It was, by all acounts, a gradual dawning of the truth, probably since the sun rose on the first day of this season. Sir Alex Ferguson realised that he had made the most almighty miscalculation. The date of his own retirement.
He had willingly donned his demob suit – and how many football managers get that chance? – and was reconciled to his self-inflicted fate, but it was New Year's Eve, the date of his 60th birthday, when finally the doubts which had been gnawing at him grew too insistent to ignore. This man was for turning.
As a close associate of the Govan-born manager told me: "There's this Scottish working-class mentality that you work like a beast until you get to 60, and then you ride off into the sunset to enjoy your retirement. But managing the world's biggest football club is a bit different from working in the shipyard. And, as Alex approached that birthday, he began thinking, 'It's going to be very quiet when I get to 60 and I retire. It's just not what I want'. For a man who was so fit and active, he couldn't contemplate a future like that. What would he do then?
"It would have been wrong for Alex to go and a lot of his friends badgered him and told him so. A crucial element was Cathy [his wife] and the three lads. They said 'We want you to carry on, why shouldn't you?' It's good for him and, for a lot of reasons, it's good for United. He's a very outgoing person and loves his job. To have thought that the last kick of a ball this season by a United player would have been it would have been terrible for him. He would have regretted it for the rest of his life."
Even at that late stage, it was evident there was a way back, despite having offered a post-dated resignation. But replacing a man of Ferguson's stature at a club, which being a public company meant that everything had to be done transparently, was never going to be a straightforward matter. Those under scrutiny of the Old Trafford hierachy, most notably the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, were all under contract.
From United's point of view, his Dick Whittington-like act has been heaven-sent. Not only can the chief executive, Peter Kenyon, postpone a problematic process, but retaining Ferguson, even at an estimated £10m for the duration of his contract, could prove considerably cheaper than identifying and acquiring a new man who would demand a generous salary, plus possibly compensation to another club or (in Eriksson's case) the FA.
The result has been that Ferguson has been able to agree a two-and-half year deal, culminating at the end of the 2003-2004 season, though, given there are probably as many of m'learned friends involved in these negotiations as there are players in the United squad, it was no surprise that the announcement, originally intended for last Thursday, has been postponed until tomorrow.
Whether he sees out that term is quite another matter. Though Eriksson and the FA have responded vigorously this week, disputing reports that the England coach had been in negotiations with United, it was widely known that the champions hoped to lure the Swede to Old Trafford after this year's World Cup. Eriksson has a five-year contract with England and an option for a further two years. He has been in the job just over a year. Yet, as a friend of the former Lazio coach said last night: "Who's going to say what will happen in two or three years' time. One thing's for certain, Sven will go back to a club. There's no doubt. But it's all about timing."
Should England fail to exhibit the prowess and confidence Eriksson has apparently instilled in his players during their adventures in Japan and South Korea this summer, it is not inconceivable that the coach would decide to return to a club role more swiftly than he intended, despite his protestations to the contrary. Celtic's Martin O'Neill also remains a possible alternative, together with Bayern Munich's Ottmar Hitzfeld.
What is clear is that the so-called "Coolmore Mafia", the Irish horseracing tycoons John Magnier and J P McManus, have neither been instrumental in Ferguson's decision nor is it their intention to wrest control of United. "They're purely investors and I can assure you they're not interested in taking over," I was told by a confidant. "Quite simply if the shares get to a level where they consider them good value to buy from an investment point of view, they'd go in again. But as J P is on record as saying recently, 'If we are buying Manchester United, we're making a pretty bad job of it, aren't we?' "
As for Ferguson, who holds an advisory role on his eventual successor, there was no suggestion that he offered to continue merely to help the club out of their predicament. "You can discount that," said a source close to him. "This has been all about his own personal ambition and sense of pride."
A factor which did heavily influence Ferguson's decision, though, was his frustration during November and early December when his team were in a slough of indifferent form. This was not how he wanted to be remembered and his irritation became tangible when he abruptly refused to have any more dealings with the written media. In his determination to win another Champions' League he had transformed his side, importing new personnel and altering tactics, principally designed to propel United further than the quarter-finals where they have fallen in the last two seasons. In retrospect, he would probably accept that in attempting to assimilate Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Veron, followed by Lauren Blanc, he was trying to do too much too quickly. Ferguson had deployed Paul Scholes in a new role and it was not proving successful. Crisis, at least in United's terms, ensued, and suddenly he realised that time was not on his side.
The Scot resorted to basics, to his tried and tested system, and played two up again. A 10-match winning run followed, albeit for the most part without David Beckham, who nevertheless appears to be ready to recommit himself to United. However, the fact is that Ferguson's team remain far too vulnerable. Only West Ham, Southampton and Derby have conceded more Premiership away goals, for instance, and apart from a comfortable home victory over Newcastle in recent weeks, they have still to demonstrate they remain as formidable as they once were when faced with the challenge of their fellow elite.
Now the Champions' League looms again; in 10 days' time United travel to Nantes. What system will he utilise then? Playing two strikers in tandem has failed him before in Europe, but will it succeed with Van Nistelrooy, or should he ask the Dutchman to be a lone spearhead. In a sense, he has required extra time to answer these questions and put new ideas into practice.
Among Ferguson's other responsibilities, he is currently writing another autobiography, ostensibly on his last year at the club. Entitled The Final Furlong, it is due to be published at the end of this season. Presumably, that date may have to be revised. As his collaborating author, David Meek, says: "It'll probably have to be called The Final Mile now, won't it?"