Each year during Manchester United’s pre-season tour, Sir Alex Ferguson takes time out to talk about the issues of the day and his team’s hopes and ambitions.
This year United are on a four-match tour of Malaysia, South Korea and China, and yesterday Ferguson spent time in Kuala Lumpur’s Oriental Mandarin Hotel discussing everything from The Open, Carlos Tevez’s departure to Manchester City and the possibility of Cristiano Ronaldo returning.
Sportsmail’s Northern Football Correspondent IAN LADYMAN was there, too. Here, in full, are the thoughts of English football’s most successful manager.
It’s been another interesting summer. How do you reflect on it as you go forward?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: This particular summer defies all logic in terms of the credit crunch. You’d expect a lot of clubs to draw in their horns but, no, it’s accelerated. Due mainly to a couple of clubs, of course, namely Real Madrid and Manchester City.
Do you have any real concerns about Manchester City as a threat?
SAF: We are not any more concerned with City than with anyone else. Ourselves, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have been looked upon as the top four for the last five or six years.
If you analyse City as a team, you’d say: ‘Well, what’s their best team?’ and ‘Where would that go?’ And you’d have to think they’d still struggle to get into the top four, really. It would be hard for them to get into that top four, I think so.
What’s the difference between Chelsea spending big to win the title a few years ago and City? Is it because Chelsea were starting from a higher level?
SAF: I think Chelsea probably had a better nucleus. They bought well under Claudio Ranieri with Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Arjen Robben and so on. John Terry came through from the youth system, and they bought Petr Cech, very cheaply as it turned out, at 21.
We actually watched Cech, I watched him myself twice, and I thought, ‘nineteen years old, he’s a bit young’. But he was in the national team by the time he was 20. Looking back now, he’s maybe made about 10 mistakes in six years.
So he’s one that got away?
SAF: Yeah, but at the time I was looking for someone to replace Peter Schmeichel.
Are you disappointed at all with what Carlos Tevez has said and done?
SAF: We made contact with Carlos, I sent him texts and spoke to him when he was in Argentina. David Gill (United chief executive) made an offer to Kia Joorabchian so I spoke to Carlos before the Inter Milan game (in the spring) and said that we had spoken to Kia.
But we never heard back. In my opinion I didn’t think he was worth £25million, that’s just my judgment, maybe I’m wrong. The fans quite rightly have their heroes, and I respect the fans so I was happy to go along with a deal as long as it was the right deal.
Our success is down to the fans and their support, we need them when we are away from home to the likes of Fulham and Arsenal. But simply he was not worth £25m.
Why did you say that City still won’t get into the top four?
SAF: I didn’t say they won’t get into the top four, I said they will find it very difficult to get into the top four. It’s possible.
Aston Villa started off very well last season but then tapered away. It’s hard to stay there. It is a tough top four, that.
How difficult does City’s spending make life for managers like Martin O’Neill at Villa and Spurs’ Harry Redknapp?
SAF: It’s a good point. We are protected here at United by our titles. But expectation on them will be exactly the same as last year.
Their fans will expect them to challenge and that’s difficult for them against that kind of spending. But they are good managers. They know their jobs. Irrespective of cash, they will still make a challenge.
What do you make of City’s attempts to buy John Terry?
SAF: I think that’s understandable, given the money they’ve got. They’re not stopping. So, if I was in City’s shoes, with all that kind of money, then I would have a go at that myself. I think it’s sensible.
He has experience and is the England captain. (Smiling) For some reason they must have known that he was interested. I’m sure there have been plenty of phone calls going on.
Apparently, they were in the same hotel on holiday, weren’t they? You would never do that, would you?
SAF: (Laughing) I wouldn’t be in the same hotel, that’s for sure! I would be more discreet.
When you look down the squad list and don’t see Ronaldo’s name, what do you think?
SAF: There’s no doubt he’s a huge loss. I think it’s a challenge for us. It won’t be the same without Ronaldo. It can’t be. Without question, in my mind, he is the best player in this world of ours. By absolutely miles.
He is streets ahead of Messi, streets ahead of Kaka. Absolutely. Look at his figures. They are unbelievable. The attempts he has on goal, the attacks into the penalty box, his positions, headers, shots… it’s unbelievable.
You rarely lose players unless you really want them to go. So how difficult was it for you?
SAF: Well, it wasn’t easy. I had a good chat with the boy about it. He had made up his mind about it. Last year he was begging me and this year it was a sensible discussion.
