Nearly a quarter of a century at one club gives a man a sense of perspective and it was this which Sir Alex Ferguson drew upon yesterday as he reflected on the "difficult" task – his choice of word – of moving on without the player he considers to be the world's finest.
It is difficult, yes, when Cristiano Ronaldo has put away 68 goals in two seasons. But it is bearable when you've lived through the stunning disappointment of missing out on Paul Gascoigne – "Mr Ferguson, you go and enjoy your holiday. I am signing for United when you get back," Gascoigne told the Manchester United manager 22 summers ago, only to sign on for Tottenham – and promptly discovered that one lost midfielder leads you to Paul Ince and Roy Keane instead.
This was one of the pieces of serendipity Ferguson cited yesterday, along with the case of Eric Cantona – who signed in after Ferguson had missed out on David Hirst and Alan Shearer – and the £80m man himself, who wound up at Old Trafford in 2003 after Ferguson had tried and failed to hire Ronaldinho. "The important thing is not to get too upset when a player does leave you," Ferguson reflected. This case is slightly different to all of those of course. Ferguson did not reject the idea yesterday that while he goes in search of a record fourth successive title – with Birmingham City first up at Old Trafford – he is facing the biggest replacement job since Cantona left 12 years ago. The Scot said he has seen signs of other players proving ready to fill the breach. Nani, who impressed in the Community Shield and has recovered from a dislocated shoulder to take a possible place against Birmingham, seems "far more settled," Ferguson believes. Antonio Valencia has justifiably impressed him.
But time was, three months back, when the subject of 21-year-old Nani would not occupy a Ferguson press conference for weeks on end and the fact that he must look to him demonstrates how much more uncertain the United manager must be of what lies ahead than he was last August. "I still have the same problems of what do I do with central midfield," Ferguson also proferred. "I have so many options. My door will be worn out by the end of the year." Does he? Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes will feature less, Owen Hargreaves is months off full rehabilitation and Anderson is unproven. Another reason why, taken with Liverpool's difficult summer and Chelsea's latest fresh start, this campaign is a more unknown quantity than the past few and the more fascinating for it.
If United are to take that fourth title, they will need certainly one or two of the young players Ferguson makes so much of to come to the fore. The young Italian striker Federico Macheda particularly excites the manager, who has also told Fabio Capello that Danny Welbeck, with England's Under-21s this week, is a World Cup prospect.
The Da Silva twins are two more who look capable of bursting on to the Premier League scene, though the more established of the two, right back Rafael, is currently injured. "We have a lot of young players who want to do well and that's the area that most encourages me," Ferguson said. "Our critics are misreading the situation in terms of the young players improving. They are improving and there are some good signs there."
Ferguson, who will probably play Wes Brown alongside Rio Ferdinand in central defence tomorrow, with Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic both injured, purposefully overlooked Manchester City as he declared the same top four will be in for the title. "You can throw a blanket over ourselves, Liverpool and Chelsea. I think it will be between the three of us." But there was a sharp dig when it was suggested that Mark Hughes is using press coverage of Ferguson's outbursts against City as a motivational tool.
"Yeah, yeah, Sparky could have used a few of my comments I suppose, because he was here long enough," he said. "I just wonder what purpose it serves." Let battle commence, then. Ronaldo doesn't know what he is missing.