LONDON — When your club has spent £65 million on four strikers, all of whom played in the 2-1 Champions League defeat by Benfica on Wednesday you have a right to expect better than the powder-puff display by Manchester United in the Stadium of Light — none of which is at the end of the Old Trafford tunnel at the moment.

Christopher Davies

With Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Louis Saha and Alan Smith to fire the bullets, United fans had reasonably hoped for more than three goals in six European games this season as their team finished bottom of Champions League group D, one of the weakest of the eight groups.

They did not think they would have to wait for what will now be almost three years before the 1999 European champion won another away match in the Champions League — Panathinaikos in Athens, November 2003, was United’s last three-point haul on the road.

The Red Army has celebrated just one win in nine Champions League games and, in the eyes of the fans, the blame for the European downfall of the most successful club in Premiership history lies with manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

The man who has led United to trophy after trophy deserved to retire with his head held high, a dignified exit at the time he chose from the club he joined in 1986. Instead, Ferguson is likely to be given no option than to leave Old Trafford at the end of the season because in the opinion of most United supporters the manager has lost the plot.

They blame him for selling good players (David Beckham and Jaap Stam spring to mind) for reasons we will probably never really know. A string of second-rate replacements have arrived with only Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney and the injured Gabriel Heinze of the standard required at United.

Ferguson should, they say, have seen the sands of time creeping up on the golden generation of Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, lining up adequate successors before the quartet reached their sell-by date.

Supporters point the finger at Ferguson for appointing the unpopular and vilified Carlos Queiroz as coach and for a string of team selections that have had the Old Trafford faithful scratching their collective heads.

United’s American owners, the Glazer family, may not be soccer experts but having borrowed £540 million to buy the club they will not be happy at losing the £15 million advancing to the knockout stage of the Champions League brings. There is not even the consolation prize of the UEFA Cup — the League Cup quarterfinal against Birmingham later this month suddenly assumes heightened importance as United chases pots and pennies.

It was against Benfica, in 1968, that the legend of George Best was born when he scored twice in United’s famous 5-1 win. This week’s defeat against the Portuguese club was probably Ferguson’s last ever Champions League tie as a manager, an ignominious end to the European career of a manager who is in danger of being remembered as much for the demise of United as his decade and a half of almost non-stop success.

THREE DAYS AFTER George Best’s funeral, Paul Gascoigne, the finest soccer player of his generation the United Kingdom produced, and whom many would rate as the best of the last 20 years, was sacked as manager of Kettering Town for allegedly being drunk on duty.

That these two wonderfully gifted players should be linked by the demons of alcohol is a sad coincidence decided by the football gods. But as Best takes his place in Heaven’s XI, Gascoigne continues his journey down the road to self-destruction which seems likely to end in similar tears.

Gascoigne was shown the door at Kettering after 39 days in charge, and the surprise is that he was given the job in the first place, and that he lasted 39 days.

I knew Gascoigne when he was a teenager coming through the Newcastle ranks and there was no more charming, polite, generous and funny youngster. At airports and abroad Gazza would make kids laugh, speaking the sort of international language that spans all tongues. Yes, he could go over the top but always in the nicest of ways. At 6 a.m., catching an early flight, the rest of us would be in the obligatory bad mood yet Gazza was full of life, unaware that this was misery hour not happy hour.

Affected by seeing a close friend killed in an accident as he ran from behind an ice cream van in his childhood, Gascoigne needed a special guidance from those close to him personally and professionally, but for whatever reason he never seemed to have the tender loving care a vulnerable soul was crying out for.

Self-inflicted injuries, a messy divorce and a refusal to accept the inevitabilities of Mother Nature saw Gazza in the headlines for all the wrong reasons over the past 15 years.

The player who shed the tears of a clown at Italy World Cup in 1990, after the semifinal caution against West Germany that would have ruled him out of the final, has ended up an unfunny laughing stock.

Kettering chairman Imraan Ladak accused Gazza of 37 separate alcohol-related incidents, almost one per each day he was there. Why he waited until the 37th indiscretion before acting shows either amazing patience and loyalty by Ladak or an agenda only the chairman knows.

Gascoigne went on television to deny the alcohol allegations, but his demeanor did not help his case while at a fundraiser for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Liverpool. Later that day, Gazza was arrested for allegedly punching a photographer in the face, spending 14 hours in police custody before being released on bail.

It is the sort of story we have almost come to expect from Gascoigne, who is addicted to alcohol and football. His television appearances this week, when he attempted to deny personal problems merely underlined them. He denied being drunk at games but admitted to having a double brandy before a game. Alcoholics don’t do just double brandys.

While Best was an alcoholic, he had none of the psychological problems Gazza has. Listen to Gascoigne speaking during the summer: “When you have this illness and it creeps up on you, all you want to do is wake up in the morning and drink. . . knock yourself out with drink and have blackouts. That’s what it’s like until you get help. We live in a drinking culture. Some people can drink. I can’t.”

Yet there are still many who believe it is wonderful to buy Best or Gascoigne a drink and of course the recipients rarely say no. Drug addicts — and alcohol is a drug — do not turn down the offer of what in their mind helps them through the day.

Gazza is stuck in a time warp, refusing to accept that his time in football has gone and that he must move on to other things, notably sorting out his life. He still believes he can become a great Premiership manager, the sort of dream he had as a boy about playing for England which he fulfilled with honors. But at 38, kicked out of Nationwide Conference club Kettering in the wake of booze allegations and clearly not in charge of his emotions, Gazza must surely get the message in a bottle that says: move on.

Deep down Gazza is not a bad person, but this troubled soul is walking down the road to destruction.

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