Alex Ferguson puts on brave face as Premier League title is ripped from Manchester United

Sunderland 0 Manchester United 1

He was on the pitch. On the most remarkable day English football could ever remember, there was still the uniqueness of watching Sir Alex Ferguson have the title ripped from his hands.

When the final whistle had blown at the Stadium of Light, it was 2-2 at Manchester City. Ferguson had spent the entire game in conversation with a man from Sky TV. Every few minutes he was in his ear, questioning, chewing, pacing; like a nervous father to-be.

One minute before that final whistle, City were still 2-1 down. The visiting dugout was not quite jovial but such was the exuberance flooding the veins of those from United, such was the enormity of what they were about to achieve, that it sneaked into their body language. You cannot sit on that kind of emotion. It was there in the away end, where blind optimism had been replaced by a growing belief that something else was being sent from heaven.

Ninety three minutes incorporated what happened inside two in Barcelona for them in 1999. In the 88th minute one man was in ecstasy, jumping up and down, dancing, grabbing his friend round the neck. This dream they had probably spoken about last night in a pub was about to happen.

Or at least they thought.

That they were not alone in that assumption is unquestionable. We thought. Everyone thought. Perhaps only Sergio Aguero did not. Even he may have secretly given it up.

Perhaps Ferguson knew deep down at 2-2 that he was in big trouble, when Edin Dzeko gave City's own supporters the kiss of life, but when Howard Webb blew the final whistle, the league table at that moment showed Manchester United at its summit. With one minute remaining of the 380th game of the season, they were champions in waiting.

At that point Ferguson took care of business. He went over to Steve Walford, the Sunderland number two, and shook his hand. Then he did the same with Martin O'Neill. He walked into the middle of a group of Manchester United players, his players, and United staff, his staff, and waited.

It was seconds but it must have felt so much longer. In the press box, two words were heard. "Three-two". A spontaneous roar broke out in the far corner of the South-West stand, where Sunderland's most hardcore of supporters had become City fans for a day.

Ferguson's senses were so highly tuned that, in that instant he knew, and you watched his face as he looked to where the noise came from, and when he asked for confirmation of what, in his heart he already knew, there came the most brave of wry smiles a man in such a position could have mustered. He did not fall to his knees, or put his head in his hands. He showed exactly why Manchester United have been at the top under his stewardship for so long. He sets the tone, so he set the tone. There were quick handshakes, and as the penny dropped heartache into the souls of his players, he led his men to the dazed travelling supporters, applauded them and then he was gone down the tunnel.

All that work for nothing. Phil Jones' face followed Ferguson's in the dawning realisation of what horror had just happened. Unlike a man of steel like Ferguson, Jones is young. He has no titles and he was crushed.

You understood. Everyone in the Stadium of Light understood. People greeted each other with two words, and they began with F and H and it was justified as there was nothing else you could say. After such gut-wrenching drama, the subtlety of language had been stripped down to its most base level.

There was cruelty, when sections of Sunderland supporters began doing an impromptu Poznan, the dance of the blue half of Manchester. Some fists were waved from those United fans leaving the ground but their spirit was crushed and it was instinctive rather than aggressive. A 1-0 victory, given to them by Wayne Rooney's first-half goal, had never felt so hollow.

They looked stunned, bewildered. With each twist yesterday, once that first goal from Pablo Zabaleta had happened, it was going their way. "We're Man United, we do what we want," they sang, and it appeared they were doing just that.

With each goal (Rooney, Djibril Cissé and Jamie Mackie) it was happening. After each goal, the immediate song was the same, "U, N, I, T, E, D, United are the team for me," a song which builds to its disparaging finish for the city rivals.

And then they had nothing. Bravely there was a call for their players, there was mutual applause but yesterday their gut was wrenched out.

They would do well to follow their manager's lead. Ferguson was magnanimous. "I would like to pass on our congratulations to our neighbours," he said. "It is a fantastic achievement to win the Premier League – it's the hardest league in the world – and anybody that wins it deserves it."

And where that generosity of spirit came from in the midst of such devastation was remarkable.

But then everything yesterday was.

Match facts



Scorer. Man Utd: Rooney 20

Substitutes: Sunderland Elmohamady (O'Shea, 43), Bridge (Bardsley, 62), Wickham (Vaughan, 74). Man Utd Nani (Young, 82). Booked: Sunderland Bardsley, Turner, Campbell. Man Utd Jones, Giggs, Scholes.

Man of the match Scholes. Match rating 6/10.

Possession: Sunderland 43% Man Utd 57%.

Attempts on target: Sunderland 5 Man Utd 9.

Referee H Webb (S Yorkshire). Attendance 46,452.