When Sir Alex Ferguson came up with one of his most famous remarks – ‘Football, bloody hell,’ – it was in the brilliant, crazy aftermath of Manchester United’s epic European Cup triumph over Bayern Munich in Barcelona.
Thirteen years on, Ferguson looked as if those words were going through his head once again on Sunday. Same words, different meaning.
It was 13 seconds after the final whistle. Once referee Howard Webb blew, Ferguson moved across to shake the hand of Martin O’Neill, then marched on to the Stadium of Light pitch.
At that moment, the title was on hold. The atmosphere inside the ground was heavy, uncertain, quiet, not unlike a hospital waiting room. The scene had a slow-motion feel to it. Ferguson had just heard of Edin Dzeko’s equaliser at Eastlands but in those few seconds Manchester United were champions of England for the 20th time. In a room at the stadium a Premier League trophy was being prepared with red ribbons.
Ferguson could not see that, which was a small mercy for him. He was on the grass with United’s players who thought they were about to hear good news. Ferguson ushered them towards the travelling United fans who were hanging in that same waiting room themselves.
And then, up in the south-west corner, adjacent to the visiting support, a noise erupted from Sunderland fans. Ferguson’s antennae picked it up instantly. There was no hesitation on his part, no thinking this could be a hoax. Ferguson knows football, knows it can bring pain as well as pleasure. He was in Barcelona. QPR had not been able to match Aberdeen against Real Madrid. Football, bloody hell.
United won, they lost; they had it, then they didn’t. As Ferguson turned for the tunnel, Sunderland fans were already doing “the Poznan”. Mockery comes quick.
So, too, from Ferguson, did “congratulations to our neighbours”. His response was magnanimous.
“We congratulate Manchester City. Anyone who wins the league deserves to win it because it’s a very, very difficult league to win. We know that because, as we’ve experienced today, we’ve lost on goal difference.”
Eight goals over 10 months, a difference as slim as an upright. United understand its dimensions, having struck the woodwork three times on Sunday. Wayne Rooney hit the crossbar in the first half and a post in the second. He scored the decisive goal, his 27th in the Premier League this season, his best league tally by one.
As he boarded the team bus afterwards in club-issue black suit, Rooney’s face gave no hint of happiness at that fact.
“We’re all disappointed, obviously,” Ferguson had added. “We should be disappointed because we did our best today. But for their goalkeeper, we could have scored seven goals. We hit the post, the bar and the goalkeeper made fantastic saves throughout the match. We conducted ourselves in the right way.
“Yes, there will be a time when we can sit back and say we did this wrong, we did that wrong, but 89 points would have won the league most seasons.
“They’re a good bunch of lads. The younger players will remember today because sometimes a bad experience is even better for you.”
Ferguson was correct about that points total. United won their historic 19th title last season with 80 points. They scored fewer goals then, and conceded more. United improved by nine points; City improved by 18.
Ferguson said there were no recriminations but the sight of Nemanja Vidic in the directors’ box was a reminder of what United have missed since December 7. Vidic played in neither league derby against City, he was not there when Everton scored two late goals of their own three Sundays ago. Vidic was injured in Basel when United exited the Champions League. If the league offers one measurement of a team, then so does Europe. United were deservedly beaten by Basel and then by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.
Ferguson will address that in due course. There was some consolation in pushing the league to the last kick of the last day but ultimately Old Trafford has its first trophyless season since 2004-05.
That was Rooney’s first season at the club, Roy Keane’s last full one. After United had gone out of the Champions League at AC Milan, Ferguson had spoken inside the San Siro of renewal, of the youth of Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
On Sunday he talked of a clutch of young players – Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, David de Gea among others – and said they could be at United for “five, six, seven, 10 years. The experience is good for them even if it’s a bad one.”
On Friday the 70-year-old had warned City: “We’re not going away and I’m not either.” Here he addressed City again: “They can go on as much as they like but the history of our club stands us aside. We don’t need to worry about that. I think we have a rich history, better than anyone and it’ll take them a century to get to our level of history.
“But for us, it’s still a challenge and we’re good at challenges. We’ll kick on from here.”
That process may have started – there were shades of Spanish pressing when Sunderland had the ball on Sunday. Then United had the home team on the carousel in the second half. They were controlling possession, counting down the seconds and shaping their future.