8 January ~ We are a broad church, but Manchester United fans all have one thing in common. Each of us has wasted too much of our lives criticising Alex Ferguson. The manager is not beyond reproach. His love-in with the Glazers and abrasive manner are perplexing, but in light of his success at the club, the abuse directed at the way he manages his team is astounding. Ferguson deserved all the accolades he was given on his 25th anniversary at the club in November. When Arsenal are willing to build a statue of a player who left them to further his career and win something in Europe, it is only right United rename one of Old Trafford's stands in honour of a manager who has taken them to five European finals.
You don't have to refer back to the halcyon days of the 1990s to dismiss Ferguson's doubters. Within the last five years he has won four Premier Leagues and taken the club to three Champions League finals with a net spend of £57 million – less than that of Stoke City (£61m), Sunderland (£63m), Aston Villa (£68m), Tottenham Hotspur (£76m), Liverpool (£84m) and Chelsea (£145m). Manchester City might have started with a lower base, but their outlay of £437m in the same period goes some way to explaining their three-point lead at the top of the League.
Two decades of success has inoculated and ruined many United fans. Losing a couple of games, or even winning without playing well – the mark of all title-winning teams according to the men on the Match of the Day sofa – is greeted too often with the immature rage of a spoilt child who didn't get what he wanted for Christmas.
We might be Manchester United, but we don't do what we want. The club was not born with the Premier League title in its trophy cabinet. Other exceptional teams can win things too – it happened with Arsene Wenger's Invincibles, with Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and it could happen with the current Manchester City side. The United fans that lay into players after every defeat and kick their own club while it's down have a curious way of showing their support. Passion isn't measured by how angry you become when Darren Gibson misplaces a pass or Michael Carrick misses a tackle.
To listen to these spoilt fans in the last few months you would think the team is hovering over the relegation places. In reality, they have more points now than they had at this stage of last season, when they went on to win an all-time record 19th League title.
When United were knocked out of the Champions League in December, many fans thought Roy Keane's criticisms of the team summed up the situation perfectly. Keane has every right to criticise United. He was being paid to offer interesting opinions – a job he does better than most of his colleagues on television – and he knows what it takes to be successful in Europe. But he should know better than to question Alex Ferguson's promotion of young players. Not only is that philosophy engraved in United's very core, but it is also an area in which Keane has prior form for misguided comment.
Back in 2005, Keane's departure from the club was hastened by comments he directed at young players in the squad. among others, Keane criticised the development of Darren Fletcher and Rio Ferdinand – players who went on to win the Champions League three years later and are being eulogised by United fans now they are absent through injury.
Ferguson's retort to his former captain highlighted the real truth in the matter: "Roy had an opportunity to prove himself as a manager and it's a difficult job". The United manager's greatest problem is that he has made his job look too easy. He has dealt with the challenges of Newcastle, Blackburn, Arsenal and Chelsea – and as he now tries to deal with the challenge from City he deserves some patience and respect from the club's supporters.
When the two Manchester clubs meet in the FA Cup derby this afternoon, two of football's universal truths will come to a head. On one hand, and in City's favour, is the principle that the most expensive team generally wins in the end. But on the other is the plain truth that Alex Ferguson knows more about winning football matches than the rest of us. On current form, and in light of United's injuries, it is hard to see past a home win. But if United are to overcome the odds and economics, in this game or by the end of the season, it will be because of Ferguson. City fans know it so it is about time some United fans realised it too. Paul Campbell