It was with great aplomb that the traditional Ferguson mind games season kicked off in the first week of April, not coincidentally at a time Chelsea seemed to be faltering. On cue, the number-crunchers were on hand to remind us, rather unfairly, that Fergie’s football machine had, in an eight-match winning run, cut the Chelsea lead from a whopping eighteen points to a mere seven. That they forgot to add that the Red Devils had two games in hand all that while was conveniently inconsequential, considering that the fight was against Chelsea, the football equivalent of the Evil Empire.
As the old master did his media jig, carcasses of all that have fallen before him were exhumed for effect, an ominous reminder to the young pretender that more experienced managers and teams have been incinerated by Fergie’s fabled flames. In fact, Fergie’s strike was part of a multi-pronged attack that consisted of barbarous barks at the charmless Chelsea PR machine, shallow shrieks protesting Mourinho’s supposed gracelessness and huge howls against Chelsea’s disciplinary and supposed cheating record. Indeed, the air was filled with the hallowed hypocrisy of wacky wailers, crying their eyes out on radio phone-ins and TV appearances over Drogba’s earth-shattering dives! Polls were instantly organized to reveal how the football-loving nation has overwhelmingly endorsed a Fergie fight-back to culminate in the snatching of the title from the hands of the arrogant Chelsea killjoys. Needless to say, zillions of inches of newspaper columns had already been allotted to immortalize these historical moments.
The scheme worked so well as to get into the heads of some Chelsea fans, who, in supposedly doing their bit for football decency, booed Drogba off the pitch after he’d scored two goals in a winning man of the match performance against Manchester City at home. Thereafter, all that was needed were toppings – bits and pieces of “news” here and there – of Mourinho losing the dressing room; of him fighting Abramovich, Kenyon, Arnesen, the tea ladies and the cats and dogs of King’s Road or of Terry and Lampard wrestling Drogba and his protector, Mourinho over the striker’s attempt to soil the name of our good club and so on and so forth. In fact, the Sun brightened our lives with the tale of Mourinho doing an Asafa Powell when Parky invited him over for a chat. Apparently the dreaded talkshow host was going to ambush Mourinho with some tough questions. But fearing the impending disgrace, the Portuguese motormouth turned tail and ran! So, the ground having been well-softened, Fergie, the football knight was only to ride in to apply the coup de grace to the cued applause of the whole Chelsea-hating nation. He dutifully fired the first bunker-bursting salvo and sent the expectant horde of media types over to Cobham to inspect the kill, to watch Mourinho wilt live under the master’s all-consuming blaze.
But as Mourinho the erstwhile media recluse clambered up the podium from his bombarded bunker, the first surprise was that not one hair on his massive head was torched. Then an agape nation watched him serve the media a huge banquet of bird flu, reminding them of how much they love him! The pressmen were all so taken in by his magnanimous display of cheerfulness and cheeky confidence that no one bothered with the traditional pre-match analysis. In fact, Mourinho’s whole thought on the West Ham match consisted of no more than telling the media that the Manchester United people would be watching our game against West Ham with “very high heartbeat”, while we were going to be watching theirs cool “because we depend only on our results”. As the press conference was winding to a close, with Mourinho playfully contemplating buying truckloads of masks to protect himself and his players from the threatening bird flu, the mirthful guffaws emanating from the press pack only confirmed what every watcher already knew, which was the fact that Sir Alex was already scratching his tortured head in exasperation. The next day, Chelsea backed up their manager’s confidence with a fearsome display of football power. A goal down and playing with ten men from the seventeenth minute, they rallied back to thrash the Hammers 4-1. But Ferguson did not get to where he is today by being easily cowed. Shortly after, he rallied his troops to beat Arsenal 2-0 at Old Trafford.
Now, with five matches remaining and the gap still at seven points, the restless Fergie thought he needed to try a few more stunts. It was a perfect time to take the mind games up a gear, considering the upcoming fixtures. Thus, in the following days, Fergie began doing the team talks for our remaining opponents. He was sure Bolton wouldn’t lose five in a row and Big Sam, being a great mate was going to rally his “honest bunch of players” to do him the favour of slashing Chelsea to size. And Alan Shearer won’t miss the opportunity to ride off into retirement with a big smile on his face, being the one ordained by Prophet Fergie to put the final nail on the coffin of the Chelsea beast – that is after Fergie himself would have led his team to triumph at Stamford Bridge. In all his calculations, he did not forget hapless Sunderland. To him, the question was not about beating the Wearsiders, as that was a forgone conclusion. Rather, it was important to score a basketful of goals as the title race could be decided on goal difference!
Mourinho, with the right mixture of respect and cheekiness, cannily refused to acknowledge that Ferguson was engaged in any mind games. To him, Ferguson was only being “optimistic” and talking up his team’s chances, as he should. He said he couldn’t have been the successful manager he is or stayed on as manager at Manchester United this long if he was prone to throwing in the towel that easily. Yet, he couldn’t resist trying out one or two jabs. He said if he was in Fergie’s shoes, he wouldn’t be comfortable going without the league title for three years and that he expects Manchester United to score ten unanswered goals against Sunderland in their meaningless quest for a healthy goals difference. It is instructive that after the game at Old Trafford, John Fickling, the Sunderland vice-chairman actually revealed that Mourinho’s comment about being walloped ten-nil fired up the team to prove him wrong! In other words, even without saying much, Mourinho’s ensured that Sunderland did Chelsea’s fighting by taking the Red Devils’ hope of the title with them to the relegation dump.
Fergie’s lack of respect for Sunderland or, more appropriately, his arrogance was obviously his undoing. For a man who popularized the cautionary remark that football could give you “a real kick in the teeth” to leave his own mouth so vulnerable to the vicious kicks of Kelvin Davis and his angry mates is one irony of this whole situation. In fact, a more telling irony is that on Tuesday, March 4, 2003, at the height of his most successful mind-games manouevre against Wenger and Arsenal, Fergie berated them for the sins of “overconfidence”, “bragging” and “arrogance”. Watching him after being humbled by Sunderland now seeking miracles to catch Chelsea, I could hear the chattering and clanging of splintered assortments of bicuspids, incisors, molars and canines in a carefully folded envelope, tucked away in his breast pocket. But after Chelsea’s professional demolition of Bolton, someone must have convinced Fergie to pull the envelope from under his pillow and not wait anymore for the tooth fairies. The evidence of this is Gary Neville doing his bit to unnerve Liverpool whose design for the second spot is now far more realistic than Fergie’s design for the title.
For the record, the whole Fergie rebellion lasted only a week. I’m sure Mourinho is not only looking forward to the game against Everton later today, but to Saturday, 29 April when Fergie and his deflated troops will reconfirm Chelsea as Champions of all England.
Sorry Fergie, next time, you’ll have to really, really raise your game or you’re one for the museum.