It was Sir Alex Ferguson’s final day at Carrington, Manchester United’s training ground, and it was time to clear out his office. After 26 years in the same job, he had accumulated plenty of belongings.
A couple of staff came in to help him and after he good-naturedly rebuked them for calling him “boss” – “It’s Alex now,” he insisted, omitting the knighthood — they noticed him checking his pockets frantically.
So the job changed from packing to searching for Ferguson’s keys. When his helpers looked in a box, Ferguson brusquely informed them they were not there. Several minutes later, however, it transpired that was exactly where they were.
That senior moment, Ferguson chuckled, was why he was retiring.
Half a dozen league games later, many a United fan wishes he had not. Ferguson only lost his car keys. David Moyes has lost matches.
Ferguson, 71, suffered three defeats in his first 30 league games last season; his chosen replacement has been beaten three times in six matches so far. It amounts to United’s worst ever start to a Premier League campaign.
As a title-winning team remains intact, the obvious scapegoat is the manager. Like much else in the post-Ferguson era, this is unfamiliar for United.
With the exception of the awful autumn of 2005, Ferguson’s achievements exempted him from serious criticism since 1999. In contrast, it is open season on his successor. He is being compared with the incomparable.
He has already emulated the illustrious. Moyes’s United have played poorly at Anfield, got hammered by Manchester City and seen a weakened team lose at home to a supposedly lesser side.
Ferguson’s sides did all those, though never within the same month. After the 4-1 defeat to City, Moyes warned there would be more tough days ahead: few anticipated one within a week, but West Bromwich Albion duly and deservedly won at Old Trafford on Saturday.
If it is galling for Moyes, it must be frustrating for Ferguson. He prided himself on his legacy, bequeathing his countryman the champions, a culture of winning and a huge transfer budget that, apart from paying £4 million (Dh23.7m) more than was necessary for Marouane Fellaini, the younger Scot has failed to spend.
Having surpassed Sir Matt Busby in office, lasting even longer and winning even more, Ferguson vowed he would not copy Old Trafford’s original managerial knight by leaving a club in decline.
To a backdrop of scepticism from supporters and neutrals alike, he bullishly declared that his side last year compared to any of his great teams. Nostalgia plays tricks with the mind, he declared after clinching his 13th league title in April. His young players would carry on improving.
Yet the reality is that Wayne Rooney, who was alienated then, turns 28 later this month and Ferguson only left two automatic choices, David de Gea and Rafael da Silva – both are the Englishman’s junior.
Many of the next generation belong on the bench. Moyes has found himself over-reliant on a core of thirty-somethings — Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie — some of whom are starting to show their age.
Even after repairing relations with Rooney, he has still concluded he has too few world-class players. The problems of a squad that offers quantity but not enough quality were apparent to him early on.
Moyes’s appraisal of individuals can be debated — he has had too much faith in Ashley Young and too little in Shinji Kagawa — but his overall analysis was correct.
The problem for a manager who failed to get a superstar signing in the summer is that United have lost a galactico from the dugout. Ferguson himself was worth ten points a season, his former captain Gary Neville said.
Deduct ten from last year’s tally of 89 points and you have 79, a more realistic measure of the group of players Moyes inherited.
As Moyes is not worth 10 points a season himself and can’t blame the most successful manager in the history of the British domestic game for his inheritance, his task is all the harder.
Long before his predecessor retired, it appeared better to be the man who took over from the man after Ferguson, rather than his immediate successor. Moyes’s troubled start shows why.
If Ferguson’s career, as the Old Trafford banner reads, was the impossible dream, following him is the impossible task.