Ferguson remains the 'mind games' master

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For 25 years, Sir Alex Ferguson has been the most important man at Manchester United.

Superstars have come and gone - think David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Eric Cantona. The list goes on and on, but these three are the most high-profile examples of those who have worked under the hand of Ferguson.

And yet, the aforementioned three's departures from Old Trafford were never allowed to lead to a slump in form or lack of success at the club. One of Ferguson's great strengths is an ability to re-build whenever a key component in his side leaves (often for a healthy profit).

But, Ferguson's ability to play 'mind games' with opponents is renowned throughout football, and is perhaps an even bigger strength than the more direct and obvious styles of management that have helped mould the Scot.

Of course, the term 'mind games' is something of a myth in itself, shaped largely by United's successful title chase in the 1995-96 season, when Kevin Keegan appeared to wilt under the pressure of Ferguson's comments as Newcastle blew their chance of Premier League glory.

It's not the only time Ferguson has got under a manager, club or organisation's skin during his reign at United.

His feud with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was well-documented, and led to years of bad blood between both the managers and clubs. In truth, their rivalry in the late 90s and early 00s was the finest era in Premier League football thus far.

Manchester City have also felt the wrath of Ferguson - unsurprising given their recent rise to prominence after years languishing behind their illustrious neighbours. Fergie was quick to brand Roberto Mancini's side a 'small club' after landing Carlos Tevez.

And then there is Liverpool. The feud with Rafa Benitez was, and still is, the stuff of legend. Whilst the Spaniard managed to bring European and domestic cup success to Anfield, he was never able to usurp United for the biggest prize in English football.

Benitez's exit led to Roy Hodsgon's arrival, but his reign on Merseyside was short-lived, with old foe Kenny Dalglish stepping-up to take the challenge 13 months ago.

On the pitch, 'King Kenny's' reign must be judged a success, taking a side from the bottom-half of the table to European challengers in just over a year.

However, the recent Luis Suarez affair has left the Scot facing uncomfortable questions, and whilst his loyalty to the Reds is unquestioned, the Uruguayan's actions at Old Trafford left him up the proverbial creek.

There is little doubt that Liverpool's reputation has been tarnished by the affair. Manchester United, on the other hand, have come out of the whole episode smelling like roses.

And Ferguson, unwilling to resist the chance of a swipe at the great rivals, was quick to give his opinion on the handshake that wasn't post-match on Saturday.

"I’d get rid of him. Liverpool have a player banned for eight matches and they’ve tried to blame Patrice Evra. It’s him they should be blaming," Fergie told reporters.

"He could cost them a European place. I just could not believe it [when Suárez refused to shake hands]. Patrice and I had a chat this morning and he said: 'I’m going to shake his hand, I have nothing to be ashamed of, I’m going to keep my dignity.’ And he [Suárez] refuses.

"He is a disgrace to Liverpool Football Club. That player should not be allowed to play for Liverpool again. The history that club has got ... and he does that. It could have caused a riot. I was really disappointed in that guy. It was a terrible start to the game, a terrible atmosphere it created."

And, following apologies from Dalglish and Suarez late on Saturday evening, United gracefully accepted and urged everyone to move on from the issue.

Ferguson's calculating comments can be seen in two ways. One, an instant response to an incident, or two, a blatant attempt to rile Liverpool.

Indeed, his remarks led to press speculation over Suarez's future the following day, and forced Liverpool to deny that the former Nacional starlet would be leaving the club.

True, much of the media spotlight was brought on by the actions of their own player, but Ferguson's ability to add a little extra spice to the fire was a master's tough in the aftermath of the incident, and gained extra headlines around the world.

Taking the focus away from his own side is a skill Ferguson has always known the importance of, putting pressure on opponents whilst keeping his own problems and issues 'in-house'.

When things work against United or Ferguson, the Scot builds a siege-mentality. He avoided interviews with the BBC, and banned a journalist for asking a question about Ryan Giggs to provide just two such examples.

The beauty of Ferguson's role at United is that the club are happy for him to enjoy a role as dictator. His way is the right way, and it's the case because of the unprecedented success he's achieved with United.

That he manages to anger other top clubs is a bonus for the loyal supporters, and one of the reasons why he manages to polarise opinion. There is no doubting that he's a master of the managerial art, though.

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