"Be arrogant, get at their bloody throats," Alex Ferguson demanded of his players as Aberdeen launched into the run that in 1980 culminated in his first championship as a manager. Knowing when to go for the jugular has been a quality Ferguson has long sought to instil in his sides and, in every successful season at Old Trafford, there is a moment when a run of victories becomes an avalanche.
Invariably, it arrives with the new year. Manchester United's win at Bolton was their sixth in succession since the defeat at Chelsea which seemed to signal that Claudio Ranieri's insistence that his club was not yet title material was so much smoke. Three defeats and a draw from six games, including two reverses at Stamford Bridge, suggest his denials ought to have been taken at face value.
Three points clear of Arsenal and seven of Chelsea, Manchester United are in almost a better position than at any equivalent time in the relatively brief history of the Premiership, a competition in which their trademark is the remorseless whittling away of other people's leads.
When 1993 dawned they were locked together with Aston Villa on 38 points. After the 20th game of the 1995-96 season, which proved to be a thunderous 2-0 victory over Newcastle at Old Trafford, United were still eight points adrift of Kevin Keegan's cavaliers. New Year's Day 1999 saw Manchester United third, behind both Aston Villa and Chelsea, neither of whom would feature in the bitter struggle for a title that saw Ferguson keep out Arsenal by a point. It was virtually the same last year: trailing Arsenal and Chelsea with 18 games remaining; champions by five points when the last of those fixtures was played.
As someone relatively fresh to Old Trafford, Tim Howard is well placed to observe how Manchester United deal with the pressure that from Ron Atkinson's Villa to David O'Leary's Leeds by way of Keegan's Newcastle, has devoured their rivals.
"I have been very impressed by the way the players here at United react to pressure," he said after a display at Bolton which featured three remarkable saves in a game which, on balance, could have been drawn and might on a less happy night have been lost. "It is a grind on all of us and we have to deal with a lot of things both on and off the field but we have been able to bring it together on match-day."
Since his time at Aberdeen, many have noted how Ferguson imbues a positive siege mentality in his dressing-room and, at the Reebok Stadium, Howard talked of a "tunnel vision" at Old Trafford. "Dealing with on-field and off-field pressure the way they do is why United are one of the best teams in world sport. We are able to have tunnel vision on match day; we are able to put all the other stuff aside and take care of business."
There has been plenty of "other stuff". Generally, when Manchester United have failed to take a championship, Ferguson has been able to point to matters beyond his control.
There was the sequence of four games in seven days which allowed in Howard Wilkinson's remorselessly efficient Leeds side a dozen years ago. Ferguson still believes that had Eric Cantona not been suspended for the final four months of the 1994-95 season, Blackburn would not have held off United's late-season surge. The absence of Roy Keane with the cruciate ligament injury that was to spark the bitter feud with Alfie Haaland undermined them in 1998 as did the uncertainty over Ferguson's own future four years later.
It does less than justice to the clubs that won those championships but, looked at from the manager's eyrie at Old Trafford, the theory holds water. Should they lose the services of Rio Ferdinand for the next eight months following his suspension for missing a drugs test, United may be similarly undermined, although as Ryan Giggs pointed out after his shimmering display at Bolton, the absence of David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron has been barely noticed.
"It's amazing to think that we are so many points better off at this stage of the season than we were last year or, indeed the treble-winning season," he said. "We're on a run of eight wins [in all competitions] and I can feel the confidence of the side in every game we go into.
"We lost two world-class players when Becks and Seba Veron went in the summer but the nucleus of the team remained and the manager brought in a few new faces which freshened things up a bit." Chelsea's array of talents, allied to Arsenal's lingering sense of injustice over last season's lost championship, had in Giggs's opinion, "forced" the Premiership's big three into electric starts. And yet, as Ferguson understands too well, it is not the starting but the finishing which matters.Reuse content