Sir Alex Ferguson was stood on a football pitch when Manchester United had their hands wrenched off the Premier League trophy, deep in injury time, on the final day of the most dramatic finish to a season that anybody could ever remember.
Watching Ferguson that day, at the Stadium of Light, was a reminder of just why United have been the most dominant force in English football by a country mile for two decades. There was a roar from a pocket of Sunderland supporters, there was a twitch from Ferguson to where the cheer had come from, a quick question to a colleague to confirm what every instinct in his body told him had happened, that Manchester City had scored a third goal, another to follow Edin Dzeko's, and that the fairytale finish would not be his or his football club's after all, that it would belong to Manchester City and their fans.
Lesser men would have buckled at the enormity of that moment, when United's world appeared to have caved in. His side were not supposed to have a prayer on that final day of the season. Even his own belief was small, but it was enough to push his own team over the line, with a 1-0 victory. On such occasions, doing your own job can often be enough. Queen's Park Rangers scored twice at the Etihad Stadium and belief flowed through the veins of the Manchester United supporters stood behind the goal. Even they had not dared believe a magical day was about to unfold, that they could win it as City blew it. It was the dream of a football fan. It was the dream of a football club.
As the game at the Stadium of Light finished, Ferguson came on to the pitch with his players. At that point, they were the champions of England. Dzeko had just scored, but Manchester City were still drawing. English football may have to wait another 100 years for such tension, for such a finish.
Then came the fourth minute of injury time and Sergio Aguero's goal. United should have been crushed. Think of the tears that have flowed on football pitches; for a booking, for a missed penalty, for a cup defeat. For this, for losing the title in the most cruel fashion imaginable to your city rivals, Ferguson stood firm, like a fighter with an iron chin. There were some brisk handshakes, a wave to the travelling supporters and then he went down the tunnel to offer his congratulations to Manchester City for winning the title. Then came a promise that his side would fight harder than ever to win it back, and there was not a modicum of doubt in anyone's mind that he meant it.
Ferguson did not wallow in defeat as he has not drowned in success. He has set the agenda in English football for longer than most can remember. That final day of the season, when lesser men would have crumbled, was as visible an insight into why as you could possibly have had.
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