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Ferguson's blind spot over Blanc; Manager in denial on errors.

Byline: David Mullahey

IN LIFE, they say, we all mistakes - even Sir Alex Ferguson.

And by general consent, one of the Scotsman's few major gaffes was his decision to leave Alan Hansen out of his 1986 Scotland World Cup squad.

Ferguson, who had taken charge of the national team temporarily after the sudden death of Jock Stein from a heart attack in the closing minutes of the final qualifying game against Wales in Cardiff, had his reasons, nevertheless.

In the build-up to the finals in Mexico, Hansen appeared injury prone and had dropped out of the Wales match at short notice, which caused the actingmanager to question both his fitness and his commitment.

To his eternal credit, the Liverpool defender took the news of his omission with dignity and forbearance. "Fine. I understand it's difficult. You can't take everybody, " was Ferguson's recollection of the player's reaction in his autobiography.

In the event, Scotland looked vulnerable at the back as they failed to progress to the knockout stages from a first-round group that included Uruguay and West Germany.

Hansen, though, refused to gloat and, throughout his post-retirement career as a media pundit, he has shown himself to be one of Ferguson's staunchest supporters.

With the possible exception of his illfated, opening-day-of-season "you win nothing with kids" verdict on the Manchester United team of 1995-96, the former centre-back has consistently defended Ferguson's decisions when the flak has been flying fiercest in his direction.

It came as something of a shock then that Hansen, presiding on BBC1copyrights Match of the Day panel, should deliver a damning verdict on the recruitment of Laurent Blanc into United's backline after the Frenchman's errors had contributed to Saturday's 2-0 FA Cup fourth round defeat at Middlesbrough.

To an extent, Ferguson's unswerving support for the faltering Blanc has become the most recent symbol of his characteristic stubborn belief in his own judgement, even in the face of the most contrary public and media opinion.

But now that Hansen, a man who has all but elevated the study of defending in football to the level of a science, is aboard the bandwagon of criticism, the United manager somehow seems to be standing more alone than ever.

Hansen expounded the theory that Blanc's fear of being beaten for pace causes him to retreat and stand off opposing players, thus permitting them more room in which to get in a shot or make a defence-splitting pass.

Against Liverpool last week, for example, the Frenchman's failure to get close to Danny Murphy allowed the midfielder the time and space he needed to control Steven Gerrard's through-ball and lob Fabien Barthez for the game's only goal.

In this way, Blanc also risks leaving himself isolated, undermining United's offside trap and causing so much uncertainty among his fellow defenders that they cease to function as a unit.

The ice having been broken, Hansen's fellow pundit and one time Daily Post columnist Mark Lawrenson, made the point that the Premiership has the fastest tempo of any league in Europe and for a defender who never possessed great pace even at the peak of his career, to try to adapt to it at the age of 36 is a virtually impossible task.

True, Blanc's performances during United's eight-match unbeaten run, and again in Tuesday night's 4-0 victory at Bolton, have shown improvement. But this has come at a price of employing Roy Keane in a deep, protective role in front of the back four.

The captain's scope to join the attack has, in turn, been reduced, not least in matches such as the defeats by Liverpool and at The Riverside, where United failed to score and would also have benefited from a further penetrative option.

Unfortunately, slow-footedness is not Blanc's only conspicuous current deficiency.

For a player who stands 6ft 4ins tall, he is still too often beaten to headers in defensive situations. At other times, he is guilty of a lack of awareness.

Perhaps it his something to do with his being an incurable Francophile, with his wine collection, his holidays on the Cite d'Azur and his endearing, occasionally hilarious attempts to communicate in the Gallic tongue with the French contingent in his first-team squad, but Ferguson appears to be in a state of denial as far as the man they call Le President is concerned.

In a recent MUTV interview, the United manager maintained that the former European Championshipwinning captain could not be blamed for any of the goals his team had conceded since his arrival at Old Trafford.

Of course, it is quite possible that Ferguson was taking the Mickey, in the knowledge he could quite safely blame a bad result on hobgoblins in his flowerbeds and the reporter from the club's in-house TV station would not merely nod concurringly, but make a mental note to use this as a starting point for a future interview ("Sir Alex, you have, quite rightly, identified mythical, garden dwelling creatures as a factor in the team's recent problems . . .").

The Old Trafford boss has also spoken about how much the younger defenders in his squad have learned from the elder statesman in the rearguard, but this rather ignores the fact that the Frenchman has been signed, first and foremost, as a player rather than a coach.

For all of his occasional pigheadedness, however, Ferguson is no fool, and with the prospective return from injury of Wes Brown and Ronnie Johnsen, it is surely inconceivable that the Scot will risk a barren end to his managerial career by persevering with the ageing Blanc if his errors persist towards the climax of this season's Premiership and Champions League competitions.

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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jan 31, 2002
Words:944
Previous Article:Moore is merrier.
Next Article:Sir Alex Ferguson.


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