Sir Alex Ferguson: The Official Manchester United Celebration of 25 Years at Old Trafford
This Is The One: Sir Alex Ferguson: The Uncut Story of a Football Genius
Squeaky Bum Time: The Wit & Wisdom of Sir Alex Ferguson by the Guardian's Danny Taylor now out, for a fiver
Life with Sir Alex: A Fan's Story of Ferguson's 25 Years at Manchester United by Will Tidey
Is Sir Alex Ferguson United's biggest advantage in the title race?
The Manchester United manager is already piling on the pressure as he limbers up for Sunday's game against Tottenham
According to Sir Alex Ferguson, a key fixture in this season's title race is coming up on Sunday. "It's going to be a massive game at Spurs," the Manchester United manager says. "If we can survive our visit to White Hart Lane we'll have a big chance of winning the league. If we could go to Manchester City [on April 28] within striking distance of being top of the league, I'd take it. I would rather go there level on points, but if the gap is still two points, I'd take that."
Someone remarked a few weeks ago that in a tight title race United's biggest advantage could easily turn out to be their manager, all aggression, experience and expertise at presenting a cool exterior, and clearly Ferguson is limbering up prior to metaphorically taking the field.
The manager made the above comments to his club's in-house magazine, Inside United, so we can be sure he intended them to have a public airing. He was not answering journalists' questions or being led towards talking about the City game in April, he wanted to make that statement and he wanted others to be aware of it. It is what he does. We are about to discover whether the most successful manager in the business can really be worth an extra point or two to his players by virtue of the way he conducts his campaign away from the pitch.
Sceptical? Well, here are some of the things Ferguson could have said, but chose not to.
1 Manchester United have not lost at White Hart Lane in over 10 years, and the last time they did, in May 2001, the result was unimportant. Ferguson's team had already won the league and the manager made several changes.
2 Just a few weeks ago, Ferguson was flagging up United's visit to Chelsea as equally vital. His side ended up claiming a point, no inconsiderable achievement after going three goals down, but the two points dropped are now what separates City and United at the top of the league. United famously won 5-3 at Spurs in October 2001 after conceding three goals to no reply in the first half, but they would be unwise to try the same tactic for two successive away games in London.
3 United were not at their most impressive in their last away game, at Norwich on Sunday. They secured three points thanks to goals from the evergreen Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, though the consensus seemed to be that it was a fairly ordinary performance.
4 The City game is two months away. Practically anything can happen between now and then, with City due to face Arsenal, Chelsea, Sunderland and Swansea, though it is true that once the Spurs game is out of the way, United's run-in looks decidedly easier. Apart from Sunderland on the last day of the season, United do not have to play any upwardly mobile teams until the Manchester derby, and no one from the top six.
Ferguson will be well aware that most of the difficult games are now out of the way, of course, which is why he is attempting to crank up the pressure on City. Let's not call this mind games – the reputation Ferguson enjoyed for getting inside rival managers' heads around a decade ago was always overstated, and based more on Kevin Keegan's combustible personality than any sly prompting or deliberate cleverness on the part of the United manager – let's just say it is a legitimate way to remind City how much is at stake.
Ferguson cannot control City's results, after all. At least he should not be able to. But he can try to paint a picture whereby United achieving a draw at Spurs – that is to say, dropping another two points – can be greeted as a victory, because the title challenge will have "survived". That way, should United actually win at White Hart Lane, it will be seen as a major bonus, a probable turning point in the title campaign, even though the likelihood would be that City remain two points in front.
And should United lose, it could be regarded as only one point dropped, instead of three. Ferguson would solemnly pronounce it a setback, before declaring that the title could still be won as long as United do not drop any more points until the end of the season, something the fixture list suggests they will find easier to accomplish than their rivals.
Should United lose at Spurs and City carry on winning, the gap between the two teams when they meet at the Etihad on 30 April could be five points or even more, and a City win could see them crowned champions, but naturally Ferguson is not drawing attention to that possibility. He would rather threaten City with United's continued presence at their shoulder, even making light of a two-point gap, so that City know that any more points dropped over the next few weeks will play into United's hands. By saying he would be happy enough to go to the Etihad two points in arrears Ferguson has made it clear he would be ecstatic should the lead be cut to anything less.
It is up to individuals to decide whether this counts as cunning psychology or mere playground taunting. One often suspects that experts would simply say Ferguson does no more than stick up for his team and relentlessly search out the positives, and there is no harm in that. What we have come to expect over the years, however, is Ferguson doing it more loudly than most of his peers. More obviously.
Time was when José Mourinho or a younger Arsène Wenger used to give back as good as they got, though Ferguson pretty much has the floor to himself these days. Whatever his merits as a manager André Villas-Boas appears to have the ability only to talk himself into trouble, and right from the word go he has never projected a consistent vision for Chelsea that everyone could fall in behind.
He has had people falling about laughing, but that is not the same thing. Wenger at Arsenal has been slowly rendered speechless by results, Kenny Dalglish has been digging verbal holes for himself all season, and though Roberto Mancini is as upbeat and personable a manager as anyone at City could wish, he is far from the outspoken type. He wants to be judged by results, which is just as well, because he will be.
That leaves Ferguson and Harry Redknapp as the last two bluster merchants in the top five, and if predictions of the latter's forthcoming elevation are correct, this could be their last league meeting. Typical of Fergie to get in first by bigging up the opponents and making out that United would be happy just to survive.
Coupled with being hit for five by Arsenal at the weekend that puts real pressure on Spurs to perform, and though it is likely that Ferguson gave his Inside United interview before he was aware of that result, it shows that if you are willing to be proactive and make a statement you can sometimes get lucky. Over to you, Harry, and good luck. In international football the pre-match wind-ups frequently last for weeks.