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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Alex Ferguson is a fixture at Manchester United

While almost all of the Europe's top 10 soccer teams shuffle coaches, Alex Ferguson enters his 24th year with the Manchester United.

January 02, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer

Sir Alex Ferguson turned 69 Friday, but that doesn't mean a whole heap of haggis — except to the short-tempered Scot himself, of course.

A fixture at Manchester United since 1986, Ferguson has announced his intention to stay at Old Trafford until the club's owners, players or fans carry him out of the so-called Theater of Dreams and toss him onto the street.

"The older you get, the more worried you are about retiring," Ferguson said recently on the club's in-house television channel. "You start to realize that while you've got your health and good fitness, you should carry on in your job."

Ferguson has done exactly that. He has held on to his position for 24 years, a remarkable accomplishment at the highest levels of a cutthroat profession.

No fewer than eight of European soccer's top 10 powers have had their coach in place for fewer than three years. Only Arsenal's Arsene Wenger comes close to rivaling Ferguson, and the fussy Frenchman is still a decade behind.

Five of the top 10 clubs changed their coaches in 2010, with Inter Milan's dismissal of Rafa Benitez two days before Christmas and its appointment of Leonardo on Christmas Eve being the latest moves in an increasingly dizzy game of musical chairs.

Less than eight months ago, Benitez was Liverpool's coach, Leonardo was AC Milan's coach and Jose Mourinho was Inter Milan's coach. Then the kaleidoscope shifted.

Now it has shifted again. Benitez was fired only five days after leading Inter Milan to the FIFA Club World Cup (forget for the moment that it is a nonsensical competition made up annually of a decent European team, a decent South American team and five stiffs).

To judge by his post-world-championship-winning comments in Abu Dhabi, it was almost as if the 50-year-old Spaniard wanted to be shown the door.

In a bizarre news conference meltdown, Benitez said he would leave unless Massimo Moratti, Inter's oil tycoon owner and president, gave him 100% backing and agreed to buy four or five new players.

Four days later, Benitez was history, having had charge of the reigning Italian, European and now world champions for less than seven months.

"I am surprised about his ranting because it seemed out of character to me," Moratti said. "I always thought of him as a calm person."

The pressure of following in the golden footsteps of the charismatic Mourinho, the spate of injuries to an Inter team that has 14 players 30 or older, and the evident lack of front-office support made Benitez's tenure difficult from the beginning.

Now there is talk that he might return to Liverpool, where his successor, Roy Hodgson, has enjoyed little success and is rapidly losing the fans and the locker room. On Friday, Hodgson had to explain remarks that had been interpreted as criticism of the Anfield fans' lack of support.

"I was responding to a question about how it felt to be jeered by fans, making it clear it hurts me and I was disappointed by it because no one wants to feel they are unpopular," Hodgson said. "I understand it is up to me to take it on the chin, but it's not been an easy ride for me. It's been an uphill struggle."

Hodgson insisted he would not resign and then talked about something that never even crosses Ferguson's mind.

"There is no security as a Premier League manager," he said, "and when you take the job you don't take it for security, you take it because you believe you can do it well.

"Of course it hurts," he said of the criticism. "The day when it becomes water off a duck's back is the day you don't do the job. The job is about sadness and occasionally it is about a bit of gladness and euphoria."

Leonardo would do well to remember those words now that he has crossed the great Milan divide that separates the Rossoneri from the Nerazzurri.

A World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994, he spent 13 years at AC Milan as player, executive and — for one season — as coach. Now he will be in charge of rival Inter Milan, and the move has raised a few eyebrows.

"I arrive here at one of the biggest clubs in the world, in the most important year of its history, the year in which the team won everything," Leonardo said at his introduction.

"I was looking for a dream, a big motivation, a great challenge. At the moment there is no challenge greater than Inter."

And just so that Leonardo knows who really is boss, Moratti also had a few words to say.

"Now Benitez has gone, we will buy five players," he said.

Meanwhile, from his lofty perch at Manchester United, Ferguson looks on and smiles a birthday smile. In command for 24 years and counting, he is above the fray.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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