Hail to Elsie, the devoted wife of three managers

Have Manchester United been suffering from post-euphoria stress? Are they being counselled? If not, why not? They haven't been quite themselves, letting in lots of goals, running out of luck, failing to manage a decent sequence of wins. Getting thrashed 5-0 by Chelsea appeared an aberration at the time, something that wouldn't happen again, then Spurs beat them 3-1, though Spurs were dead jammy.

It's all relative. They are still in Europe, near the top of the Premier League, so what's the problem, squire? But we all detect there has been one. The fire of last year has yet to be lit. Naturally their players have been blamed, wise as well as thick heads have nodded and said eh up, no wonder they've looked tired and jaded emotionally and physically. Bound to happen. They've been spoiled by their triumphs of last year. What else is there for them to achieve this year?

There has been a slight slump, no question, but personally I don't blame the players. My pointy little finger picks out only one person - Fergie.

At the beginning of the season, I was amazed to read in the Bookseller about his mega-publicity tour, signing books up and down the country. Which he's still doing. I know he got a £1 million advance, but even so, he didn't need to do all that publicity. No author needs to. You can always tell your publisher to get stuffed and dictate your own terms.

His job is not being an author, even though this is his fifth book. He happens to have a pretty demanding day job, a night and day job. If you read his previous books, such as his 1997 diary, A Will to Win, you'll see it's all-consuming, rushing round the globe, scouting, watching teams, representing the club at endless functions.

His poor wife Elsie has scarcely seen him for the past 25 years, since he first started in management at East Stirling in 1974. Hold on. She's not called Elsie. That's Bobby Robson's wife. Or is it Graham Taylor's? I have this theory that Fergie, Robson and Taylor all have the same wife, a poor, long-suffering body called Elsie, ever so devoted, who has spent her whole life staying up late, waiting for Fergie/Bobby/Graham to come home. Normal wives couldn't stand it, which is why she has wifed all three. So far, not one of them has found out. Cunning.

Then there's been his testimonial. We all know about the big friendly, Man Utd against Mars, which netted another million. But there have been, and still are, other events and engagements connected with his testimonial which he's attending.

The big question is - who's been looking after the shop? Who's kicking arses while he's poncing around with all these money-making engagements? He clearly took his eyes off the ball over his number one problem: replacing Schmeichel. He ended up with three keepers, none of whom he seems happy with.

He is clearly not happy in his relationship with his own boss, Martin Edwards. His latest book makes it obvious they don't get on. There was a period last season when the board suspected he'd lost interest. "Some people at Old Trafford think you are not as focused as you have been," Sir Roland Smith, chairman of the plc, said to him.

After that, he went on to win the treble, so sucks to them. Then he got his knighthood, double accolades, icing on both cakes, neither of which is likely to be improved upon. Well, I suppose he could be made football's first life peer, and be just as useful and deserving as any other life peer. But I can't see him doing the treble again. Not at Man Utd.

It must have been tough for him personally, just as much as the players, getting up the energy for this season. He'll be 58 next month, not as old as Bobby Robson, but then Robson had been taking it easy in recent years, after getting an upstairs job at Barca. Fergie must be sick of the sound of his own voice at United, hearing himself come out with the same old invectives, instructions, motivational tricks and psychological games. And so must many of the players, some of whom have been listening to him all their professional lives.

He should have brought in three young, hungry players, new to his tricks and methods, who would motivate the rest by competing for their places. Presumably the board wouldn't give him the money, yet this is the vital time, when you are at the top, to chuck out and replenish. That's what Liverpool did, brutally sometimes, but it kept them supreme for over a decade.

John Gregory was quoted last week, stirring things up of course, saying that if he had been Fergie he would have retired at the end of last season. It's always dead easy to say what you'd do in someone else's shoes. I should think Fergie has no thoughts of retiring, not from football. Pissed off with the Man Utd board perhaps. Not with football. There's an interesting remark in his latest book, which he attributes to Cantona, saying he was fed up with being "a pawn of Manchester United's merchandising department". I bet Fergie feels that as well.

The blip now seems to be over. Fergie is not being distracted as much by his personal concerns, though he does look knackered, rather baggy round the eyes. But I wouldn't be surprised if this were his last season at Man Utd.

If he did retire, or leave after a row, who would get the job? George Graham, perhaps. They do like Scots at Old Trafford. Then Joe Kinnear might get his heart's desire and come to Spurs.

I bet Lady Fergie is praying for that day to come. Cathy. That's her name. Not Elsie. Sorry about that, your Ferginess. But your secret is safe with me . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people