An old message of football was beaten out on the angst-filled brow of Sir Alex Ferguson in the Rhineland this week. It said that the game stops for no one, not even the greatest manager of his generation.
However, he may choose to draw strength from another well-established truth, this one from the business of real life, in the wake of the knock-out blow delivered by the superbly drilled Bayer Leverkusen to his dream of returning to his native Glasgow and lifting a second European Cup later this month. It says that the world breaks everyone, quite indiscriminately, but that some grow strong at the broken places. When Ferguson shakes off his disappointment, he will surely realise that he is superbly equipped both as a manager and a particular sort of man to act profitably on the vast accumulation of evidence supporting that last belief.
For the moment Fergie may well bemoan United's bad luck on Tuesday night and dwell a little on the four occasions the German team were obliged to clear away United efforts from their goal-line. But Fergie did not get to be where he is in the game by indefinitely pulling the wool over his own eyes and the fact is that between now and the resumption of European action next autumn he has to vigorously re-trace some of his steps.
When he does that he may conclude, with a somewhat lighter heart than the one he carried from the BayArena, that finishing second in the Premiership and away-goal losers in a European Cup semi-final was only a disaster by his own extraordinary expectations. From the viewpoint of almost any other manager confronting the kind of situation, Ferguson faced in mid-season that would surely represent not so much catastrophe as a spectacular piece of professional deliverance.
However, Ferguson long ago stepped beyond such easy consolation, and that was both his pain and his glory when his chain-smoking rival, Klaus Toppmöller, charged on to the field in triumph. It meant that if Ferguson is to turn his extended tour of duty into another roll of honour rather than an ordeal, he must address the fundamental reasons for United's first trophy-less season since the one plagued by Eric Cantona's eruption at Selhurst Park.
The basic problem this time was the deep competitive dislocation caused by Ferguson's announcement that he would quit at the end of this season. Whatever the provocation, the sense, perhaps, of a boardroom failure fully to appreciate, and reward, the amazing transformation he had brought to the playing fortunes and financial foundations of the club, Ferguson's decision was an error, at least in the public declaration of it, and by the time it was corrected United's ability to repair the damage, especially in the Premiership, was stretched beyond its limits.
Next season will supply its own momentum, and much of it will come from the slow-release anger guaranteed by the shock of the team no longer being able to call themselves champions.
Ferguson will also have to help the process with some vital decisions. His absolute priority is to impress on the boardroom the need for a return to certainty at the heart of United's defence. The mis-firing of Juan Sebastian Veron, and also that of David Beckham at a key point in the season, was a serious problem, but nothing like as basic as the one which followed the departure of Jaap Stam. Ferguson had concluded, quite reasonably in the view of some sound judges, that the big Dutchman's game had dwindled alarmingly by the start of this season, but his mistake was to place far too much faith in Laurent Blanc's ability to adapt the remnants, which have admittedly at times been imperious, of his old play to the frenzies of the Premiership.
Ferguson has been quick to say that Blanc has been producing some magnificent passages of play. No doubt there have been plenty of reminders of quite what Blanc used to represent, but the reality is that the great Frenchman's ability to respond to bursts of pace has at times been an open invitation to the nippier of his opponents.
The United manager thus has to accept that respect for a once majestic player must come second to a hard-headed analysis of the team's most pressing need. Ferguson needs to do more than window-shop at the upcoming World Cup finals. He has to arm himself with a blank cheque and the resolve to return to his team the life-giving force of a central defender of genuine authority. Alessandro Nesta of Italy would seem the foremost contender. He may not have Blanc's grace and touch, but he has, relatively speaking, young, quick legs and defensive instincts much more likely to discourage the kind of aggressive liberties taken by Leverkusen's assassin-in-chief Oliver Neuville on Tuesday night.
Veron, like Blanc, was an act of faith in a footballer of the highest quality, but the Little Witch of Argentina has been the Big Misfit of Old Trafford. Veron has supplied plenty of evidence of why Ferguson would have invested £28m in his feathery touch and sublime passing instinct, but he has never given the impression of someone convinced that he had arrived in the right place at the right time. Indeed, on too many vital occasions the opposite has appeared true.
His old club Lazio, and Barcelona, are both said to be eager to end the Veron experiment at Old Trafford and the case for Ferguson to cut his losses appears to be overwhelming. Ferguson saw Veron as a new sophisticated dimension to his team's European campaigning, but if anyone was going to save the night in Germany it was not going to be the artist from South America. Yet again, the extraordinary Roy Keane elected himself to that role, and it says everything about his nature – and his still rampant relevance to all of Ferguson's hopes – that he came within a finger-tip save of delivering yet again.
That he failed despite another magnificent performance was perhaps the single most pressing cause of Ferguson's sadness. Keane, from the first to almost the last gasp of a troubled season, relentlessly re-stated the best competitive values of Mancheser United. He remains, by a huge margin, the manager's best chance of making his team strong again at a deeply broken place.Reuse content