The day we did not think would come: Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson eats humble pie

Manager has changed and made U-turns in the past but rarely admitted to mistakes in public

It was just past two o'clock and in the Europa Suite at Old Trafford Sir Alex Ferguson was backing down. The most important decision for any general is to decide which battles he can win – and this was one which he could only have lost.

In the players' tunnel, where Ferguson conducts his TV interviews, the manner in which he had said on Saturday that Rio Ferdinand would be "dealt with" for not wearing a T-shirt supporting Kick It Out left little doubt what would follow.

However, it was a fight where not even the overlord of Old Trafford could emerge triumphant. Manchester United would have been as unable to force one of its employees to back an anti-racism campaign as they would have been to make Patrice Evra support Eric Cantona's quixotic bid for the French presidency.

Ferguson admitted that there had been a breakdown in communications with Ferdinand on Friday when he gave his pre-match press conference ahead of the Stoke City game.

He would have been fully aware that the Kick It Out week of action, which he wholeheartedly endorses, was about to begin but may not have anticipated a question about Jason Roberts' refusal to support it on the grounds that it had not been effective enough in prosecuting the case against John Terry.

Ferguson's answer was forthright. The Reading striker was putting himself "on his own pedestal," he said, and added: "We don't want the sheep wandering away". It did not occur to him that one of his own defenders might be part of that flock. On Saturday, after Stoke had been beaten 4-2, he spoke of his "embarrassment" but it stemmed from a failure to check with his own team.

Yesterday, he knew the question was coming and that it would be first up. Even men like Harry Redknapp, who regard themselves as Ferguson's allies, had argued over the weekend that Ferdinand had the right to his own opinions.

When it came, he answered it with something that was as close to an admission that he was wrong as you are likely to get from Ferguson. It killed the story and, had Andrew Mitchell delivered something similar when he allegedly called the policeman at the gates of Downing Street "a pleb', he might still be the Government chief whip.

Ferguson excels on these stages. Almost exactly two years ago in the same room at the same time he had given a mesmerising account of the breakdown of his relationship with Wayne Rooney that had taken the striker to the very edge of leaving Old Trafford.

The only sound was the click of the photographers' shutters. It sounded like a father taking his leave of his son, with his voice laced with regret and hurt. They were reconciled, drawing the admission from Rooney that this was "the biggest mistake of my career". It was an enormous victory.

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Football managers, like actors, make their major mistakes in public. Ferguson signed Eric Djemba-Djemba, sold Jaap Stam and bought Laurent Blanc. However, admitting to such errors is for a football manager something that is saved for the autobiography upon retirement.

Ferguson was due to retire in 2002. He insisted upon it, the decision was unalterable. All through the first half of the season, the last in which he gave proper post-match press conferences, he was asked if he might reconsider. Always the answer was no until, perhaps motivated by a gut feeling, he changed his mind. Had he not done so, he would not have coached Rooney or Cristiano Ronaldo. On a rainswept night in Moscow in 2008, he would not have felt the weight of the European Cup in his hands. He would not have won five Premier League titles. By that token yesterday's change of heart was nothing.

And it is nothing compared to the scene played out in his office when after a vicious argument with Peter Schmeichel, who had reacted venomously to criticism of his performance in a 3-3 draw with Liverpool in 1994, he decided to sack probably his greatest goalkeeper.

"We had a massive, massive row," Schmeichel was to recall. "The more we said the worse it got on both sides. The next day, in his office, he said: 'I have to sack you. I can't tolerate my players speaking to me like that. It goes against my authority'."

After Schmeichel apologised, Ferguson changed his mind, something he did not do in similar circumstances with Roy Keane. Ferdinand, a defender who has graced Old Trafford, is with Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones all injured and a game at Chelsea coming up, too valuable for that.

The image of Ferguson is of an utterly inflexible, almost Stalinist character, who once he had made a decision could never be swayed from it. Were that true, he would have never adapted to football's constantly changing rhythms.

He would have ended up like Spurs' greatest manager, Bill Nicholson, despairing of long-haired footballers, shouting at the hooligans wrecking the 1974 Uefa Cup final in Rotterdam that they were "a disgrace to Britain" and retiring, sick of the game that year, the one that Ferguson entered management.

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