I felt it was right. I told him I’d let him go on one condition and that was that we got the biggest fee ever for a player. And he said: ‘Right, that will do me…’
Has he been back to see you?
SAF: Yeah, he came out and we had dinner.
Have you had the best of him?
SAF: No, his best is to come yet because he is just 24 years old. I’ll be very proud because we had a part to play in it. He came to the right club at the right part of his career. He appreciates that. And he may come back, you never know…
You think he may come back to United? If things go wrong at Real?
SAF: Not so much if things go wrong. Sometimes it just happens. He loved United, he loved the club. If you look back at the six years he had with us, he never missed training.
That’s one of the things he has above all these other players — he was never injured. He always played. He was fantastic.
Does Ronaldo leaving open the door for Wayne Rooney
to claim that mantle?
SAF: Well, we are a different team now and we will shape it differently. We’ll be more compact in midfield because he [Ronaldo] was a bit loose in his defending. We’ll be more compact, but we also have the increasing maturity of players like Darren Fletcher.
Owen Hargreaves will come back, Anderson will improve, Nani will improve, Rooney will improve. I think they’ve got to improve, the young players, and we expect them to improve. I think Dimitar Berbatov will have a terrific season, too. So we’re not so bad.
How hard has it been to sit there with the money burning a hole in your pocket?
SAF: We tried to spend it on Karim Benzema. But when it went to £42m, it was beyond his value. We went to £35m and I think that was fair.
Did you try for Franck Ribery?
SAF: No. We explored it in a nice, quiet way when David Gill was at one of his meetings with them (Bayern Munich) in March. They told him, ‘absolutely no chance’ and the one thing you can say about Bayern is that, when they say something, they mean it.
Lots of managers balked at signing Michael Owen because they felt he had ‘gone’. What made you feel differently about him?
Priceless poacher: United can 'carry' Owen in their rotation system
SAF: It’s worth the risk. Sometimes you have a punt, a bet or a gamble. But there’s a little bit more than that, having spoken to one or two players about him. We’re the one club that can carry him because I rotate all the time, anyway.
I won’t ask him to play every four days. I might ask him to play every 10 days, you know. You get the same things off Owen all the time — the ball moves into the last third and he is looking to be in between players immediately.
The ball comes into the penalty box or six-yard box and he is always there.
Like the goal he scored on Saturday in Malaysia?
SAF: That was a Michael Owen goal. When Ryan Giggs was through, the first one to react behind him was Michael. All the rest of the players were watching. He gets easy goals because of that instinct.
You are champions. Will you be starting the new Premier League season as favourites?
SAF: I don’t really know, to be honest with you. I’d like to see the betting.
Respect: Sir Alex admires Wenger's club loyalty
You’ve lost Ronaldo. Will that make the league a lot more competitive?
SAF: It will give teams a bit more encouragement. They’ll all be delighted that we’ve lost Ronaldo, no question about that.
How long has it taken to get over losing 2-0 to Barcelona in the Champions League final in Rome?
SAF: It was very disappointing.
What went wrong?
SAF: I know exactly what went wrong, but I’m not going to get into it. We threw it away, I will say that. I’m not getting into it at all. It’s not even worth talking about.
Is that your attitude to football?
Look forwards not backwards?
SAF: I don’t want to talk about it.
Did you watch the golf last night?
SAF: I did. It was an anti-climax. Lee Westwood threw it away and Tom Watson was just knackered.
His last putt showed he was knackered. Just tired.
Anyway…Will it be the same top four again in the Premier League or has it become a top three with Arsenal losing Emmanuel Adebayor to City?
SAF: Arsenal have got the biggest test to be where they want to be, I think. I know that Arsene Wenger doesn’t have any money, I know that. I think that selling Adebayor — well, whether he can use that money is another question.
There seems to be evidence that he can’t use the money, I don’t know. I think they’re struggling cash-wise. It’s a big test for Arsenal.
Why does Wenger stay?
SAF: I think Arsenal is his club. He has built it in his image and it’s hard to leave it. He will never have the time to rebuild another club like Arsenal if he went off elsewhere.
He realises that at his age. He could have gone to Real Madrid, but is Real Madrid his kind of club? I don’t think so.
And do you have the same mantra? Keep on going as long as you are fit and healthy?
SAF: Yes, exactly. No decisions made.