Long live the king
To one side, the twin captains who helped him secure his first league title, Bryan Robson and Steve Bruce. To the other, the two skippers of the side who won his 13th, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, handing him the Premier League trophy and insisting he hoisted it high above his head. Sir Alex Ferguson, football management's greatest winner, bowed out at Old Trafford on a high. This was the perfect goodbye.
One thousand, four hundred and ninety-nine down, one to go. Ferguson has 90 minutes remaining, at West Bromwich Albion on Sunday, of his 1,500-match, 26-year reign but an era has ended at Old Trafford. As Swansea manager Michael Laudrup said: "It's a new world from July 1."
United have enjoyed the old world. The regulars in the stands at the Theatre of Dreams are accustomed to regular, but predictable, twists in the tale and Ferguson's 895th win as United manager was no exception. Inevitably, it was secured by a late goal.
Unusually, the encore came when Ferguson marched on to the pitch, armed with a microphone. "My retirement doesn't mean the end of my life with the club," he said. "I will be able to enjoy watching them rather than suffer with them. The last-minute goals, the comebacks, even the defeats are part of this great football club and it has been an unbelievable experience for all of us."
They have been remarkable, transformative times. Ferguson's first home game, a 1-0 win over QPR on November 22, 1986, took United to the dizzy heights of 17th in the old Division 1. They had kicked off in the relegation zone. They are distant days indeed.
For his farewell, Ferguson entered to a guard of honour and the sound of The Impossible Dream. He has made the impossible possible, the unimaginable reality. The consequence of the catalyst's success was that an often quiet ground echoed to Glory, Glory Man United. Glory has come predictably for United, Ferguson making trophy-winning second nature.
Supporters were provided with flags reading "Champions 20" and, as they waved them, Sir Bobby Charlton and David Gill rather unconvincingly attempted to join in. Neither, it is safe to say, has much practice at this sort of thing. Yet for the lifelong socialist in Ferguson, it was fitting: no one else has kept the red flag flying as high or as long as him.
One of Old Trafford's more famous banners proclaims it "the people's republik of Mancunia" but, despite their left-wing leanings, there is a king. Ferguson's reign has been long and glorious for United. "The most fantastic experience of my life," he said.
If Mancunian music was a theme of the playlist, Ferguson probably enjoyed the anomaly the most. He has been a fan of Frank Sinatra for more than half a century. To his lasting regret, he once turned down the chance to see 'Ol' Blue Eyes' in concert because he was particularly disappointed by a defeat to Charlton. But if Ferguson wouldn't go to see Sinatra, there was an airing of the 'Chairman of the Board' at the farewell to the godfather of managers. It was, inevitably, My Way. And now, as the end is near, Ferguson faces his final curtain, safe in the knowledge he has done it in his own inimitable way and that, time and again, he has been vindicated.
The soundtrack during the match, decided by the Stretford End, featured different types of Ferguson's favourites: paeans to Robson, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Gary Neville, Eric Cantona and even the cult hero Diego Forlan.
"I have been fortunate to manage some of the greatest players in the country, let alone Manchester United," Ferguson said. It was a send-off, too, to one of the finest. Paul Scholes, the reclusive retiree, has long looked for others to obscure him. He was content to be overshadowed by Ferguson, much as the timing of his departure, at the end of the day when Frank Lampard had rewritten Chelsea's goalscoring records, Wigan had lifted the FA Cup and Roberto Mancini moved closer to his own exit from a Manchester club, seemed designed to allow him to blend into the background.
Needless to say, he was not allowed to go quite as quietly as he has wished. "He's been an unbelievable player for this club," Ferguson said, singling out the veteran. The faithful servant got a great ovation; the unfaithful one was consigned to the stands. Ferguson has sent a statement with his teamsheet numerous times before and Wayne Rooney was omitted altogether, his manager saying: "I don't think he was keen to play."
In his absence, Robin van Persie, operating as the No. 10, was the supply line. Javier Hernandez hit the underside of the bar from the Dutchman's pass. When Ashley Williams failed to clear his cross, the Mexican slid his shot underneath Gerhard Tremmel.
After the interval, Michu volleyed in Nathan Dyer's cross and, jokingly, the Swansea supporters told Ferguson he would be sacked in the morning. Instead, of course, United managed a late goal. Ryan Giggs, making his 940th appearance under Ferguson, took a corner and Rio Ferdinand converted it.
Out of contract in the summer, he may not be at Old Trafford next season. David Moyes will be and Ferguson, referring to the time in 1989 when many wanted him sacked, urged them to show the man he anointed the patience he was granted.
"I would like to remind you that when we had bad times here, the club stood by me, all my staff stood by me and the players stood by me," he concluded. "Your job now is to stand by our new manager."
MAN OF THE MATCH: Michu. The day was all about United but the Spaniard showed his quality again. His goal was taken brilliantly and, with a wonderful pass, almost set up Wayne Routledge for a second goal.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: Ferdinand's first goal of the season brought a statistical symmetry, the 20th title involving 20 scorers. Giggs began on the bench. He will surely start Ferguson's final game, at West Bromwich Albion on Sunday.
SWANSEA VERDICT: Despite defeat, they played well, particularly in the second half, and have achieved their objectives. "We are 100% sure of finishing in the top ten," Laudrup said. "We could even be eighth, which for us is like winning the championship. Eighth is the maximum [possible] for us."