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The Dalton Report: It's All Gone Wrong At Man United
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A season to forget for Sir Alex - for many reasons (Allsport)
05/06/2002. The Agony etched on his face said it all, once again Alex Ferguson had failed. So close to taking his team to Hampden but once again failed on the big stage just like they had 12 months earlier against, Bayern Munich.

After that game, Captain Roy Keane had said "this team is finished" meaning that there had to be fresh faces and different ideas if United were to rediscover the dizzy heights of "That" night in Barcelona in May 1999.

Early indications were that they were on the way to doing that, bringing in Dutch Hitman Ruud Van Nistelrooy for a British record fee of £19m, and the startling capture of Lazio and Argentine Midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron, smashing their own record by this time paying £28.1m for his services. Ryan Giggs finally appearing fit after his hamstring trouble, it seemed nothing could stop Utd from retaining their Premiership trophy and in doing so, creating history as the first side to win it 4 times in a row.

Then came the startling revelation that this indeed would be Ferguson's last year at the helm and that the search for a new manager would start immediately. Straight away contenders were being drawn up in the media with Celtic manager Martin O'Neill and Italian Fabio Capello installed as favourites for the hot seat. Ferguson's supposed preference was for Bayern Munich's Ottmar Hitzfeld but he quickly ruled himself a non-runner.

The usual nauseating, fawning lackeys in the popular press, crawled down from up Alex's arse long enough to prattle on about "One last Hoorah, in Europe", "Let's do it for the Gov'nor" and that sort of tosh and sadly, even David Beckham was prompted to say that they would try to go through the season undefeated. Poor old David was wiping the omelette off of his face before the season had started! as United lost their first competitive game 2-1 to their old adversaries Liverpool in the Charity Shield 2-1. This set the tone for the season.

Fulham were the first visitors to Old Trafford and the expected steamrollering didn't occur. It was a very nervy start, Louis Saha causing the Utd defence all kinds of problems and scoring twice to put Utd 2-1 down. Saving their blushes Van Nistelrooy and Beckham scored one a-piece to see Utd squeak a undeserving 3-2 victory.

The warning signs were there for all to see, Stam, less than impressive and constantly getting outpaced by the nippy French striker Saha must have been a worry as he had been a colossus the previous season, dominated the domestic scene.

No-one will ever know the real reason why Stam was sold to Lazio, many reasons have been mooted, and you can draw your own conclusions, Stam had just released a auto-biography in which he alleged that he had been "tapped up" by Ferguson before he completed his £10.75m move from PSV Eindhoven this certainly angered Ferguson, but the Ferguson apologists with 20-20 hindsight suggested the real reason was the shocking news that only months after Stam's move to the blue half of the Italian capital, he was caught having the banned substance Nandrolone in his system and was subsequently banned. However with the spate of drug busts involving a number of Italian clubs in the last season it seems doubtful, but a convenient excuse.

The other reason that Ferguson claims is that he had to balance the books after splashing out on Van Nistelrooy and Veron but surely he could of sold other players on the fringe of the squad to make way.
With both Old Trafford and the Premiership reeling from the surprising decision by Sir Alex, the almighty red machine showed signs of needing an M.O.T. There was dissension in the camp with both Keane and Van Nistelrooy voicing sadness at the departure of their colleague and team-mate, Van Nistelrooy told FourFourTwo Magazine " I would phone Jaap from the supermarket and he ask him what Orange Juice was best over here, its sad to think he won't be around for that anymore"

Keane outspoken as ever said of Stam that he had been "sold like a cow" and speculation was rife as to which big name replacement, would be appearing. Names such as, Ayala, Hofland and Nesta were all touted as the one to replace Stam but we were all fooled by the choice of Laurent Blanc a defender with all the credentials having enjoyed success at teams like Marseille and recently Inter Milan but surely he was four years too late?

