Ferguson in show of respect to champions elect Manchester City
After experiencing the torture of his own side's capitulation and then the mild torture he has attempted to inflict on his adversary Roberto Mancini, yesterday there was only equanimity from Sir Alex Ferguson as he calmly faced up to the prospect that Manchester City will be English champions the next time he engages in a public discussion of his team.
The Manchester United manager has been in football long enough to know that it might not play out as the nation expects it to play out tomorrow.
"We still have a chance because, while human beings are human beings, we have to hope we have a chance," he said, with that exceptional quality he has to find new words for the perennial experiences of football. Yet you fancied that at the back of his mind there was only envy for Mancini and the dethroning which he can undertake tomorrow afternoon.
Ferguson was remembering the day the wore those clothes: the one when his Aberdeen side denied the Old Firm the Scottish title for the first time in 15 years with the last breath of the 1979/80 season.
Having dragged themselves back from a position nine points adrift of Celtic in March, everything for Aberdeen hung on the final afternoon. Their 5-0 win at Hibernian, as Celtic were held to a goalless draw at Love Street, St Mirren, delivered up the legend – which still lives on – of Ferguson, jigging across the Easter Road pitch in his usual camelhair coat, telling the supporters via the microphone in the announcer's box that he loved them. And then, perhaps unwisely, informing them they were welcome to come over to continue the celebrations at his house that night. Two did, though fortunately the now Lady Cathy had gone to bed.
"They had incredible belief in themselves and I told [the players] they would win the match," Ferguson remembered of that day. "I really believed it and felt we were a certainty. They had been used to it, with going to Celtic and Rangers, in front of 70,000 screaming banshees. They handled it brilliantly because they were a great side. For a small club like Aberdeen, it was unbelievable."
'Small club' does not quite define the Manchester City side who will seek to alter English football's tectonic plates, of course, though after a four-year period in which he has delivered a substantial amount of verbal ammunition in that direction, yesterday brought perhaps Ferguson's most considered and gracious reflections on them. It was when invited to reflect on what City's recovery from their catastrophic March reveals that he offered up an interpretation of the essential difference between Mancini and Kevin Keegan, whose Newcastle United side sacrificed a 12-point lead on Ferguson's 16 years ago.
"Kevin was different. He was a romantic, wasn't he?" Ferguson reflected. "He brought in so many attractive attacking players, like [Les] Ferdinand, [Philippe] Albert, [Faustino] Asprilla, [David] Ginola. It was fantastic and they were so entertaining, but that was Kevin. They had the most exciting Newcastle team of all time and I remember how they went to Belgium and won a Uefa Cup tie 5-0 [at Royal Antwerp in September 1994]. He said after the game that they were invincible! I always remember that. Dearie me. That was Kevin, though, and he was such a romantic."
Keegan will flinch, though this observation reflected only Ferguson's respect for Mancini and the defensive "Italian mentality", as he put it in last Sunday's programme notes in which he ruminated on how "maybe we should go down that road." Mancini, Ferguson said, "has had a big financial advantage over everyone, of course. But you still have to put a team on the pitch and pick the right players and the manager must take the most credit if you win the league in this country.
"You have squads of players, but trying to orchestrate the harmony of the place is very important. Making everyone feel they have played their part is a massive part of the game today, so to win the league is a massive step forward for Mancini."
It is tempting to decipher a code here, though this certainly felt like pure respect, not more mind games.
Ferguson knows from the last-game experience he discusses more than any – United's failure to get a winning goal past West Ham United's Ludek Miklosko at Upton Park in 1995, which handed Blackburn the title – that this isn't quite over. "How many chances did we have that day?" he pondered for the umpteenth time. "It was unbelievable. Their goalkeeper – Milosko, Miklosko, what's his name? – he was unbelievable. A nervous situation could arise if, with 10-to-15 minutes to go, City aren't winning. The crowd could get a bit uneasy, but other than that, they seem composed enough."
It is a decade since the then Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein stood on the steps in the Old Trafford directors' box and declared after watching his side dethroning United that "this could signal a power shift in English football". Ferguson resisted using this against City but his desire to render their glory as fleeting as Arsenal's proved to be was unmistakable. "[Dein] was talking about United actually – and it [went] back to normal the next season!" he said. "I don't need to get into that debate, though. At the end of the day, we know there is a challenge and we accept that at Manchester United. The important thing is to know you have a challenge and we know that we have."
Final-day cliffhangers: When the title went down to the wire
2009-10 Chelsea led Manchester United by a point going into the final day, and went on to seal their third Premier League crown by thrashing Wigan 8-0 at Stamford Bridge. United beat Stoke 4-0 at home.
2007-08 United went into the final round of fixtures level on points with Chelsea, but with a superior goal difference of 17 goals. They secured the title with a 2-0 victory at Wigan, while Chelsea could only draw 1-1 with Bolton Wanderers.
1998-99 United were one point clear of holders Arsenal, and came back from a goal down to defeat Tottenham 2-1 at Old Trafford to finish the season a point above the Gunners, who beat Aston Villa 1-0 at home.
1995-96 Having reeled in a 12-point lead, United led Kevin Keegan's Newcastle by two points going into the final day, and ended up winning the title by four points after they prevailed 3-0 at Middlesbrough and Keegan's side drew 1-1 with Tottenham.
1994-95 Kenny Dalglish's Blackburn Rovers were two points ahead of Manchester United, and despite losing 2-1 to Liverpool at Anfield won the title by a point after United were held 1-1 at West Ham.
1988-89 With the title race going to the delayed final fixture, second-placed Arsenal needed to win by two at leaders Liverpool to take the title. Michael Thomas's dramatic late goal delivered a 2-0 win and Arsenal were champions.