James Lawton: Ferguson rekindles fire from each blaze of glory

United's football of light and hope shone not just in the European Cup triumph, but in the will to win again
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Football's power to move the spirit, in the most improbable, and sometimes even the most unjust ways, is something Chelsea's captain John Terry will have to live with for the rest of his days. Maybe he will grow strong at the place in his competitive heart that was broken here in the rain and the angst of the Luzhniki Stadium.

Perhaps he will not. This is his challenge, his dilemma, and in the meantime he will just have to understand, along with his oligarch patron Roman Abramovich, that in the end there is only one guarantee.

James Lawton's greatest ever European Cup finals

It is that football will always retain the right to bestow its own form of justice and however quirky, however unreliable in the details of its judgement, it does have a habit of rewarding the boldest spirit and the most unquenchable ambition. This surely was the meaning of the latest triumph of Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United – and its statement about the competitive intensity of the upper echelon of English football.

We didn't see a classic exhibition of the game. We were not lulled by its subtle rhythms, though at times there were startling examples of the individual touch and power of players like Cristiano Ronaldo and the shamed and perhaps terminally enigmatic Didier Drogba.

We were instead riveted by the willingness of England's two strongest sides to trade blows for 120 minutes, blows so heavy that the rest of Europe could only watch with a degree of awe and, perhaps, muse that the intervention of the penalty shoot-out was a little like deciding a bare-knuckle championship fight by the drawing of lots.

Beyond everything, though, was the mystique of Manchester United and the lust to win, which Sir Matt Busby first introduced from behind an avuncular mask and wisps of pipe smoke and which Ferguson now often represents no more gently than a practitioner of armed robbery.

Different styles, maybe, but with the same implacable result, the same reseeding of youth, the same gut-deep desire to have players you can trust whenever you send them out on to the field and in whatever circumstances.

Busby, the man whom Sir Bobby Charlton still refers to as simply the "Old Man", was not given to boasting but occasionally he would confide that his greatest pleasure was to take a small nip of Scotch and then take his place in the stand to watch players of the quality of Edwards and Charlton, Best and Law, and know, deep down, that all would be well.

Increasingly in recent years, Ferguson has tended towards such announcements.

First you have the belief of how your team should play – and then you put in place all the pieces. After his first ecstatic rush across the rain-greased field in the small hours of yesterday morning here, Ferguson seemed to retire somewhat into himself.

Of course, he made the ritual claim that United were the better side – in some ways they were, in others they weren't – but for some it was only to confirm the suspicion that in him the fight is at least as important as the winning.

Soon after the match he came close to confirming the theory. He said, "I'm very proud. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself. I think the greatest asset is that I don't get carried away with it. Tomorrow morning I'm thinking about next season. It drains away from me quickly. Euphoria evaporates almost immediately, and then I move on. It is just something in me to recreate that drug again."

And while he moves on, others move off. It is the way of the game, the harsh but unavoidable practicality. His tribute to the medal-winning veterans Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs went deep but was unvarnished by even a hint of sentimentality when he said, "OK, you have the issue of Paul and Ryan coming to the twilight of their careers but they will contribute in a big way next season, as they normally do. But they will not have so many games and they will eventually be phased out. You have to do it in life. I have the back-up now; that was done last summer."

Of course, he added, he would go on, and, when you think about it, which able-bodied man would walk away, even at the age of 66, from such a source of recurring energy and delight?

It is something a man couldn't buy – not even a man with the purchasing power of Roman Abramovich, and this seemed to be the dawning knowledge written on his face as he contemplated the bleakest of anticlimaxes in the city which has fuelled all his ambitions and his unbridled wealth. Ferguson's power is the apparently endlessly rechargeable one of knowing precisely what you have to do and the kind of players who can help you do it.

The United manager had acknowledged before the game that his team couldn't compete with the power of Chelsea and his entire strategy, once it had emerged from opening exchanges that could scarcely have been more prosaic, confirmed absolutely that this wasn't the usual kind of shadow-boxing. He went with his three strike players, Ronaldo, a Wayne Rooney who was deeply disappointing, but for several passes of quite brilliant weight and perception, and the ever tenacious Carlos Tevez, and around them Ferguson's men had to run patterns drawn brilliantly by the heroic, bloodied Scholes before he tired.

When Ronaldo scored a goal which he described, without cause for argument, as "fantastic" it seemed that United might have been celebrating beyond dawn here a different kind of triumph – a performance of some majesty rather than, finally, a feat of endurance to rank with the last minute smash-and-grab of Barcelona nine years earlier.

