Sir Alex Ferguson looked even less optimistic about a fourth successive title yesterday than a Scottish political leader, whose virtues he has been extolling in recent days, probably felt about a fourth successive term in office.
Ferguson has seen some writing on the wall about tomorrow afternoon and his thoughts already seem to have drifted way beyond the occasion, to what may be his most important summer of rebuilding for some years. He hinted at a squad "freshening up" during his club's awards ceremony on Wednesday night – "it's not a desire to do it; it's a need to do it," were his words – and his reluctance to take a question on that point yesterday bore out the impression that plans are afoot. "I'm not dealing with anything about that now. We will look at things," he said.
Though the United manager also reflected in midweek that there was no point torturing himself over the might-have-beens which leave his fragile title hopes resting on the highly unfeasible scenario of Chelsea dropping points at home to Wigan, he clearly can't stop himself. The nine-day period last month, in which United were eliminated from the Champions League by Bayern Munich and so buffeted by the first-leg defeat that they failed to turn up in the home defeat against Chelsea, is gnawing away at him. "The one bad week in the season that is maybe going to cost us everything," he declared gloomily. "It's not easy to overcome these things."
Those nine days laid bare United's unhealthy over-dependence on Wayne Rooney, though Ferguson believes United were damned by a series of factors outside his own control. Defeat to those "typical Germans" was a scandal, he maintains. "It's an absolute travesty we're not in the final; an absolute travesty. We were the best team." The Chelsea defeat was at least partly the product of officiating. "The refereeing decision against Chelsea influenced the destiny of the title, I think," he said. "You can agonise on these things but it doesn't do any good."
But United's destiny has been in their hands in a way that it will not be tomorrow, when Stoke arrive for the last fixture of the season at Old Trafford. Truth is, they have not looked like champions often enough and have perhaps overachieved even to make it to the last Sunday in contention, given the cavernous hole left by Cristiano Ronaldo and Michael Owen's failure to be anything like a replacement for Carlos Tevez. Ferguson played down the notion that United probably dared not hope to be where they stand today but it is a testament to his powers of alchemy that they do.
The "freshening" he spoke of may be in the goalscoring and midfield departments and a new goalkeeper is a possibility. For the first time, Ferguson did not dismiss Ben Foster's call for a move elsewhere to resurrect his career. "I've had a chat with Ben about that. I can understand his dilemma, there is nothing you can do about that, to be honest with you. We'll just see what the future brings for the boy." He also reflected yesterday that next season could conceivably be the last one for that old band of brothers Giggs, Scholes and Neville.
The fact that Roberto Martinez's Wigan might just help turn tomorrow afternoon into Ferguson's most extraordinary title party yet was almost an oversight. "It's pointless going into the game expecting anything from Chelsea in our favour. In a way that helps us because we can express ourselves," reflected Ferguson, whose winger Antonio Valencia has kicked his last ball of the season because of an ankle injury.
Ferguson is preparing himself for the extraordinary occasion these last-day events can be, expecting to know exactly what's going at Stamford Bridge, for instance. "There are TV people in front of you, crowd reactions sometimes tell you. Sometimes it's false. They try to boost the team by cheering when there's nothing really happening in the other game." It is the fifth time in his spell at United he has been involved in a final-day title decider, though in keeping with the glum countenance, he was remembering only 1995 when Liverpool did United a favour by beating Blackburn, only for his own side to draw at West Ham. "We couldn't get the ball past their big goalkeeper," he said, recalling Ludek Miklosko's performance, if not his name.
It's never quite over until the end, though – and Manchester City's injury-time experiences against Ferguson this season attest to the folly of ruling out an upset when United are around. "If it goes to the last game of the season, as it's done five times here – yeah, so what?" was as cheerful as the manager got. "It's not a problem for us. You don't mind winning anything with the last kick of the ball."