6 Reasons Manchester United Will Be Just Fine When Sir Alex Ferguson Retires
It was certainly a pretty unique situation for the great Scot to be so "distraught" as to refuse to meet the world's media as UEFA rules require.
Towards the end of that second leg he looked close to tears. Was that because he had given himself one last season to win the Champions League, a 20th title and possibly even a Double Treble?
You would not have thought so as he set about building yet another great United side over the last couple of years. And he has set himself even more challenges.
United have few genuinely world-class players as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand have aged. Wayne Rooney and Luis Nani seem to have lost their form, but at least the addition of Robin van Persie has added a touch of class.
But two things appear different.
There has been more tactical flexibility than possibly ever before in United's history. They are playing a dynamic, interchanging style at pace.
Since the departure of Ruud van Nistelrooy and especially Cristiano Ronaldo, the "cult of the personality" seems to have been far less in evidence, with far more emphasis on the team and the work ethic.
This latter, above all, together with the relative decline of major competitors, has led to United walking away with the Premier League.
But with United's and Arsenal's demise in the Champions League at the Last 16 stage, England is left without any team in the quarterfinals for the first time in 17 years.
Is this, then, an opportunity or a threat for Sir Alex? If United are going to find it easy in the Premier League and tough in Europe, is that enough to keep the greatest manager in the history of the game inspired enough at 71?
So, whether he retires this summer or sometime soon, what optimistic signs are there that the ship can sail on?
Failing in 1986; Thriving in 2013
Sir Matt Busby was Manchester United manager for 25 years in total. After his first retirement, due to the Munich air disaster, they had seven managers in the next 28 years, including caretaker spells by Matt and his assistant, Jimmy Murphy.
If Sir Alex stays until the end of next season at least, they will have had one in the subsequent 28 years.
When he replaced Ron Atkinson as manager in November 1986, United were a failing club, not just by their own standards.
They had not won the League title for almost 20 years and had won only three FA Cups and two Community Shields since they won the European Cup in 1968.
The club was like an oil tanker. It would take a long time to turn round, but the board had appointed a winner who had shattered the duopoly in Scottish football and won a European trophy himself.
Sir Matt Busby had a strong hand in Ferguson's appointment and remained "upstairs" to mentor his prodigy.
We may never know how much Sir Alex owed to Sir Matt in those first few difficult years where the media at times speculated that the new manager's job was hanging by a thread, supposedly rescued by Mark Robins or Steve Bruce, depending on which fairy tale you believe in.
The fact is that over 26 years on, the same man has made United the most successful club in British history (unless you count just European Cups).
Surely he is the greatest manager in the history of football?
His destiny is supposedly in his own hands. When some thought he might bow out after the shattering disappointment of last season, he tinkered a bit and has driven United back to their pre-eminence.
Now of course that means the media will have a field day when he retires because whoever takes over will have a hard act to follow and will be measured for at least 26 years if he lasts that long!
The cornerstone of United's success in the last 63 years has been continuity. Continuity is just one of several reasons we advance here as to why they will be just fine whenever the "Great Scot" calls it a day.
A Strong Squad in Depth
There will always be people who comment in these columns who believe United have a poor squad. Last year, for some, it was one of the worst ever.
Individual players are picked to pieces after just one bad performance. Losing the title on the last day to City was going to herald a new era of dominance and meltdown for United.
Sir Alex charged his players to "always remember this feeling." United are now 12 points ahead of the rest of the EPL; they have a lead of 19 over Chelsea, 24 over Arsenal and 26 over Liverpool (who have played one more game).
OK, so Wednesday was a bad day for English football and a reality check even for United, as the last English team foundered in the Champions League.
That will be at least half of the challenge for whoever takes over from Sir Alex. It may be much easier to retain United's dominance of the Premier League than create a resurgence in the Champions League.
But of course, having watched Bayern crumble to Arsenal and Malaga beat Porto we may never know how far United would have gone but for one refereeing decision. This was made even more debatable after a crude, waist-high, studs-up, face-on lunge on an Arsenal player that brought only a yellow card!
Strength in Depth
This is the fourth or fifth time Sir Alex has embarked on team rebuilding. Indeed it is difficult to determine where one ends and another begins. It is an ongoing process of buying young prospects and bringing through youth from United's own resources.
In this respect Sir Alex has carried on the tradition begun by Sir Matt.
In the present United first team squad there are no less than 23 players who were signed and/or developed under 21 by Manchester United.
There are also eight players over 29 and 11 established professionals who have been at the club for seven years or more.
And until he goes, Sir Alex will continue to grow, sign and blend.
For some people his constant rotation of players was an irritant. He left Claudio Ranieri in the dust as a "Tinkerman," at one stage going over 140 matches without playing the same team.
