London – Like a general trying to rouse his shattered troops, Sir Alex Ferguson spent much of the journey home from Sunderland on that fateful day in May wandering around Manchester United’s team bus consoling his players.
He concentrated on the young ones and his message was simple: remember the heartbreak and how much it hurts because the pain of failure will drive you on to succeed for the rest of your careers.
United’s failure, of course, was to lose the title to neighbours Manchester City on goal difference. Winning at the Stadium of Light meant nothing when Sergio Aguero struck the final, fatal blow of an unforgettable season to give Roberto Mancini’s side victory over QPR.
The most dramatic of finishes was also the most painful imaginable for Ferguson and his players, who were forced to linger on the pitch at Sunderland for several minutes after the final whistle waiting for news. Champions one minute, runners-up the next. It was a long journey back from Wearside.
Talk to the top players and many will tell you it is the defeats, not the victories, that live longest in the memory. They use it as a motivational tool, and that was Ferguson’s point.
As United launch another Premier League campaign at Goodison Park tonight, hell-bent on reclaiming their crown, England striker Danny Welbeck spoke of the pain that is driving them on.
“I was a United fan and we lost it to our biggest rivals,” said Welbeck. “It’s not something that you forget so easy. It hurts. You never forget it, it’s something you want to put right.
“I remember the journey back well. We were travelling home from Sunderland on the team coach and the manager went round all the young players and said to them, ‘Never forget this because this will win you titles – this will make some of you into men and make you be the best you can be’.
“When the manager says things like that to you, you really want to take note of it.”
“It’s good motivation to have. Obviously it was an epic finish to last season. Not good for us but good for the other side of Manchester.
“Maybe because I’m a United fan it did hurt that bit more because it was City. But for the whole of Manchester United to win it back would be massive for us.”
It was while he was on loan at Sunderland that Welbeck announced his arrival as a Premier League player before returning to Old Trafford last season to establish himself as Ferguson’s preferred strike partner for Wayne Rooney.
The £24million signing of Robin van Persie from Arsenal has thrown all that into doubt, although Welbeck is expected to start ahead of the Dutchman against Everton tonight.
Whether he gets the nod or not, Welbeck is determined to fight for his place after coming of age as an England striker this summer. The 21-year-old started all four games at Euro 2012, scoring the winner against Sweden in Kiev when he was England’s main man in the absence of the suspended Rooney.
“I benefited very much from Euro 2012,” said Welbeck. “It’s something I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid.
“Twelve months ago I wasn’t even playing for United, I was just coming back from Sunderland. So these are steps that you need to take. Hopefully it’s a platform for me.”
For all United’s options in attack, their problems in central defence have deepened after Rio Ferdinand failed to finish Friday’s training session, pulling up with what is thought to be a groin strain, and did not train at all yesterday.
With Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all unavailable, Michael Carrick is set to partner Nemanja Vidic – who has only just returned from a nine-month layoff of his own.
Goodison is not quite the happy hunting ground it used to be for Ferguson. In fact, last season’s 1-0 win on Merseyside was United’s first in four attempts.
And then there was the 4-4 draw he blamed for his side’s capitulation in the title race last season, giving up two goals in the last few minutes at home to David Moyes’s team.
“Yes it was a key game,” admitted Welbeck, “but there are plenty of times over the season where you think why didn’t we win that?”
For United there is only one score to settle – and it isn’t with Everton. – Daily Mail