Sir Alex Ferguson Exclusive: Sir Bobby Robson, Usain Bolt, Barcelona, Burnley, 4-3-3 vs 4-4-2 & More

The legendary manager talks all things football & beyond...
Exclusive to, Inside United magazine speaks to Sir Alex Ferguson on Sir Bobby Robson, Premier League rivals, Wayne Rooney and the infamous defeat against Burnley.

Firstly, were you impressed by the reception the late Sir Bobby Robson received from football supporters around the country?

That was what you expected. Don’t forget he was, to my mind, probably the biggest football figure in the country. That’s not just to individual sets of supporters like at Ipswich or Newcastle, but every fan in the country acknowledged that this was a special man and gave him the acclaim he deserved. It was very good to see – he was a top, top man.

Which of our rivals have impressed you in the early stages of the season?

Everyone’s optimistic; they all think they can win the league. Everyone hopes for the same things that can win you the league – no injuries and winning all your games. It’s that kind of positivity that keeps everyone going.

After the setback at Burnley, how pleased were you with recent performances?

We had to recover from that defeat. It was a shock for a lot of reasons. The only thing you can really count on at this club is how you recover from defeat, which we did in a bit of style. It was a bonus that all the strikers scored, too. That’s the area in which we really need to do better this season. Last season was our lowest goals tally since the Premier League started, so it was an unusual season in that respect. We need to do something about that, and when strikers are scoring four of the five goals, you know you’re getting the right kind of response.

Do you believe all three of them (strikers) have a point to prove?

I think strikers are a wee bit like that. They’ll be judged by the goals they score – that’s why they’re called strikers. When they’re not scoring they’re not the same people. It’s only when they’re finding the net that you see their mood change to one of enjoyment and personal satisfaction. That will never change.

Wayne Rooney in particular looks in red-hot form. Do you think he is relishing the challenge of filling the gap left by Cristiano Ronaldo?

I don’t think he looks at it that way. Wayne Rooney always wants to do well and play well. The boy’s got a real hunger and drive about him. He has so much energy that sometimes he overdoes it in the sense that he wants to use it all; he’ll drop into midfield or he’ll go outside left. But he’s young, and young players tend to sometimes be that way – they want to spend all their energy on the pitch. But if he concentrates like he did at Wigan and spends more time in the central areas rather than the wide positions, then he will get goals. There’s no doubt about that.

How impressed have you been with Antonio Valencia’s adaptation to life at United?

We rested him against Burnley because you don’t know how new players will handle two games in four days at United. But against Wigan and after that he did very, very well. He is a constant threat, which was nice to see because we’ve always liked to have wingers here. It’s difficult to maintain that tradition because it’s hard to get players with the qualities you’re looking for. We’re always trying to find wingers or develop young players at our club to be wingers. With Valencia, he’s a natural. His ability to beat men and cross the ball is a big feature of his game. He’s a powerful boy too, and he could be the fastest player we have here now.

Who do you think our biggest rivals will be in Europe this season?
It’s hard to look past Barcelona.

They won it last year and will be the favourites again this time around, no question about that.

Would you say that 4-4-2 is going to be your preferred system this season?

No, there will be a lot of games we play in 4-3-3. We’re flexible that way.

What did you make of the ‘phantom goal’ that Freddie Sears scored for Crystal Palace, only for the officials to miss it?

It’s happened before. I remember Clive Allen doing exactly the same some years ago, when he hit the stanchion and it bounced out. There was another goal quite a while back where the ball hit the side netting and ended up in the net, and the referee gave the goal! So I don’t know how the referee would explain it. The poor guy was axed from the list for a couple of weeks, but what was the assistant doing? It’s obviously an aberration; one of these things where the referee’s made a big mistake. There’s no other reason than he’s made a mistake and there’s no way out for him.

Are you an advocate of goal-line technology to avoid that kind of human error?

I’m an advocate of improving the game as best we can. It’s a big debate because the powers that be – [UEFA president Michel] Platini and [FIFA president Sepp] Blatter – are against it. They want to use human abilities – i.e. four extra assistants. It’s difficult to say which would cost you more money: the technology or more people involved in the game. Would they have the proper communication? It’s a difficult one. If you can make the technology so that it’s foolproof beyond question, then you have to believe it would help.