But the result is that, injuries aside, United can definitely compete in all four competitions at once and are usually the stronger squad to finish the season.
So then people may say there aren't many world class players in the team.
How many were there in the Bayern team that started against Arsenal? Or the Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea teams right now?
City have more arguably world-class players and they are struggling to keep pace with United. That is because the Red Devils are a team, with a team ethic, not just a squad.
Whoever takes over from Sir Alex will inherit an embarrassment of riches in terms of the depth of squad equipped to play at the highest level.
And you can bet that unless he goes this summer, he will have enhanced it by at least two more top players equipped for the future.
The Coaching Legacy
Are we looking at Sir Alex's biggest legacy in this picture?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is already one of the favourites to succeed him, with Ryan Giggs moving into the picture recently.
Solskjaer and Scholes have already coached the Reserves; Giggs is the most influential player on United's first-team training ground and is completing his coaching badges; Gary Neville was always expected by Sir Alex to go into management.
Darren Fletcher and Nicky Butt are currently involved in coaching the Under 21s. Surely Peter Schmeichel will succeed Eric Steele as goalkeeping coach.
This is a rich coaching legacy. All these current or former players have the utmost respect, not only within the United ranks but in most cases across the footballing world.
Even if one of them does not succeed Sir Alex, they will be part of the team and continuity for the manager who does.
As an exercise, just count the total number of Champions League appearances the four in the picture have accumulated between them, for example.
A Legacy of Young Players
This is what the legacy of Manchester United's Academy is about.
Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley have both been at United for almost 10 years.
They are not even established first-choice players in the team yet, but they are regular call-ups for Roy Hodgson and England.
Helped by the success of the "Class of 92," i.e. Fergie's Fledglings (who won the Treble in 1999), United now have a conveyor belt of talent coming through at Carrington.
Much of it is homegrown but inevitably in this day and age it is augmented by precocious talent from overseas. That will rebalance back towards England with the FA's relaxation on young player development.
And who can blame someone like Nick Powell, Wilfried Zaha, Phil Jones or Chris Smalling for believing their prospects for the future are greatest at Old Trafford.
In this respect Sir Alex has also been ruthless. He only wants players who want to play and stay for the badge, believing in their inevitable accession.
With Giggs and Scholes still around, what else would they believe.
But Sir Alex will not surrender to blackmail when young men who put money before the club get their agents to negotiate a better deal elsewhere (plus, of course, a fat agent's fee).
Whoever succeeds Sir Alex will not be appointed unless they respect this rich legacy and have worked this way elsewhere. That is why Pep Guardiola still remains a possibility in three years time and why the team on the last slide will be in with a shout.
The Club and Business Model
Do not under-estimate the importance of this partnership in getting United to where they now sit.
Fans have a quite unrealistic fantasy football expectation of football. They seem able to divorce the obscene salaries of quite ordinary footballers from the day to day reality of the biggest global collapse since the 1920s.
They excoriate bankers and idolise footballers.
Yes, United are one of the richest clubs in the world. Those who envy that should look at their own business and football models, especially in the recent past.
Between them, Ferguson and Gill have balanced success on the field with financial commonsense off it.
Gill is going on to even greater things in the FA, UEFA and no doubt FIFA in due course. But he will remain "upstairs" in the United board room.
And that is where Sir Alex will also go when he retires.
Real Madrid and Barcelona have a preposterously unfair share of the spoils of Spanish broadcasting and media rights. When the European Community unwind that, as they surely will, United will stand alone as the most commercially successful club in the world.
So why shouldn't they be able to match that on the field?
Yes there is a debt to be repaid over the next few years, but that will never stop United competing at the top table.
What Ferguson, Gill, Ed Woodward and the new manager will never do is bust the club for the sake of success.
It would be interesting to see what would happen if Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour walked away from their "playthings."
In front of Old Trafford you will find statues of only two managers: Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Sir Matt was part of the selection process when Ferguson arrived from Aberdeen. He offered, and Sir Alex gladly accepted, his guidance and support as needed.
That is what humble men do: they generously offer, and they gratefully receive.
It is why many people give Jose Mourinho no chance of succeeding Sir Alex, preferring Guardiola.
Make no mistake. Sir Alex Ferguson will never be able to walk away from football, even if he accepts the inevitable offer of a peerage when he steps down.
He will surely join Gill in the board room and be available whenever needed for the new manager, including helping to attract world-class players at Old Trafford.
Sir Alex will not be an interfering "busy-body," but the right man would be an idiot not to use the accumulated wealth of experience he has to offer.
The changeover, when it comes, will be difficult and traumatic. Just one season's wobble will set the alarm bells ringing.
Sir Alex will have a say in his successor but not the final word. But he will readily continue to share his wisdom for those who ask, not just at United but across the world of footballing management, where he is revered by his peers.