The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ferguson will die on the bench of United: Cantona
- United manager’s obsession with soccer

From seagulls to trawlers, any Eric Cantona pronouncement makes fascinating listening and on Monday, on a flying visit to England to accept an award as the Premier League’s overseas player of the decade, the French philosopher observed that Sir Alex Ferguson was so obsessed with football that he would die at the post.

“Ferguson loves football,” Cantona said. “He will die on the bench of Manchester United — I am sure of that.” .As with many of Cantona’s comments, such an observation does not bear the closest scrutiny. Ferguson is brutally aware of the consequences of a manager pushing himself too hard, too long in such a stressful role.

As Jock Stein’s Scotland assistant in 1985, Ferguson was on the bench when Stein suffered his fatal heart attack at Ninian Park. When Gerard Houllier endured his heart scare, Ferguson was one of the first on the phone to Liverpool’s stricken manager. Ferguson has life more in perspective than many believe.

Yet Cantona is convinced that Ferguson will never retire, that matches like Wednesday’s epic-looking, championship-shaping visit to Highbury will ensure the Scot never stops.

“Ferguson likes other things in life but football is his life,” Cantona, 36, said. “I quit the game too young [30] but I didn’t have the passion to keep going to bed early, not going out with friends and not drinking.”

While Cantona is making films and, judging by his enhanced stature, sampling some of his country’s finer Epicurean delights, the hunger for football still burns within Ferguson. “For me, Ferguson was the perfect manager when I came to United,” Cantona continued.

“I needed to blossom and to do that I needed to love and respect someone 100 per cent. You can talk about new managers from France bringing things to the game but Ferguson is the one who gives so much to football. He is obsessive about training, about what to drink, eat and what time to sleep.

“Some managers in England don’t do that. They are fat and drink beer; how could players respect managers like that' They would drink and not stay fit themselves.

Ferguson showed an example to us and we followed. United can buy the best but Ferguson never forgets youth players; 50 per cent of the team came through the youth set-up.”

Many of those, such as Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs (if fit) and David Beckham (if fit and selected) will be on parade at Arsenal, possibly even the new rising star, John O’Shea. “I see a draw and United as champions,” Cantona concluded. “The last few games of the championship is all about pressure and United have the stronger players mentally.”

Roy Keane, United’s toughest player mentally, bizarrely did not get voted into the Premiership dream team revealed on Monday. The Irishman may be a fading force physically but no other individual has had a more sustained impact on the Premiership down the years.

“I’m surprised Keane is not on the list — for me, he’s the player of the decade,” Cantona said.

“He’s the leader of United. He’s defensively very good, scores goals and has vision. Keane was a key player for United and still is one of the key players. It’s very sad. He deserved the prize. He’s a strange character and that does not help him.”

Meanwhile, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s performance in Saturday’s 6-2 win at Newcastle United, cutting in from the right in the absence of Beckham, has inevitably lent extra colour to speculation about Beckham being transferred to Real Madrid.

The move makes commercial sense for the Spanish, given Beckham’s iconic status in the Far East, but it throws up footballing problems.

Real need a youthful successor to Fernando Hierro not an English shadow for the in-form Luis Figo. Suggestions that Beckham would replace either Claude Makelele or Flavio Conceicao in central midfield appear strange: coach Vicente Del Bosque likes and needs two gritty holding midfielders to build the stage for the virtuosos.

“Real Madrid are very vicious,” Cantona said. “I’m not surprised there are stories about Beckham at a time when the two clubs are playing [in the Champions League]; maybe it was timed to affect Beckham’s mind. But Beckham is a top player with a good personality and, if it is true, I’m not surprised Real are interested.”

If Real offer up to £38 million, United should leap at the chance, particularly given Solskjaer’s form and the lingering tension between Ferguson and Beckham.

The last word went to Cantona, who was asked about the significance of his seagulls and trawler remark, perceived as a reference to celebrity players being pursued by the media.

“I was dreaming at night and wrote certain words down and then put them together,” he said.

“It should have meant something but we don’t know exactly.” Mystery' More like mickey-taking.

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