Following a clear-the-air meeting between Keane and his players, Ferguson sought closure on one of the most arduous weeks of his reign yesterday, albeit with a rebuke to his captain for attempting to go public with his disaffection. Yet should United respond to inflict a first League defeat in 41 matches on the champions, it will not allay the deep-rooted concerns of Ferguson, who admitted he has been forced to alter his entire recruitment policy as a consequence of the methods Chelsea have employed to overtake United on and off the field of play.
Ferguson's unease at Chelsea's conduct is nothing new, with the issue of multi-club ownership and the pursuit of Nigerian teenager John Obi Mikel more recent gripes, but yesterday the extent to which he believes Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, has compounded his problems at Old Trafford became apparent when he claimed the Stamford Bridge club deliberately target players identified by United or Arsenal.
"What has changed for us [post-Abramovich] is how we view ourselves in terms of our development or bringing players in from another club," he said. "If we're doing something we have to be really quick and decisive now before Chelsea find out about it. I know that they're quite happy to buy somebody just to keep them away from Arsenal and United. They can do that because they've got that much money."
Although Ferguson has hardly been starved of cash at United, he insisted that a responsibility to develop young talent meant he would not follow Chelsea's abandon in the transfer market even if he could. He added: "I wouldn't mind that kind of money but managing this club is different. I probably wouldn't use that money, if I had it, as much as they do anyway because it's important to still have a healthy youth system, and we have that."
Chelsea's strength in the transfer market will be on display for Ferguson tomorrow in the form of three players he had hoped would improve his own ineffectual midfield, Arjen Robben, Damien Duff and Michael Essien. However, Ferguson's admiration for Mourinho, in whom he detects the same characteristics that drove his younger self and with whom he shares a dislike of Arsène Wenger, will endure any envy and the defining nature of their latest meeting.
"We have to get used to Jose's public 'observations' and I don't mind them at all, they are quite amusing," said the United manager. "There are parts surrounding his club which don't do it for me, but his management has been good for the game. It's created an impression and I don't think it's done Chelsea any harm because it's given them a great profile, a profile they've never had. He's a manager who'll come in for a drink after a game no matter what the result. I appreciate that. When do you get an opportunity to sit down with other managers?"
It was on 6 November, 1986, that Ferguson replaced Ron Atkinson as United manager, having met a delegation led by former chairman Martin Edwards at his sister-in-law's home the night before. Tomorrow his employer, Malcolm Glazer, will be seeking signs that he has received more for his £540m debt than a club beset by internal division and declining standards.
Ferguson insists they have, though in declaring that the mounting pressure "will not derail us in any form", he gave a gentle admonishment to Keane while maintaining his policy of refusing to comment on that MUTV interview. "The criticism is coming from all directions, but what you have to do as manager of this club is make sure it doesn't go outside your door," he said.
"What I've got to do as the manager of Manchester United - and always have done, my stance remaining unchanged, unequivocal, unremitting - is I won't be criticising anyone at this club. Anything we do at this club will remain indoors. That's the example Manchester United set from their manager, and that's really important. I won't change and neither will the club. We're straight-lined about our approach to Sunday's match. We know it's a big game but, Christ, we've had some big games in the past."