Fergie hunger driven by cold chill of defeat
When Manchester United were crowned champions of the world at the 2008 Fifa World Club Cup in Tokyo, their fans responded in typical fashion. Not at the front of the queue when the quality of modesty was bestowed, United's supporters chanted: "Bring on the Martians". United always reach for the stars.
Such vaulting ambition also finds residency in their remarkable manager, Alex Ferguson, a man who sleeps five hours a night because there is so much to do in life, particularly in plotting Barcelona's downfall in the Champions League final on May 28.
Heavily reliant on his innate competitiveness to prosper as a spiky centre-forward with Rangers, age has not withered Ferguson's fighting spirit. The last time he was at Wembley he was banned.
At 69, he is aware of time's unforgiving passage, yet looks well. He wakes each dawn ready for the daily challenge of silencing critics, overcoming rivals and feeding his own hunger for success. For such a public figure, Ferguson is a mercurial character, difficult to judge fully for those of us even with occasional contact, but one trait defines him: he feels the glow of victory only fleetingly, but the cold chill of defeat stays.
In the unlikely event that the driven Scot is ever asked his line of business he should reply "unfinished."
The constant frustrations in Europe during the mid-1990s, the silent, seething flights back from places like Turin, the image of Alen Boksic catching his team on the counter, were all recalled when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won the 1999 final. Ferguson endured constant pain before the elation.
Maybe it is the understanding that United do things the hard way, recovering at the death against Bayern Munich in 1999 and overcoming Chelsea on penalties in 2008, that means Ferguson can never relax. The memory of Rome 2009, and that loss to Barcelona, also stalks him. United's easy victory over Schalke on Wednesday was rare indeed.
He has never expanded on why he felt United lost in the 'Infernal City', and perhaps the updated version of his autobiography will provide such testimony, but there must be acknowledgement of Lionel Messi's brilliance, Cristiano Ronaldo's selfishness and the unfortunate, unfair suspension of Darren Fletcher.
Barcelona and Wembley are such emotive names to Ferguson that there will inevitably be speculation of his retiring if he does vanquish Pep Guardiola's elegant side, equalling Bob Paisley's three European Cups with Liverpool (one of which was achieved at Wembley), while paying homage to Matt Busby, whose finest hour, make that two hours, came in north-west London.
For lovers of sporting symmetry, a triumphant Ferguson would surely shake Guardiola's hand, console Messi, climb those steps, chat to Michel Platini, snub those pesky ban-issuing FA busybodies, clasp the trophy, and head off into the sunset. Surely there would be little to beat bowing out with the European Cup at the home of football? Some script. Some ending.
Predicting Ferguson's retirement date is a fool's game. If he lost, and trying to orchestrate the downfall of mighty Barcelona is the Iron Man of footballing challenges, then Ferguson would surely go again, refusing to step down on a low note. He knows that some of his players, such as the Da Silva twins, Javier Hernandez, Anderson and Wayne Rooney, have yet to reach their peak. He has already begun the process of finding replacements for the likes of Edwin van der Sar.
Nobody presses the refresh button better than Ferguson.
After London calling on May 28, Ferguson must ponder "should I stay or should I go?" An opinionated figure will sit on each shoulder, making contrasting arguments. One will mention that Jock Stein died in the job. The other will raise the image of his father. In supporting various cancer charities, Ferguson has spoken about what befell his father.
"My father was 47 when he got bowel cancer and had to have a colostomy,'' said Ferguson. "When my dad retired (at 65), one week later the cancer came back in his lungs and he died a year later."
If there can be any conclusion into this look at somebody's private influences, it is that there can be no conclusion. Retirement could be a boon for Ferguson or a curse.
Enough gloom-mongering. Ferguson is too fired up to ease up. Joyous acquaintance with a third European Cup would surely motivate him to chase another. He talks regularly about United's tally from 1968, 1999 and 2008 as being a poor return for a club of such global stature.
Maybe Ferguson is on some private homage to the Olympic movement. His Champions League finals have all come in Olympic cities: Barcelona, Moscow, Rome and now London. Next year's showdown is in Munich. Bring on whoever. (© Daily Telegraph, London)