Karl Marx never lived to witness the gathering of plutocrats at Manchester United's training centre in Portugal a couple of weeks back, but he had a maxim prepared just the same: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce…"
Déjà vu swept over the land as reports emerged of an "explosive" row between Roy Keane and his manager over the gulf between Keane's expectations of summer training camp and the happy-go-lucky reality.
The story goes that Keane was angry that he had been dragged in for a week of hard pre-season training only to find himself trapped in some kind of millionaire's Butlins with people like Rio Ferdinand. Instead of putting themselves through hell in pursuit of the Holy Grail of Premiership success (United's Holy Grail used to be the European Cup, but things have changed), his teammates were slacking off, having fun and frolicking with their partners. He could hear their laughter and God knows what else through the paper-thin walls of his substandard apartment. After a short time he snapped and made his feelings known to Ferguson, apparently while some other players were present. Ferguson was enraged at this public challenge to his authority (and implied slight on his competence) and blew up. The pair verbally went toe to toe to the horror of the other players who plaintively begged them to stop the madness. Presumably it did not end in smiles and sunshine.
Unlike that other Keane argument, this one is unlikely to have any major consequences, and certainly won't drag on for 18 months. Ferguson, unlike Mick, Niall Quinn and Pinger Staunton, has presumably heard Keane shouting obscenities at people before, and so he did not host a press conference with tears streaming from his sunken eyes, burning his bridges with phrases like "I will not tolerate that level of abuse being thrown at me so I have sent him home".
Of course, Keane did not accompany United on their pre-season tour of Hong Kong, China and Japan, so perhaps Fergie did "send him home" or, rather, he grounded him while the rest of the boys went on their fun tour. At least, that was the conclusion most of the press jumped to. If true, it's hard to think of any form of punishment that would have delighted Keane more.
The real reason Keane stayed home is that a pre-season tour on the other side of the world is like an international friendly, only five times as long and ten times as boring. It also isn't in the best interests of the players. United are in Asia to make money, not to build fitness. You don't get in peak condition by jumping on a lot of long-haul flights and spending dreary afternoons in hotel rooms. Keane will be 34 on 10 August and his natural fitness isn't what it was. He needed a ten-day tour of Asia like a hole in the head. The Premiership season starting in mid-August is what really matters, so let Keane save himself for that, while Rooney, Ronaldo et al sing for their supper in the Far East. Publicly, Ferguson says Keane was left behind to nurse a hamstring injury, but John O'Shea inadvertently let slip that Keane was training like a madman the day before the squad left for the tour, so…
It's true however that this is the most widely-publicised row between Keane and Ferguson since Keane joined the club 12 years ago. (They have had rows before – Ferguson was not pleased to have to pick Keane up from a police cell one morning in 1999 after a boozy night out ended in tears and recriminations – but that was kept private.) Keane has always spoken of Ferguson with the utmost respect and reverence, so what has changed that he is prepared to bawl out the manager in front of the other players, especially at a time when Fergie might be feeling a little sensitive about his authority?
Some reports said that Keane has been getting angry for some time about Ferguson's failure to sign a world-class replacement for… Keane. He still wants the European Cup, but knows that United are unlikely to make it with the squad as it stands. They have superb talent going forward with Rooney and Ronaldo, and hopefully Van Nistelrooy can prove last season was an aberration. Park Ji-Sung looks a useful signing who will help prolong Giggs's top-level career. Defence is strong, and should be stronger with the signing of Edwin van der Sar (though it's hard to see how Rio Ferdinand's obvious and stunning lack of commitment to the club cannot be eating into morale).
The problem is in midfield. Keane was the player who made the team in the glory days; when he was at his best it was like having two men. He hasn't got the legs for that anymore. His tactical intelligence and passing ability mean he is still worth his place in a more cautious midfield holding role, a la Claude Makelele. But United need another top class central midfielder to dominate the attacking play, and Paul Scholes is no longer that man.
What is Ferguson doing to address the single most glaring weakness in his team? The season starts in three weeks, United's pre-season has been going on for a month, and still there's no sign of a proper midfield signing. It's not as though there aren't any obvious candidates. There has been talk of Bayern Munich considering bids of around €20 million for their captain Michael Ballack. The only reason they're thinking about selling the 28 year old is that he is in the last year of his contract and could be on a free transfer next summer.
Ballack, a brilliant all-rounder who can run, pass, tackle, shoot, head the ball, score goals, make the play and organise the team, is exactly the player Manchester United need, and he would be a bargain at twice the price (less than Ferguson paid for Rio Ferdinand or Juan Veron). Ballack would be the best midfielder in the Premiership. He has expressed an interest in signing for Manchester United. What is Ferguson waiting for? He should be pulling out all the stops to get this guy, the way he did for Rooney, for Ferdinand, for Veron. United fans can only hope that, behind the scenes, he is.
Maybe the problem is that he doesn't have €20 million to spare. David Gill (Manchester Utd chief executive) did say last year that the signing of Rooney meant the club wouldn't have money for major signings this summer. But that was before the Glazer takeover. The Glazers were meant to be stumping up £25m or so for Ferguson to strengthen the team. What happened to that promise?
However, putting on the poor mouth doesn't get Fergie off the hook. He has spent himself into this hole by paying over the odds for players who have failed to deliver. His blunders in the transfer market are now so numerous it's difficult to remember them all at once. Probably the most stunning error was his decision last summer to pay Leeds £7 million for Alan Smith, a striker who doesn't score goals and has little discernible skill, because he liked Smith's punchy attitude. A few weeks later he shelled out £28m on another striker, Rooney. Ferguson knew that Rooney was a genius and that he wanted to sign him long before he wrote the cheque for Smith. How could he possibly justify spending so much money buying both, while leaving other areas of the team to rot?
Now, having realised Smith is never going to cut it up front, Ferguson is deluding himself that his £7m cock-up can somehow be transformed into the long-term replacement for Roy Keane. Unfortunately Smith lacks pace, isn't much of a passer, and usually fouls people when he tries to tackle them.
Meanwhile the Dutchman Marc van Bommel, a 28-year-old midfield general at the peak of his powers, has just joined Barcelona on a free transfer. How did Ferguson miss that one? Such errors make you doubt whether Ferguson could resuscitate the team even with the extra money from the Glazers. Maybe the truth is the Glazers just don't trust him with the money.