United and Villa Go Back to the Future

LONDON - Two of English soccer's elder statesmen, Alex Ferguson and Graham Taylor, showed yesterday that their footballing appetites were yesterday by deciding to extend their careers in club management.

Ferguson, 60, announced in May he would bring down the curtain on his managerial reign at Manchester United after this season, having packed the Old Trafford trophy room with the biggest prizes in the game.

Yesterday, United's board revealed he had asked about staying on, and that the club is negotiating a new contract. The board, which has no obvious successor lined up, is almost certain to accommodate the man who has shaped United into the richest club in the world.

United may have suffered a nasty attack of the wobbles on the pitch toward the end of last year, but Ferguson's prodigious man-management skills have engineered a revival that has seen them win 10 of their last 11 league games, catapulting the squad from ninth place to the top of the table.

Anyone doubting the Scot's vice-like grip on team matters should ask England captain David Beckham, relegated to the bench after a dip in form amid a period of back trouble.

Taylor was thrust back into the limelight when the former England boss was appointed manager of Aston Villa for the second time - he too having announced his retirement from football management at the end of last season.

Defending his decision to hire the 57-year-old, Villa chairman Doug Ellis quipped: "On the question of age, he's a young Bobby Robson".

Robson's example

Robson, who will be 69 later this month, has clearly lost none of his management skills with Newcastle United.

The Magpies are second in the table, just two points behind United with a game in hand as it bids for the club's first league title in 75 years. On Monday, Robson presented his latest signing, midfielder Jermaine Jenas, a full 50 years his junior.

Taylor put the case for experience over youthful enthusiasm when it comes to coping with the pressures of the top flight.

"As you get older... you don't have to be yesterday's man," said Taylor. "That experience is there to be used, and you can handle that so much better."

The announcements, made on the day that Cesare Maldini, recently put in charge of Paraguay's World Cup campaign, turned 70, points to a dilemma for many clubs.

An older but successful manager can be seen as a backward step, while a youthful replacement may not deliver the same level of results.

For the managers themselves, leaving the game in which they have often spent their entire lives is not always an attractive proposition - whatever their age.

"What would I do?," Robson was quoted as saying in October, when asked about the thorny question of retirement.

"Football is my life. It always has been. I get up in the morning and look forward to every day. I have energy, feel mentally alert, love being out on the training pitch with the players, and can't wait for the matches."

Judging by yesterday's announcement from Manchester United, Ferguson feels the same way.