Best known for his performances in France' 98 where he scored the "Golden Goal" to take France through against Paraguay in the second round, he endeared himself to the world with his kissing Barthez's shiny dome for good luck before every game. He also got massive sympathy worldwide, when in the semi-final he was disgracefully sent off for a tussle with Slaven Bilic ,which saw the cheating ,Croatian scumbag giving an Oscar winning performance pretending he was head butted. His retirement from football with a reoccurring knee injury saw him pass unnoticed and unmissed by most of the football world.

Ferguson has always been a keen admirer of Blanc's and has publicly been a fan of the Frenchman for many years but many people were wondering if the Frenchman could stand the rigour and pace of English football at the latter end of his career.

So Blanc it was, joining Utd on a free transfer and the hope that the effect of Stam's departure on the rest of the team would be minimal. Newly promoted Bolton came to Old Trafford off the back of some impressive results but were not expected to take anything from the game but the unthinkable happened, Michael Ricketts inspired his team to a shock 2-1 victory, The best and funniest chant of the season must surely be "Can we play you every week " from the handful of Bolton fans allowed into fortress Trafford.

This sent a message to Arsenal and Liverpool that Manchester United were vulnerable. Both would take advantage with home wins over United. West Ham were the next "little" team to do the previously unthinkable and inflicting on United another home defeat thanks to Jermaine Defoe's goal. Despite Sir Alex sullenly conceding the title race as they were to far adrift of Liverpool and CO in his eyes, the rest knew better than to believe these words and it signalled a typical burst of form as they embarked on a run which saw them brush off teams like Southampton and Sunderland, and ensure a place in the Quarter finals of the Champions League.

But still questions were being asked, as they crashed out of the F.A Cup to lowly Middlesborough. thanks to a defensive mistake by Blanc The glaring absence of their half-man half monster, Jaap Stam only highlighted Blanc's inadequacy and would not have happened had he been there. In the league they were victims of a late Liverpool "smash and grab", when Danny Murphy's 90th minute strike gave Liverpool and undeserved 1-0 win.

Media speculation was still rumbling on about the successor to Ferguson's throne but they weren't any
closer to naming the successor when Ferguson announced he was staying and signed a new three-year contract. Maybe Utd couldn't persuade anyone of stature to take over, or maybe Ferguson knew that the team wasn't good enough to go to the promised land of European glory, and with next season's Champions League Final taking place in Old Trafford, what better way to go out than with a victory in dear old Manchester.

If Arsenal do go on to complete their second double under Arsene Wenger it will be a triumph for the Frenchman in both the footballing and psychological war between these old adversaries. It would on the surface seem impossible to improve on winning a double but Ferguson's' constant sniping and carping about Arsenal has made the prospect even sweeter.

In the last few weeks he has tipped Bolton to beat Arsenal, they didn't, he then tipped Chelsea to beat them for the F.A Cup, they didn't, and he stated it isn't over yet, it is.

His statement that since Christmas, his team have been the best in England when facts prove that Arsenal are 5 points clear, they haven't lost away all season, they in fact have only lost three times compared to Utd losing 8 games this season, and with Arsenal on a run of not losing in 25 domestic ties since Newcastle's 3-1 win at Highbury on Dec 18 it proves Mr Ferguson is after all the Govan Gobsh**e we've long suspected, who never allows the facts to cloud his opinions.

Simple truth is that Utd have had a good season, they are contesting the league and reached the semi-final of a European Competition but in this day and age, it comes across as a failure, and with reports of an Internal bust-up concerning Juan Veron, has capped off a miserable season for them. Veron has never fitted in at Utd for one very good reason, Roy Keane is "The Gov'nor" in Uniteds midfield and he isn't about to give it up.

At Lazio and international level, it's "his" midfield with everything going through "him" as he dictates play. Second fiddle isn't a position he will readily accept and it seems disillusion with the Red's is well set in, judging by his lacklustre performances lately. A return to Italy seems likely.

I shall be writing to you from Wales next week ( I know I'm a week late! ) on a well deserved holiday before gearing up for the World Cup, which you can get all the info required at www.soccerage.com so until then, I welcome all comments as I try to be both honest and occasionally outspoken, at only nineteen what I lack in experience I make up for in enthusiasm.

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