Ferguson's phone call is making all the difference
It seems barely credible to think that in a football season that takes in 380 Premier League matches, involving more than 400 different players and countless debatable refereeing decisions, so much can hinge on a private conversation between two men that took place before a ball was kicked.
Back in August, Alex Ferguson picked up the phone and dialled Arsene Wenger’s number. It was a pivotal moment. That dialogue provided the revs needed for United to go the “extra mile” that Ferguson deemed necessary to swing the deal for Robin van Persie. The two men talked. Conversations of this nature are not always entirely comfortable, especially in this particular situation.
Weakening the other
One of them was in the business of helping himself while weakening the other. And both knew it. Several months down the line, Wenger pauses for a moment as he recalls the tone of the exchange, searching for the right word. “Professional,” is the one he plumps for, although the hint of a knowing smile suggests the negotiations may have been infused with a touch more emotion. “It was a very professional phone call, and there was more than one,” he adds, arching an eyebrow. “I will tell you the rest another day.” That is quite the teaser.
Ferguson felt compelled to pull out all the stops because Van Persie ticked every box on his wish list. As a footballer, the evidence had been overwhelming during a season when he was crowned Footballer of the Year. As a professional, Van Persie’s behaviour in recent years made him much loved and admired by those with whom he worked. Although his advancing age meant United had to break their usual pattern for signings, with players young enough to have a resale value the norm these days, his experience was also a glowing attraction.
Ferguson wanted to inject some more authority into the team. It is far too early for the comparisons with Eric Cantona to be meaningful, but what Van Persie has achieved in his first few months at United is an aura. There is a feeling that he can be the hub, the inspiration, the man that can dig United out of a hole. It is no coincidence that the name most often and most lustily sung by the Old Trafford crowd, other than Cantona’s, is his.
Wenger sounded ever so slightly nostalgic as he reflected on how everything was in place for Van Persie to prosper right from the start at United.
Wenger says he does not find it painful to watch Van Persie delivering, decisively, game after game in a different shade of red. “But what is painful is to see United so far in front of us,” he says. “We knew when we sold him to United that would be the case.” That is a stark admission from Arsenal’s perspective. From a United point of view, when he picked up that phone, Ferguson sure knew what he was doing.