Ferguson hits Rooney with his parting shot
This is how they all dream of leaving. Every politician, every captain of industry, every totalitarian leader of every rogue state and every football manager that ever lived will have looked on Alex Ferguson's day at Old Trafford yesterday and thought that, as farewells go, it would be pretty impossible to improve on.
It was one man alone amid a frenzy of admiration, gratitude and emotion. There was the guard of honour, the speech, the hanging out to dry of Wayne Rooney.
There was the late winner through Rio Ferdinand, nothing new there. But after 26 years, six months and six days in the job, it was the sheer weight of history of what had gone before that leant the occasion such enormous significance.
When finally Ferguson took to the microphone on the pitch at the end of the game, he told the supporters that he had "absolutely no script in my mind". "I'm just going to ramble and hope I get to the core of what this football club has meant to me." Then as he ticked off those he wished to thank: his family, the fans, his staff, he built to one simple, powerful message.
"I wish the players every success in future. You know how good you are, you know the jersey you're wearing. You know what it means to everyone here. And don't ever let yourself down, the expectation is always there."
It will be inscribed on a wall one day soon at Old Trafford. It will adorn a thousand T-shirts. It was a lesson in what went into the building of Ferguson's United and it is the kind of legacy that future United teams will either thrive under or crumble.
Within minutes the first player to fall foul of it had been identified with Ferguson's announcement that Rooney had indeed requested a transfer which had been turned down. The Rooney question would have been a battle that Ferguson would not lose, now it is the first test of David Moyes' new era, but even that could not overshadow a momentous day.
The red flags in the hand of every Manchester United supporter prompted some to make a comparison with the Soviet rallies in the days of the Iron Curtain, but no one was at Old Trafford under duress yesterday. They were there because they wanted to be there, because they had begged and scrapped for a ticket because, on an occasion like this, they could not imagine themselves anywhere else.
For those at Old Trafford for whom Ferguson has been a rock-solid certainty in their lives through every birth, death, marriage and divorce of the last 26 years there was a sense that they would see a different man emerge from the tunnel at 3.58.
No longer the unyielding leader of the most successful football club in Britain. Just a 71-year-old grandfather at the biggest retirement party anyone could remember. The first TV shot of him in the tunnel caught Ferguson blowing a deep breath like a man trying to force the emotion deeper back inside.
When finally he did emerge with that brisk short stride of his, hands in the pockets of his overcoat, waving occasionally, he just looked a bit embarrassed.
In the directors' box, his first captain at United, Bryan Robson, looked like he could be in tears. And this was Robson, the original 1980s throwback who could boss a midfield carrying the kind of injury that would get you discharged from the army.
They played 'My Way' and 'The Impossible Dream'. Someone cleverly programmed "26 38" into the fourth official's dot matrix board to mark 38 trophies in 26 years. But to sum up the 723rd and last home game for United under Ferguson, nothing captured the success, and the tyranny, of his years in charge of the club than the subplots developing elsewhere.
Over on the east side of town, Manchester City were on the point of disposing of another manager, the 14th permanent appointment during Ferguson's incredible reign at United.
Remarkably, Roberto Mancini might be denied the honour of being the City manager to outlast Ferguson should he go before Sunday. The contrast was painfully sharp. At City, they bundle another out the back door. At United, he is carried out shoulder high,
But even more pertinent than Mancini's expected departure was the story of Rooney. What more has defined Ferguson's style than his willingness to exert himself over the biggest names in the team and ultimately dispose of them if necessary?
At the medal presentation, where Ferguson greeted every single player, Rooney was booed by some fans and treated to the most cursory of handshakes by his manager.
It is hard to believe that Rooney could have witnessed the scenes at Old Trafford yesterday and still wanted to walk away from it. This was the passing into history of an era of excellence and unsurpassed achievement.
It may all continue under Moyes but it will never be like this again. It will never be the story of the man who built the club back up again from its post-1960s malaise. There may be further trophies but this chapter has most certainly closed. If it has been a struggle to take the measure of Ferguson's effect on English football over the last two decades, indeed his position in British public life, then this felt like a sufficiently epic afternoon.
There was a degree of wonder among even his players as they approached him with their families for pictures. No less so than that among the ground staff and paramedics who lined the side of the pitch to shake his hand.
There is still the match on Sunday at the Hawthorns when Ferguson will pick his last United team and walk off a pitch as United manager for the last time. But this was the grand farewell when, after the game, from the family enclosure, came his grandchildren, all of them in matching shirts with "Grandad 20" on the back, to converge upon him.
The younger ones took his hand or insisted on examining his Premier League winners' medal. The older ones took pictures on their phones.
It is not the first time we have seen Ferguson's small army of descendants but on this day, after this retirement, it felt like a small but significant glimpse of Ferguson the man, rather than Ferguson the manager – which he will be for only one more week. (© Independent News Service)