This time, Sir Alex Ferguson stared defeat square in the face.
It was six years ago yesterday that he absented himself entirely from press questions when his side's Champions League group-stage elimination at the stadium known to Benfica's fans simply as Luz (Light) had plunged him into darkness. Now, he gazed out on the foul storm clouds scudding above the back fields of Carrington and smiled.
Removal from the continent's elite tournament at the group stage is still a relatively unknown concept to this manager. It has only happened three times and not once since Benfica, though there is perhaps a consolation of sorts in a landscape more sparing now than that of December 2005 when, to quote one chronicler of United's dismal 2-1 defeat in Portugal, the consensus was that Ferguson's "old well of venom and resilience has run dry".
Water off a duck's back, now. "I don't think anyone relishes seeing criticism of themselves," Ferguson reflected yesterday. "I've said it time and time again, you only need to lose two games and the hounds are out, there's no question about that." His belief in the promise of youth has become far more messianic since he last found himself in this position and he affirmed yet again that the boys would be all right. "They've achieved many great things so far," he said. "Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have played for their country, Danny Welbeck has played for his country. These will be the foundation of the club in a few years' time. And what they got, these young players, was a nasty experience on Wednesday, but they know they have the trust of myself and the coaches. They will not be hounded because of one bad performance, there's no question about that. And time will prove us right."
Time has proved something else, however. Though Ferguson was his usual pessimistic self yesterday about the value of the transfer market in January, Champions League group-stage failure has always been a catalyst for action. It happened in 1995, when Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis left to make way for the new generation of young bloods; in 2005, when the indignity of winding up bottom of a Champions League group immediately preceded Ferguson's moves for Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic. The same pattern can be traced to the spring of 2001, when defeats, home and away, to Bayern Munich led Roy Keane – Ferguson's harshest critic in Basle on Wednesday – to conclude in a mixed zone that "maybe we need to get new players, break it up, start again". Ferguson promptly broke the British transfer record twice in one summer, paying £28m to Lazio for Juan Sebastian Veron to break forward from a more fortified midfield and bringing in Ruud van Nistelrooy as a lone -striker.
The reconstruction has not always worked. Veron never succeeded as a Manchester United player and though Van Nistelrooy's goalscoring for United in Europe has no equal, the club drifted into a period of Champions League wilderness after 2002. But this is another United in transition and the close attention being paid to Benfica duo Nicolas Gaitan and Javi Garcia suggests that winter rebuilding work should not be ruled out. "I just have to repeat myself as I've always done. It's very difficult to buy players in January," Ferguson said, not entirely precluding activity. "You don't want to just buy anyone simply because it gives you another player. If we're going to buy, you want someone who makes a difference, and that's what we've tried to do." He insisted that the moves for Evra and Vidic had been planned for the medium term, though both were sent rapidly into the United side in the winter of 2006.
This is not to say that Ferguson does not possess talent within. Paul Scholes has said that last season's FA Youth Cup-winning side are the best crop of Old Trafford youngsters since those of his own era, and the Europa League may just offer an opportunity to blood Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba and others more fully. Ferguson did not exclude that option, either, though it will be contingent on the strength of opposition in the Europa League and the Premier League opposition to follow. "There are 32 teams so you're going to be involved in eight matches anyway if you have a go at it – and I think we will have a go at it, there's no doubt in my mind," he said. "There's a responsibility at this club to do well in every tournament. But it depends who you're drawn against and what your next league game is."
Briefly, an enthusiasm actually seemed to be building for the Europa League – and one which did not seem forced. In the back of Ferguson's mind, there might just be a thought that the Uefa Cup is the one European trophy to have eluded him. Word had even reached him, just yesterday morning, that the tournament may not even mean Thursday nights on Channel 5. His side's fixtures might be moved to Tuesdays or Wednesdays, owing to the fact that teams from the same city may not play at home on the same day and that the two Manchester clubs – both seeded – will play second legs at home. "We'll have to see how that will pan out," said the manager, who may not be exuberant to know that since Europa League matches cannot clash with the Champions League, kick-off times could be 5pm – taking United a very long way from the fervour of the great Old Trafford European nights.
For now, though, the small matter of the five-point gap on Manchester City and the potential, as he sees it, of exerting some pressure on successive weekends, with United twice playing before City – starting today, against Wolves at Old Trafford. With nine players injured, Ferguson is in a cold place, though one of his prime strategies has been to turn adversity into a source of strength. "The work we're doing here is the right work," he said. "The players we've got here are the right players. Like everyone else we want to be better, we want to be perfect. We never can be perfect but perseverance is the best way to try and achieve that and that's what this club is good at. We're not the only club in the world that can get a bad result. How you recover from them is part of our club." And at the very moment he left, the clouds cleared.
January Sales: How has Fergie fared?
Andy Cole, 1995
The transfer of Cole from Newcastle United was a record fee (£7m) and the striker went on to score 12 goals in his first 18 games for the club. Renowned for his partnership with Dwight Yorke and a member of the treble-winning side in 1999.
Diego Forlan, 2002
After hearing news that Middlesbrough were sniffing around, Sir Alex captured Forlan for £7.5m. However, he didn't score his first United goal until September and was widely regarded as a flop before moving abroad.
Patrice Evra, 2006
Signed from Monaco for £5.5m and instantly became a big success at Old Trafford following previous left-back frailties.
Nemanja Vidic, 2006
Joined United from Spartak Moscow and has been an ever-present when fit – twice winning the Premier League Player of the Season.
Zoran Tosic, 2009
The Serbian winger was widely sought-after and United splashed out £5m for his services. Although having a big reputation, Tosic couldn't get to grips with English football and failed to start a game for the club before they recouped their money for him last year.
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