When Sir Alex Ferguson sought out a meeting with Dave Brailsford after British Cycling's eight gold medals at Beijing, four years ago, it was he who found himself fielding the questions – about how the performance director could rebuild and renew his squad in the way that Manchester United had done so often. Some of the cyclists were nearing the end of their road at the time. "Get rid of them," Ferguson told Brailsford, or words to that effect.
Ferguson's fascination with scientific advancements in sport has made his several subsequent encounters with Brailsford more nuanced than that and Roberto Mancini was also looking for some answers about achievement and management yesterday when he beat his own path to the Manchester Velodrome. The Manchester City manager travelled with more than an inquiring mind. His deep love of cycling was passed down from his father, Aldo, a fan of the twice Tour de France winner Gino Bartali before the Second World War. He grew up absorbed by Eddy Merckx, has brought his four bikes over from Italy, cycles the 35km to Carrington from his home up in Alderley Edge three or four times a week and is about to take possession of a Pinarello model, in City colours. "I cycle when the sun shines, so in Manchester – never," he joked.
Mancini also brought a burning sense of curiosity with him, about how on earth Brailsford managed to maintain a collectivist ethic this summer when every cyclist riding in Team Sky's colours at the Tour de France was being asked to work for a victory that would leave them in the shadows, while Bradley Wiggins stood on top of the podium, taking the glory on the Champs-Élysées. Mario Balotelli would not be much of a domestique, you imagine.
"Every time I watch this [the Tour] on the television I say this is very difficult because only one gets the glory but the other 10 are part of the team but don't get the yellow jersey," Mancini said. "To manage that is not easy." The answer, Brailsford suggested, is honesty – "being frank, putting it on the table and not bull********; not saying, 'OK, Chris [Froome], we're not going to talk about this because it might upset you,' or 'Brad [Wiggins], we're just going to ignore it'."
It is a philosophy shared by the two men, who are nine months apart in age, Mancini the older. That uncomfortable moment between those two cyclists at the top of Peyragudes climb, in the Pyrenees, this summer, was a minor wrinkle compared with Carlos Tevez's defiance of Mancini in Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena just over a year ago and it was to the core of moments like that which Brailsford wanted to go, when they met.
"I'm interested in… Roberto's experience of managing different cultures, different types of players, big characters, lots of money," he said. "For me, it's quite new. Two or three years I've been doing that. I could learn a lot how to manage the potentially challenging players. It's very different from a national team, where you have what you've got. I'm not sure I would have done anything different [in the Tevez situation] but what I really liked about it was that it soon became clear that there was one guy in charge and one guy only.
"He was the boss and the manager. It was clear that the individual concerned was aware what he was expected to do and if he didn't do it then something would be done about it."
Brailsford's deference and modesty pointed to an individual with a shrewd handle on any situation, which is why he has found such success. More fascinating, though, was what – if anything – Mancini and football could borrow from cycling. They say that Ferguson was particularly taken, back in 2008, with a bell curve graph which Brailsford pulled up on his laptop, showing the five different phases of a Tour de France cyclist's career, from aspiring professional to experienced team rider. Mancini tentatively agreed that the sports psychiatry work which Brailsford and the silver-haired clinician Dr Steve Peters set so much store in could be something he could work with.
"Football is different from cycling. Probably we need [to work with psychiatrists] but we don't," he said. "Mario needs two! And then after you'll need another two for the psychiatrists!" The experience of the Rugby Football Union – who turned to Peters after England's indifferent group stage at the 2007 World Cup and recovered to reach the final – revealed the potential benefits.
Mancini was shown other innovations which form part of Brailsford's mantra about the "accretion of marginal gains", like the performance analysis read-outs of the cyclists he had just watched whirring around the velodrome. The cyclists' bikes make measurements while they are cycling and performance analysis is an area for development, Mancini said. "In football we have improved on this in the last 10 years but cycling is still stronger than football in this way."
Across the road from the Velodrome, City's new Etihad Campus will soon display evidence of how City are seizing upon the creed about marginal gains put forward so messianically by Brailsford. The £200m facility will include an "intimate hub" where no player, whether relaxing, training or receiving treatment is more than a few minutes away from the rest. It is planned down to such details as three of the 15 pitches being laid with turf mimicking that of specific Premier League clubs. In the jargon, it creates a "no excuses environment". Ferguson is not letting the grass grow under his feet, either. His own £13m medical facility is expected to be open by next month.
Mancini made no bones about the fundamental advantage he will always have on Brailsford, who did not rule out the notion of the same move into football which Sir Clive Woodward briefly made, after the 2016 Olympics. "I think that in this sense for me it's easier because I can buy in players but David can only work with British cyclists [in Team GB]. I can buy players from any countries."
But when you're alone on the touchline, staring Champions League in the face as Mancini was on Wednesday night, all the cash in the world can't help, which is why the most valuable thing the Italian learned yesterday might have been Brailsford's answer to the suggestion that Mancini faces the same pressure for a second title that the cycling performance director did in 2008 when he was asked to translate the Beijing success to the London Games.
"Pressure is only something in your mind," Brailsford said. "You can't buy a tin of pressure. It's not tangible. It's not real. It's only something you allow to exist in your mind if you entertain it. I decided way before London that I wasn't going to entertain pressure; was not going to think about it as something that's real. Forget pressure: I'll focus on: are we doing everything we can do today. Focus on the process and not the outcome. Pressure's only going to come if you think the outcome's going to go wrong."
Mancini may be popping across the road to the Velodrome more often, before next May is out.