David O’Leary played a record 722 matches for Arsenal over 19 years, and yet the last time I saw him at Highbury he could not leave the away dugout without thousands of home supporters hurling abuse. He could scarcely ha
ve been less popular if he had been wearing a Tottenham Hotspur hat and scarf.
The Gooners had noted his constant carping at Arsène Wenger, the endless babble of criticism when O’Leary was Leeds United manager and let him know, loudly, that he had been banished from their affections. His mouth had carried him across an invisible line.
I bring this up in the light of Mark Hughes’s battle with Sir Alex Ferguson, a managerial duel that appears to have escalated every time one of them has spoken in the past few weeks.
On Sunday, during the unforgettable Manchester derby, the effects became strikingly evident. Having walked to the touchline to shout at the referee, Hughes glanced up at some United fans behind the dugout on his return to his seat.
By words and by gesture, they let Hughes know, as forcibly and crudely as they could, that he was now the enemy. And the way that the United-City rivalry is being re-stoked, those 50 fans might be 500 the next time the clubs meet. How long before they become 50,000?
How long, in short, before one of the most revered players ever to pull on a United shirt becomes every bit as reviled at Old Trafford as Arsène Wenger or Rafael Benítez? Before the player once ranked the ninth greatest United legend, above Denis Law, in a poll by the official club magazine, is demonised?
It is a question for United fans to consider. After all, if Hughes is a success at City, would they not then be wanting him back?
In the case of Hughes, an impressive man who is showing indications of being a pretty impressive manager, abusing him cannot come easy.
Hughes was such an icon as a player, so brave and so wholehearted that he used to look like he had been mud-wrestling rather than playing football. Booing O’Leary probably came easy — remember the placard from Aston Villa fans that once read: “We’re not fickle. We just don’t like you.” Hughes, for sound reasons, is widely admired.
Some United diehards believe that Hughes has brought it on himself by denigrating his former club, that he has fuelled the enmity.
And while the neutrals would point to Ferguson doing more than his share of the stirring, including the deliberately incendiary stuff about “we could have won 7-0” on Sunday, it has been notable how Hughes has sought to distance himself from his former club, to be his own man.
Perhaps it indicates that he is now working with a renewed certainty at City, having survived the threat of José Mourinho last season and gained solid backing from his wealthy Arab bosses.
Hughes speaks these days with a striking self-belief for someone not given to boasts. “I have been a Premier League manager for five years and a manager for more than ten,” he said recently. “I am comfortable in what I do and I back my judgment, and my staff, against anybody in the Premier League.”
Despite reservations from the City board, Hughes stuck firmly to his judgment in driving through the purchase of Craig Bellamy last season. How inspired that looked on Sunday as Robinho, either unfit or fitful, sat in the stands.
Perhaps Hughes has simply decided that City can provide everything for him, that he does not need to yearn to be United manager. He is certainly acting as though prepared for his popularity at Old Trafford to be a casualty of the escalating tension.
Former colleagues at Old Trafford are taken aback, not only by his success (they never had the introverted forward down as a manager) but by his apparent willingness to set himself up as an outsider — but, after the past few days, they had better get used to it.
How ironic it will be if the best of the young managers to have played and learnt under Ferguson, his potential heir, was the one most indifferent about going back.
The glory of Sir Bobby – something we can all agree on
In an industry where ten minutes of a monosyllabic player’s time is something for which we are meant to be grateful, Sir Bobby Robson stood out like the magnificent Durham Cathedral, where his life was fondly remembered yesterday.
Again and again, those providing tributes referred to the generosity of Robson’s spirit, the time he would give not only to those he knew but to strangers — even to those newspapermen who were not always his greatest admirers. I was one of the many thousands who benefited from that warm nature when researching a book about Diego Maradona. He promised a quick chat but was still talking more than two hours later about “that little rascal”.
Robson would not let his ire over the “Hand of God” diminish his appreciation of Maradona the player. So, unsure that I had fully appreciated an important point about Maradona’s ability to take the ball on the half-turn, Robson came out from behind the restaurant table and performed some phantom moves. The waitresses, like everyone else, were spellbound as Robson fox-trotted across the floor. He was more than 70 at the time.
Those couple of hours were among the most enjoyable ever spent in this job for the reason captured yesterday by the Bishop of Newcastle. “When you walked away, a little of his sparkle clung to you,” he said. Inside Durham Cathedral hundreds of heads nodded, notable ones, too, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps the greatest of managers.
“It is one of the privileges of my life to have met Bobby and been enthused by him,” he said in an address delivered without notes and straight from the heart.
Ferguson spoke movingly of how, as an awe-struck young Aberdeen manager preparing to face Robson’s mighty Ipswich Town, he came south on a scouting trip and was stunned when his rival invited him to watch training, to spy on the enemy.
“That was one of his fundamental truths about football,” Ferguson noted. “No secrets. Impart your knowledge. His generosity opened your eyes.”
There will be managers who win more (although not many) but it is very unlikely that any of them will ever be as giving as Robson. He thought nothing of sharing his knowledge, his enthusiasm.