all, otherwise I might have just steamed in with my fists. You know, you meet thousands of people like him [Matthew Simmons]. And how things turn out can hinge on the precise moment you run into them. If I’d met that guy on another day, things may have happened very differently even if he had said exactly the same things. Life is weird like that. You’re on a tightrope every day.”
It might seem unfortunate that this particularly dark moment in Cantona’s career – though celebrated nevertheless – is what the casual football fan remembers most, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Cantona has probably only ever fly kicked a mouthy spectator once in his career, and yet, for some, it’s a moment as Cantona-like as a delicate chip: both instances allow those to understand this man, even if one is more favourable than the other. The Frenchman would also come to recognise how much his kick resonated. (It’s easy to feel inclined to him: the forward’s biographer Philippe Auclair noted that Simmons was a “BNP and National Front sympathiser”, something that adds up when taking into what he may or may not — witness accounts differ — have said.) “It’s like a dream for some, you know sometimes to kick these kind of people,” supposed Cantona in 2011. “So I did it for [the fans]. So they are happy. It’s a kind of freedom for them.”
So while it is what the casual football fan ‘remembers most’, it is surely not all that person knows. You can’t see an image of an athlete with his studs wedged in another person’s chest and leave it at that: it’s an Eric Cantona gateway. You’ll want to learn more; first the context of the kick, then of the man. Cantona, someone whose football hinged on his character, whose character hinged on his football.
Back to the Observer interview. Cantona continues: “The most important thing for me is that I was who I was. I was myself!”
Well, this was fun. The other six can be found here. There’ll probably be an ebook soon, with extras. Look out for that.