Five trophies? That was the prospect for Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United team as 2009 began. He had acknowledged his debt to Carlos Queiroz by confirming that some of his former deputy’s methods would continue – now he had to show that the Man U machine would carry on winning without him. And the first two of the five – the World Club Championship and the League Cup – were duly ticked off.
But then push came to shove. In the FA Cup semi final, the match went to extra time, and then penalties. Everton, that day’s opponents, had never won a penalty shoot-out. But there are first times for everything, and David Moyes’ men duly dumped Ferguson’s rather more expensively assembled team out of the competition. Worse, there were two Premiership defeats to Liverpool, the second highlighting a worrying weakness from defender Nemanja Vidic when confronted with a top class opponent – on this occasion, Fernando Torres. And a shocking lapse of team discipline against Fulham.
But Premiership opposition was not consistently organised: Arsenal had a season of transition, Chelsea’s flirtation with Scolari ended disastrously (making four managers in two seasons), and Liverpool’s Rafa Benítez was cautious – too cautious. So Man U ticked off another title, making three on the trot twice. Thus Ferguson had raised the bar once more. And now there was just the Champions’ League.
It was not to be. And the turning point was again the weakness of Vidic, this time against Samuel Eto’o. Barça scored; they played keep-ball; they scored again. The Red Devils were out of it, their tactics poor, their players apparently weary. Thus far, Ferguson had shown that they could do it without Eric, Sparky, Becks, Keano or Ruud, but a defence of the Champions’ League – to equal what Cloughie had done for Forest all those years ago – was beyond his men.
The immediate reaction was that they would be back the following season, making their own record of three Champions’ League finals in a row. But with uncertainty surrounding players like Ronaldo, that may be a big ask. And then there is Ferguson himself. Now 67, he has previously considered retirement, but rejected it: he still wants dearly to win, to better his already massive achievement. And he, of all men, would never, ever submit quietly to the dying of the light. But looking across at Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, only 38 and with so much more to achieve, one thought might have entered.
This is where he came in.