When Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley put up the 'This is Anfield' sign in the tunnel at Liverpool, Paisley offered an explanation. "Playing here lifts good pros, puts the bad 'uns under pressure. We counted . . . there were more bad pros than good 'uns. So the sign went up."
For a generation, Old Trafford had more than a This is Anfield sign to weed out the bad pros from the good ones. On the sideline, Alex Ferguson controlled the controllables and the uncontrollables too. There was no rest for the bad professionals while Alex Ferguson was around and no rest for the good ones either. He prowled the sideline, pointing at his watch, which he now says was a message to the opposition not the referees. A message to the bad 'uns. Ferguson had counted. The bad professionals expected nothing when they came to Old Trafford and nobody expected anything from them either.
Released from all expectation, sometimes they could over-achieve but more often than not they were happy to achieve all that was expected, particularly when they faced a more urgent philosophy. Ferguson pursued the "get rid of the c***s" management model and nothing exposed a player more than losing. Under Ferguson, there was no excuse. If you lost, you had failed if you were a Manchester United player. If you played against them, you could lose and get away with it.
Now there is plenty of encouragement for the bad professionals when they arrive at Old Trafford. It is still Old Trafford but not as the bad pros once knew it. For them, it is now Carnegie Hall, a place where they can give full expression to their gifts. It offers the cachet of winning at Old Trafford but none of the intimidatory consequences of daring to win. There is no Alex Ferguson on the touchline reminding everybody of the bitterness of defeat and the almost equal bitterness of victory. Instead he sits in the stand, reminding one man of all he has to follow.
Of course, there are other factors in the decline of Manchester United but who could have predicted that the retirement of the most ferocious, most indomitable and indefatigable leader football has ever known would lead to a state of chaos?
The downtrodden have risen up, the powerful have been unseated and anarchy is loosed upon the world. In this post-Tito Yugoslavia, all divisions have been exposed and David Moyes must find a way of making Manchester United whole again.
Moyes needs time, they say, and perhaps they are right. Alex Ferguson was given time -- even if they were different circumstances -- yet the notion always seemed to disgust him.
Manchester United gave Ferguson time but he never looked pleased about it. Moyes, on the other hand, stresses the need for patience as he engages in the important task of transforming the team that won the league by 11 points last year.
That team had Robin van Persie to conceal all weaknesses but the year before United lost the title on goal difference and finished 19 points ahead of Arsenal. They were, some claimed, the worst Manchester United team in a generation but it was clear to most that the worst United team in a generation would be the first one that would have to get by without Alex Ferguson.
They were, of course, in urgent need of repair and there are valid criticisms to be made of Ferguson for his failure to rebuild, choosing instead to set himself the fiercest of challenges: winning the league with Tom Cleverley.
He passed that test as he passed most of the others, foregoing the usual cycle of transition in all but the most extreme of circumstances. When he sold Hughes, Kanchelskis and Ince, he was told he would win nothing with kids. He had more than kids -- he had Keane, Cantona and Schmeichel and he won the double but the message was clear: there is no transition, there is no time.
He wanted to shape time as he wanted to shape everything else. He found his own way of measuring the progress of existence and they called it Fergie-time. When injury time didn't meet his expectations, he would complain that United hadn't been given a "proper chance" to win the game. There was no other possible explanation for defeat.
A man who talked of "outliving death" can't see time as others do. Ferguson has outlived retirement as he sits in the stand, watching David Moyes. Moyes could rightly claim it's unfair to be compared to Alex Ferguson if he hadn't been appointed because of a common value system, if Scottishness and rage can be described as values.
By appointing somebody who appeared to share Ferguson's code, Manchester United have highlighted the differences. The TV director cuts to Alex Ferguson in the stand and we all wonder how long Moyes will put up with it. Alex Ferguson would have done something about it -- he would have banned the TV director.
Moyes has been shown to have a desperately debilitating strain of reasonableness. There are well-defined limits to his ferocity. He can see both sides of an argument, unlike Ferguson who saw one side, forever, taking a stance in the best interests of Manchester United, taking a stance in the best interests of Alex Ferguson.
José Mourinho was not appointed because there were fears he was too incendiary, a strange view when Ferguson's approach had always been to bring discord where there was harmony.
Unlike Mourinho, Ferguson did not wage war within the club, they said, forgetting Rock Of Gibraltar and the days when Martin Edwards described him as a "troublemaker".
He caused fewer problems for the Glazers, deciding he could win the league with Tom Cleverley, in other words without a midfield. They may have found Ferguson's chosen successor more palatable than Mourinho who would have wanted everything.
Now there is discord anyway. In pursuit of stability, United have caused chaos. All they can offer now is time and that may not be the gift it once was.