The talk behind the scenes at Old Trafford yesterday was of sustainability. The stadium is the first of its size in Britain to be awarded a prestigious environmental quality mark, though "ISO 14001" – to give it its full title – understandably did not feature in Sir Alex Ferguson's discussion of where his and other English sides now feature in the continental pecking order.
The preponderance of young domestic talent at the manager's disposal suggests that they do possess a far greater sustainability than the two London clubs whose threat to United's hegemony has been fended off. Ferguson insisted yesterday that the Premier League is not "on the slide" because of the calamities which have befallen Arsenal and Chelsea in Italian cities 400 miles apart. "I don't see that [English dominance of the Champions League] subsiding to be honest with you," the United manager said. "It's maybe a disappointing season but not really to my mind definite that we're on the slide." Yet his reasoning – that the London sides had been beset by injuries and "you can't expect them to get the best results without the best teams" – seemed to be an act of diplomacy.
It has not been a vintage United season either, though that is because Ferguson's is a young squad in transition. In the shape of Tom Cleverley, likely to start his first game at Old Trafford since the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal in August against Ajax tonight, he has an important component of his team's sustainability restored to him.
Cleverley made light yesterday of the notion that he may form part of Stuart Pearce's England squad announced today, though Ferguson's paean of praise for the 22-year-old sitting to his right said it all. "He is a very clever footballer. He has got a quick brain in terms of appreciation of passing," Ferguson said. "He gives us more ammunition in midfield which a few months ago everyone was starting to worry about."
Those worries are certainly easing, with the return of Paul Scholes – who might well have preserved United's Champions League status had he been persuaded to forget retirement in the first place – Anderson and a reinvigorated Michael Carrick. The only setback tonight is the absence of Wayne Rooney. A sore throat which was affecting him in United's 2-0 first-leg win in Amsterdam last week has worsened. The aim is to have him fit for the trip to Norwich on Sunday.
Of course, the key to a sustainable football team is to bring through the young ones while the veterans are still plying their trade and if Ryan Giggs appears, probably from the bench, for his 900th appearance tonight, he may find himself intersecting with a player – Cleverley – who was one and a half years old when he made his debut. "I can't remember [his debut] exactly," Cleverley said, not unsurprisingly. "But I remember pretending to be him in the back garden."
There are few more compliments Ferguson can offer about Giggs, though yesterday he imparted the view that the man he has told confidantes should be his successor is the best British player of all time. "Playing in the Premier League as long as he has – I don't think another player will do it..."
The manager did not entirely dismiss the notion of Giggs appearing 1,000 times for United, though this did seem to challenge his notion of sustainability a little. "Where did that one come from?" he said. "One hundred games from now... how old would that make him...?" When someone replied "59", the manager grinned. "Stanley Matthews played at 50 didn't he? We'll wait and see, eh?"