Fergie’s parting gift more than just number 20

A huge challenge awaits them in the summer and moving forward, but for now it’s time for Manchester United to celebrate.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United
Alison Chin

By Alison Chin

Quibblers could highlight Manchester United's FA Cup quarter-final exit to Chelsea and elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid as indications of an underwhelming campaign. 

However, there was one prize Ferguson had his heart set on and the Red Devils duly delivered with four games to spare. 

The record points haul set by Jose Mourinho's Blues side stayed intact and United earned few plaudits for style or swagger, but their ten-point cushion at the top of the Premier League was the fruit of a relentless pursuit. Starting on the heart-breaking final day of the previous season and culminating in Robin van Persie's hat-trick against Aston Villa, it was a display of ruthless efficiency. 

With Roberto Mancini conceding the title race prior to the last Manchester derby of the season, Ferguson was afforded the opportunity to mull over the spoils his team achieved. The Scot noted in his programme notes that the campaign had been "something of a proverbial curate's egg". After all, there was a point where treble talk hung thick in the air, before dreams of a double Wembley appearance were demolished in the short span of a month. 

Debating whether United's season should be considered one of celebration or regret might seem odd so soon after their conquest of the league, but it is certainly something Ferguson and supporters will have in the back of their minds. 

The Scottish boss has managed 13 out of the 20 league-conquering Red Devils squads, including the history-making treble winners of 1998/99 and the team spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo that dominated the competition from 2006/07 to 2008/09. 

Several members of the latter group are still in the squad today, though it might be difficult convincing observers that the current crew are on par with their predecessors. 

The team's standout performers this season, Rafael, Michael Carrick, and top scorer van Persie, certainly deserved admiration and plaudits, while Rio Ferdinand and David De Gea did their standing in the game no harm. 

Nonetheless, three out of the five aforementioned are edging closer to the end of their careers. 

Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain, who stole upcoming Brazilian star Lucas Moura from under United's nose, have come into the European reckoning alongside fellow nouveau-riche sides Chelsea and Manchester City, on top of continental rivals Real and Barcelona, making the Red Devils' plans to sign the best and brightest to replace current stalwarts all the more difficult. 

However, anyone who thinks Ferguson did not have his steely gaze on these obstacles on the horizon vastly underestimated the former Aberdeen boss. 

When the Red Devils came up empty last season, injuries and a lack of squad depth were some of the reasons touted. The team was also viewed as one in transition, with several members experiencing their first senior campaign. Yet in the span of a year, Ferguson has turned them into league champions. 

Truth be told, he has not done things very much differently. 

The Scot simply reaped the seeds of youth he planted the previous season, when Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling gained invaluable experience after being thrown into the deep end, on top of bolstering the side with attacking flair through van Persie and Shinji Kagawa. 

Youth has always been United's way, and while critics can argue that one-goal Welbeck or inconsistent Cleverley have done little to weigh in on the team's haul, Jones came to the fore while the rapidly improving Smalling played his part. There was also Rafael, whose continued presence in the starting line-up made it easy to forget it was the 22-year old's maiden season as a first-team regular. 

These youngsters were unsung heroes of this season's title-winning squad, and could very well form the backbone for future dominance. 

Carrick, receiving his first PFA Player of the Year nomination at 31, would never have gotten his day in the limelight had he been playing alongside some of United's former stars like Ronaldo or Eric Cantona, but this was not a Red Devils squad made up of icons. It was one comprising of players driven by their manager's dogged spirit and willing to pull more than their weight when push came to shove - sometime literally. 

Ferguson, whose 27-year tenure at Old Trafford came to an end this season, summed up his final gift to the club. 

"It was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so," he wrote in an official statement. 

"The quality of this league winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level whilst the structure of the youth set-up will ensure that the long-term future of the club remains a bright one." 

There are still issues to be sorted out. Van Persie's contributions were perhaps too vital while both Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young struggled after good performances in the season before. On top of that, Wayne Rooney handed in his second transfer request in three years after struggling to unseat the Dutchman as the side's main striker. 

As a team, United were lacklustre at times, but spells of inconsistency from their rivals allowed them to seal the championship early. 

The new man in the hot seat, David Moyes, has inherited a squad with the mantle of title winners, but it is a group that is not quite the finished product. The incoming manager must continue to drive the transition Ferguson has initiated in order for United to continue their dominance of the English game.

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