Sometimes, his expression says more than the words can possibly convey. "Do you think my players are honestly worrying whether Wayne Rooney is going to cost them by not being there?" Sir Alex Ferguson said yesterday and he was still shaking his head when the conversation had moved on.
It is his job to spare his club the sense of national "panic", as he described the Rooney saga, but when you survey the tumultuous recent history of Manchester United and Chelsea, who meet at Old Trafford this lunchtime, the significance of one player's absence really does fade into insignificance – even if he happens to be Rooney. For all the struggles with Arsène Wenger from 1998 to 2004 and that fervent desire to surpass Liverpool's 19 titles, Chelsea are the opponents whose challenge has been the toughest and most enduring of Ferguson's 24 years at Manchester United.
It has become something of a tradition for the two clubs to meet in springtime, though twice in the past five years the title race has already been won or lost before their meeting. In May 2005, United suffered the ignominy of providing the guard of honour for Chelsea to walk out at Old Trafford as champions for the first time in half a century, 18 points clear of the hosts in Jose Mourinho's first season. Ferguson's side also lost 3-1, which only compounded the pleasure when Mourinho's players had to perform the ceremonials for United in west London two years later. Those two sunny afternoons have punctuated what has been an absorbing and frenetic fight for supremacy which has taken Ferguson to some of his lowest times at Old Trafford and back again and which, with the clubs a single point apart this morning, is more impossible to call this season than at any time since Roman Abramovich's wealth started up the battle in the first place.
There was a time, in the midst of it all, when the United manager probably didn't think he would be a participant on this day. Who can fail to remember the morning of 11 November, 2005, when those who walked down Sir Matt Busby Way in the sunshine to see Ferguson and Mourinho's sides meet, were still digesting Ferguson's epitaphs. All the talk was of his reviled 4-5-1 formation, the recent 4-1 defeat at Middlesbrough and 1-0 loss at Lille, the Keanegate tapes story – still fresh – and descriptions of United in the generally supportive Manchester Evening News as a "shapeless rabble". Then United went and won 1-0, through Darren Fletcher's headed goal before half-time. Ferguson left the stadium throwing his arms in the air to those United fans who, days earlier, had called for him to be out. It was an extraordinary day.
The league was lost again to Chelsea that season, of course, though the seeds of decline were already being sewn in west London. Mourinho clinched his second title with a 3-0 defeat of United on another of those fateful April afternoons, though in the aftermath he declared that "the feeling here at Chelsea is always a negative feeling. I should be the happiest manager in the world in this moment, and I'm not." When Ferguson, with those phoenix qualities of his, clambered back towards the parapet, grudges were still held against the club with a lack of "history", as he once described Chelsea. He remembers to this day the then chief executive Peter Kenyon's claim after jumping ship from United to Chelsea that his new employers would be "the biggest club in the world by 2016".
Kenyon's words somehow encapsulated the cultural divide between the brash arrivistes and the distinguished establishment club which have added to the recipe of this most absorbing struggle. Chelsea seemed so interminably unpopular after taking that second Premier League title that neutrals actually started wanting United to win the league rather than Chelsea take a third. Ferguson said towards the end of the 2006-07 campaign that even Liverpool fans had sent messages of support.
While Abramovich fiddled and agitated, the Glazer family, reviled as they still might be, kept out and stuck with one manager, which explains in large amount why the Chelsea challenge was seen off and why Ferguson can look to a record fourth consecutive title if his side win today. The story distils into one of two strikers. Dimitar Berbatov, whose moment arrives this lunchtime in Rooney's absence, might have had his detractors but £30.75m spent on him looks like a far wiser investment than the £30m Mourinho was instructed by Abramovich to spend on Andrei Shevchenko – whose disenchantment at Stamford Bridge contributed to Mourinho's departure. "Shevchenko seems to be at the core of it," Ferguson observed when Chelsea's internal strife first became public.
Ferguson did not gloat at Chelsea's implosion – that's not generally his way – though the tempestuous battles he and Mourinho waged in the 2007-08 season revealed how, until the very end, each man had so much to fear in the other. Mourinho told the Portuguese fable of morrernapraia – "dying on the beach" – in which he cast himself as "the good swimmer" and Ferguson as "the fellow who wants to chase me". The latter was "so enthusiastic chasing me – gasp, gasp, gasp – but he has a heart attack. When he reaches the beach he dies..." Ferguson saved up his riposte for April 2007, when 10 minutes or more of denunciation was vented upon an individual who "has no respect for anyone but himself". The pay-off line, signalling the fact that his discussion of Mourinho was now over, is still remembered in these parts. "Anyway," Ferguson said, casting his eyes towards the window of the same Carrington room where he sat down to speak yesterday, "it's a lovely day isn't it? The birds are whistling here ... and the sparrows are waking up at Stamford Bridge coughing."
Three years on, you feel that he perhaps yearns for some of those battles. When Mourinho left, he said he mourned the loss of "the young gunslinger who has come to town to challenge the old sheriff," and the comfortable 2-0 win in Avram Grant's first game in charge reaffirmed the return of the old guard. The so-called Battle of Stamford Bridge later that season, when Patrice Evra claimed he had been racially abused by Stamford Bridge groundstaff, saw Chelsea win, to take the Premier League title race to the last weekend, but United's supremacy was self-evident by the end.
The rivalry between the two clubs has been curiously muted this season, which has something to do with Carlo Ancelotti's presence in Mourinho's old seat and perhaps with the fact that neither side are the force they have been at other times in the past six years. When Ferguson spoke of Ancelotti yesterday, he found himself defending the Italian against allegations of failure. "Ancelotti is a man of great experience: he's won two European Cups," Ferguson said. "Great player, good lad. I don't think there has been any failure on his part. He's done the job well. He's only a point behind us, in the semi-final of the FA Cup and the disappointment was being knocked out of the European Cup but it was an incredible, really strong performance from Inter Milan to knock them out. He's done his job well."
But the United manager waved away talk of a draw being an acceptable result for United: "You cannot go into a game with the attitude that you cannot lose. It's a silly attitude that." He knows that a win will take him within touching distance of that record title and affirmation that, in the year after Liverpool's threat to restore long-forgotten predominance over United was extinguished, so Chelsea, the most relentless combatant of all, can be sent on their way, too. "People can curl up and die in the face of disappointment," Ferguson once said in the pit of his struggles against Mourinho. "But men of purpose and ambition do something about it."
Heated history: Great United-Chelsea battles
10 May 2005
Manchester United 1 Chelsea 3
Having already been crowned champions, Chelsea were welcomed to Old Trafford with a guard of honour as Jose Mourinho maintained his undefeated record against Sir Alex Ferguson.
6 November 2005
Manchester United 1 Chelsea 0
Chelsea dominated the first three months of the season, holding a 13-point lead over United, only for Darren Fletcher's looping header to hand them their first league defeat.
29 April 2006
Chelsea 3 Manchester United 0
Mourinho's side overwhelmed United to clinch back-to-back titles. Wayne Rooney broke a metatarsal in his right foot with the World Cup a month away.
23 September 2007
Manchester United 2 Chelsea 0
Avram Grant's first game in charge following Mourinho's shock departure saw Carlos Tevez and a Louis Saha penalty hand United victory.
26 April 2008
Chelsea 2 Manchester United 1
Chelsea forced the title race to the wire as Michael Ballack's two goals brought them level with United with two games left. United players clashed with groundstaff after the game in the infamous "Battle of the Bridge".