There are many clubs from Greater Manchester and Lancashire in the top-flight at the moment. Why do you think football is booming in this part of the country?

The North West has always been good for football. With Burnley coming back up after 30-odd years, it gives Lancashire in particular a strong presence in the Premier League. If you go back to the 1960s, Preston, Blackburn, Bolton were all First Division teams. The only one that’s missing now is Preston. Back in the 1950s Blackpool were a big team. They had a powerful team with Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen, Jimmy Armfield – great players, and there was the Liverpool and Everton presence of course. Now only Preston and Blackpool are missing from the Premier League from the North West. Preston you can see going close to promotion this season, Blackpool still have a bit to catch up but they have a good, experienced manager in Ian Holloway. It’s good for this part of the world, and it’s good for us because it means less travelling. Although we could do without defeats to Burnley!

How do you feel the lads on loan have started the season?

Tom Cleverley started off at Watford very well with goals in his first two games. I spoke to Malky Mackay at Watford and he’s very pleased with him. I also spoke to Lee Clark at Huddersfield and he’s very pleased with Danny Drinkwater. It’s a challenge for those two, who are good young players, to come back to us and be better than they were. They’ve got bright futures, they all have. We’ve a good stream of young players coming through the club and they’re all doing well.

When are we likely to see Gabriel Obertan in action?

He’s had a spine problem, but I think he’ll be back in a few weeks’ time. We’re taking our time with him because we want him back and at 100 per cent. He’s very quick, he can play both sides or through the middle and he brings a real versatility to us. At 16 he was one of the outstanding young talents in Europe, and he’s said to us that over this last year and a half he’s been playing with a back injury and no-one thought about getting a scan. We expect big things from him. He’s a nice boy, speaks good English and should have no problem settling in.

Tell us a bit about Mame Biram Diouf – what kind of player is he and where does he fit into your plans?

He’s on loan at the moment with Molde and he’ll stay there until January, at which point we’ll make a decision over whether to apply for a work permit for him or leave him there for the full season. He’s a powerful boy, quick as hell, good in the air, 21 years of age and he’s done very well at Molde. Playing in Norway is similar to playing here in terms of climate, so we’ve not got an issue with that either. Adem Ljajic is another player who we have on loan, at Partizan Belgrade, and he’ll join us in January. He’s doing very well. He was the star for Serbia at the UEFA Under-19 Championships over the summer.

Has the progress of those two played any part in your decision not to make any more signings in attack?

It’s not that. It’s just that we don’t see any value about in the market, so we’re quite happy with what we’ve got at the moment.

How do United continue to find these young gems, both at home and abroad?

We’re very vigorous in our scouting. We have to be, to be ahead of the game. We like to get young players because we can develop them. They all seem to improve a lot when they come over here. In terms of the tradition of the club, finding and developing young players goes back a long way. Young players coming into the Manchester United first team is not unusual – it’s part of the club’s make-up.

The League Cup celebrates its 50th year this season. What is your all-time highlight from your experiences of the competition?

I remember when we beat Arsenal 6-2 at Highbury in 1990, which was an absolutely terrific performance. We got to the final that year and lost to Sheffield Wednesday, and we’d beaten Liverpool in the third round as well. It was a great performance to go and score six goals at Highbury. Lee Sharpe got a hat-trick, but I’ll always remember the performance of Danny Wallace that night. He was absolutely magnificent. We played him through the middle as a centre-forward alongside Mark Hughes and he ran them ragged. It was a hell of a result, and my best memory of the competition.

What’s been your non-football sporting highlight of the year?

Usain Bolt [breaking world records for the 100 metres and 200 metres sprints] was a tremendous feat, incredible. I mean, when you watch the actual race, it was absolutely jaw-dropping. He didn’t even seem to be flat out, which was just unbelievable. That has to go down as one of the highlights of the year. He’s only 23 so he’s got time to improve as well.

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