Yet Chelsea were too strong to be stripped down by the boldness of United's running – and even the ease with which Ronaldo exposed the formidable Michael Essien as so badly miscast at full-back.

Terry was magnificent right up to the moment he slipped on the wet and scandalously inadequate playing surface – a hasty, catchpenny centrepiece to one of the great financial coups of organised football – and sent his penalty squirting against a post.

Frank Lampard scored a goal that was about his greatest strength, an unflagging desire to be at the most opportune place, and from Chelsea came a performance of strength and resolve that was a credit, almost certainly the last one, to the way the most temporary of managers, Avram Grant, turned the clothes of a pariah into those of a football man of considerable dignity. But then Ferguson's United claimed the night partly because they were befriended by fate – and also because sometimes that happens when you are brave enough to do what you believe is right.

Ferguson believes, as Busby did, that if football isn't expansive, if it doesn't attempt to make a marriage of skill and courage, it is not really worth the trouble.

Chelsea displayed much of the inheritance of their maker, Jose Mourinho. Eventually they forced the game with unapologetic power, and as Bayern Munich had done nine years earlier at the Nou Camp, they twice hit the woodwork. Claude Makelele may be approaching superannuation but he remains a relentlessly uncompromising opponent and it was perhaps significant that it was after a collision with him that Scholes took on the appearance of an embattled middleweight.

United did fashion the better chances and they might well have been leading 3-0 at the break, but no one could argue that Chelsea did not carry the later rounds. It meant the split decision could only be settled by the absurd arbitration of the penalty shoot-out. It was unsatisfactory for everyone and disaster for Terry, but it did not carry us too far from an essential truth.

The winners had played the football most likely to lift the soul beyond the tank traps and ferocity of the English game, and the sight of the old hero Charlton, fighting to hold back his tears 50 years after the tragedy of Munich, leading the United players to their moment of celebration was a moment to be framed in the most romantic history of the game we like to call beautiful.

The beauty was not unblemished here in the Luzhniki Stadium, but there was enough of it about to stir the football soul.

United won the glory and John Terry embraced the grief but, somewhere in between, there was the most notable of victories. It was for the football of light and hope, the football of Sir Alex Ferguson.

It provoked a toast that, rather like its recipient, is not likely to be extinguished for some time.

James Lawton's great European finals

1960, Hampden Park, Real Madrid 7 Eintracht Frankfurt 3

Still, the final of finals, Real Madrid scoring their fifth straight triumph with football that stunned the 135,000 crowd. The Germans were so much more than cannon fodder, having pulverised Rangers in the semis with 12 goals over two legs. But this was the high tide of the magicians from the Bernabeu led by the player most admired by a young Bobby Charlton, Alfredo di Stefano.

1962, Amsterdam, Benfica 5 Real Madrid 3

The magicians were ebbing and Benfica were a new force inspired by brilliant recruits from Portugal's colonies, Eusebio and the master craftsman Mario Coluna.

1967, Lisbon, Internazionale 1 Celtic 2

If ever there could be such a thing as a 2-1 slaughter, this was it. Jock Stein, drawing all his players from in and around Glasgow, took on and ransacked the Internazionale coach Helenio Herrera, an extrovert Argentine who was known as the Black Magician and was the leading disciple of catenaccio, the bolted door of defence. Stein's boys smashed it down with unforgettable courage and gusto.

Wembley, 1968, Manchester United 4 Benfica 1 (after extra time)

Memorable for so many different reasons, including the 10th anniversary of the Munich tragedy which had decimated manager Sir Matt Busby's second brilliant team, the Busby Babes. Also it provided the biggest stage for the third and youngest member of the great United triumvirate, George Best. Unlike his legendary team-mates Charlton and Law, the sublime Ulsterman would never play in a World Cup. But he was unforgettable in the celebrated annual match of club football.

1994, Athens, Barcelona 0 Milan 4

Under the Golden Dutchman, Johan Cruyff, Barca were favourites but Milan were awesome under the guidance of a certain Fabio Capello. A huge performance came from Marcel Desailly, who arrived in Chelsea only when his powers were in sharp decline.

2005, Istanbul, Liverpool 3 Milan 3 (Liverpool on penalties)

Purists and the cognoscenti of disciplined football remember this for the scandalous irresponsibility of an Italian defence which, amazingly included Paolo Maldini. But with Steven Gerrard off the bridle when all hope seemed to have gone, Liverpool pulled back three goals, and with the help of the soon discredited Polish goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, triumphed in the penalty shoot-out. It was Liverpool's fifth European and technically nowhere near their best. But this was more than a European Cup final. It was a Boy's Own story in the lightest disguise.