70 not out! But Fergie”s best present would be a couple of fully-fit central defenders
Reminders of his impending milestone were met with a glare and a growl, but Sir Alex Ferguson could perhaps be excused his grumpy old man demeanour at Manchester United’s Carrington training base on Friday.
“Just wait till you’re 70,” he glowered at a well-wisher impertinent enough to convey a collective birthday greeting, in the vain hope of a few pertinent observations in return.
For the United boss the waiting was virtually over, but it wasn’t just apprehension at turning 70 on Saturday that dictated his mood.
Still enjoying his work: UNited boss Ferguson during training at Carrington on Friday
Cold symptoms frequently left him spluttering, while a mounting injury crisis could make naming anything resembling a recognisable back four even more troublesome for his birthday outing against Blackburn at Old Trafford today.
At the last count, he was without Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Nemanja Vidic, Fabio and, probably, Rio Ferdinand, who may be on the bench at best.
Ferguson admitted he may have to start with a back four of Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra and either Rafael or Ezekiel Fryers. Phil Jones could add more defensive know-how, if he is not required for a midfield anchor role, but Ferguson said he would have no compunction about relying on such a makeshift unit.
Heads up: Michael Carrick played in defence against Wigan on Boxing Day
‘Selection will be down to who is fit and it is quite a concern that we are picking up so many injuries in defence,’ he said. ‘It may be we have to start with a back four of Valencia, Carrick, Evra and Fryers or Rafael, because it’s only a possibility that Rio may just make the bench.
‘But we have built up a momentum that I hope we can keep going now and when you look at Carrick and Evra in central defence, there is every reason for believing they can do a job.
‘I think we can cope with the defensive problems, certainly in the home games.
‘Carrick’sform has been one of the key elements of our recent wins and he has proved he can operate in the centre of defence. He has height, pace and experience, and he can pass the ball, so it’s not a problem for him. Against Wigan, he was flawless.
‘It’s the same with Evra. He also hasexperience and an ability to pass the ball and a spring that enables him to get up for headers. We’ll be fine carrying on with those two.’
Despite having more options up front, Ferguson revealed that Dimitar Berbatov will be kept on at Old Trafford for at least another season. Bayer Leverkusen want to take him back to Germany on a free transfer next summer but look like being disappointed.
‘He has the option of another year and we will be exercising that,’ said Ferguson. ‘We will do it in March, so that will keep him here for another season. I’m not the least bit surprised by his recent form. You can’t be surprised at a player of his ability knocking goals in.
‘It’s just unfortunate for him that we’ve got other players in his position, like Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck, whose form has been sensational when he has been fit.
‘But, as you saw with his hat-trick against Wigan, he has fantastic talent.
Staying on: Berbatov fires one of his three goals against Wigan on Boxing Day
‘He has never complained once, never missed a training session and I don’t go along with the theory that he only does it against the lesser sides. He got a hat-trick against Liverpool last year — are they a small team
‘Finishers are finishers. He got 21 goals last season. If he gets 21 this year, we will be delighted. He’s got five or six from limited appearances, so his ratio is very good.’
The recent vilification of Blackburn boss Steve Kean underlines how the demands of managing in the Barclays Premier League show no sign of letting up. As Ferguson enters his eighth decade, is the strain starting to tell
‘I’m not getting into that,’ came the terse reply. ‘I’m fed up listing birthdays. Wait until you get to 70 and you will understand what I’m talking about.’
There was, however, an early present in the shape of Ferguson’s second success at the races in 24 hours with Tadabeer’s win at Lingfield. The Scot owns the three-year-old gelding with his friend, casino owner Sotirios Hassiakos. Ferguson’s chaser Harry The Viking won at Doncaster on Thursday.