The professional party planners flown into Rome by Manchester United still had a job to do, late on Wednesday night. The deposed European champions' party at the Boscolo Hotel on Piazza della Repubblica was not as riotous as the one in happier circumstances a decade earlier, when Ryan Giggs landed a punch on chairman Martin Edwards' son after the European Cup had been won, yet sorrows were drowned, the odd glass or two smashed and it took an attentive Cristiano Ronaldo to help clear up for a young woman whose drink had slipped from her grasp.
But the reality dawned with the sunrise over Rome, and Giggs was as haunted a soul as any of the United men who left the city in the throes of a thunderstorm. "I haven't got many of these nights left. I know that," the 35-year-old reflected. "It's an even bigger disappointment to me because I know I might never get the chance to come back and put it right. I hope this isn't my last Champions' League final. We want to be back."
Paul Scholes felt unable to offer any reflections but the sentiments will be felt even more acutely for an individual who has never gone in for his old friend's stringent fitness regime and is ageing less well.
The manner of defeat by Barcelona will still be churning around in Giggs' mind this morning and indeed for the rest of what will now be a difficult few months. "It will be lingering for me all summer, I know that now," Giggs proffered. "To get so close and not quite to achieve it... I will be thinking about that."
Rio Ferdinand's sentiments were similar. "I will look back in the summer and think what might have been," he admitted. Words to lift the heavy heart of these players' manager, had he been present to hear them. Because it has always been Sir Alex Ferguson's maxim that his players learn more from defeat than triumph.
No matter how Ferguson tried last spring to douse down all the talk of their invincibility, one by one his players have admitted there was a complacency creeping in. Nemanja Vidic said as much, so too the young centre back Jonny Evans and, later, Michael Carrick. Hadn't some of their fans fallen victim too?
All those years, waiting to match Liverpool's 18 domestic titles, only for Ferguson's victory speech to be drowned out by demands to sign up Carlos Tevez. That was a shocking moment to behold. Privately, United suspect Tevez will be gone in a month but if he stays then his personal protests – a canker on the dressing room – might be less tolerated there now that the huge image of Giggs holding the European trophy, visible to every player approaching Old Trafford down Sir Matt Busby Way, has been pulled down.
The incentive to win a trophy back is, after all, always greater than the will to retain it. As Giggs put it: "Great teams bounce back and that is what we will look to do. The disappointment is still raw and it will be for a while but we will look forward to the challenge next season."
Defeat offers other new complexions on the season to come. Insignificant though it may sound, there will be no European Super Cup and Club World Cup cluttering up the period before Christmas and if that lessens the need for Ferguson to rotate the side on every occasion – as was the case in the last campaign – then United will benefit from the more familiar contours. The chopping and changing was chaotic at times.
Changes are needed. Rome told us that Ferguson needs to buy another player to command midfield this summer – of the Javier Mascherano or Michael Essien ilk – because the reliance on Michael Carrick, still a fine player despite one desperate night, is too great and we still do not know if Owen Hargreaves is to become the great United need him to be.
But another of Ferguson's old maxims is about players not all growing old together and when Giggs described his work in the dressing room, in the face of defeat on Wednesday, there was a reminder that this is a club with a core of players aged 24 and under – a maturing Wayne Rooney, just through his finest season; Evans, a revelation; Rafael Da Silva; the strikers Federico Macheda and Danny Wellbeck; Ronaldo if he wants to be around – ready to pick up the torch. "Just as I spoke with the players after our win in Moscow last year, it's my job as well to speak to the younger players in defeat," Giggs said. "We have a relatively young team. The young players will understand that we can go again and put this behind us because that is what you have to do at a great club like this and this team can go on and win this trophy in coming seasons. There is no reason for this defeat to cause any lasting damage."
Domestically, no one has a next generation like Ferguson's. Chelsea must create one now, Arsenal have one in need of time to grow and Liverpool's excellent Spring should not disguise the fact that, the spine of their team apart, few of their players would make United's side. Their Academy's latest overhaul is just starting.
It is possible that Ferdinand will be club captain before next season is out and his current sense of despair may give Kazakhstan and Andorra, who England face in the next 10 days, grounds for anxiety. "Hopefully the games coming up with England will help get it out of my system – we will see," Ferdinand said. "But we weren't silly enough to think it was all going to be rosy. Sometimes you have to lose to come back stronger and dust yourself down."
As for Ferguson? Well his time is running out, like Giggs, but while some European defeats have seen him reshape United – their counter-attacking prowess was borne of defeats in the aftermath of the 1999 win – others are chalked up to one bad night. Remember that Gabriel Heinze aside, the team annihilated by Milan in the 2007 semi final, which prompted the previous bout of soul-searching, has remained integral to Old Trafford.
Ferguson foresaw before Wednesday's final that "whenever there is a bit of success it leads to more expectation, and then you're in for that kick in the teeth – when you see another headline that reads 'Ferguson is finished.' It will be my shelf-life is gone, it's time to get the bathchair out for me at Torquay beach."
What will he do now? Click his fingers and start again.Reuse content