By Jonathan Birchall
In Sunderland last May, past his shattered, battered players on the Stadium of Light pitch and towards 2000 dumbfounded supporters, Sir Alex Ferguson strode on.
Minutes after Sergio Aguero’s injury time-minute winner 120 miles away defied belief and took away his title, Ferguson was planning how to win it back. "They know I'm not going away," he said.
True to his word 11 months on, it is a similar if somewhat happier story at Old Trafford. The 3-0 demolition of Aston Villa on Monday made it mission accomplished.
Champions again, yet still they look forward. Still they stride on.
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The Pole, who was watched by Ferguson as Dortmund drew with Manchester City in October, has been targeted by both United and the increasingly powerful Bayern Munich, with the German champions set to offload Mario Gomez this summer to make space for the Dortmund star.
The champagne has barely left the ice, yet Ferguson’s relentless pursuit of perfection remains perpetual.
“The message is simple,” Ferguson told Harvard University students in December. “We never sit still at this club.” His 13th league title at United won’t change that.
And like the eye-watering financial package that secured the decisive signing of Robin van Persie last summer, or Carrington’s recently installed tanning beds designed to keep his squad topped up with Vitamin D throughout the wet and windy Manchester winter, the pursuit of Lewandowski is simply indicative of United's constant drive to improve.
Such a move only adds to the uncertainty surrounding the futures of Wayne Rooney and Chicharito, of course, with the former having told his England team-mates that he may move away this summer and Atletico Madrid monitoring the Mexican ahead of the expected departures of Radamel Falcao and Adrian Lopez.
However, United recognise that finding a suitable buyer for Rooney, who currently earns £250,000-a-week, may prove to be a stumbling block. The forward is two and-a-half years into a five-year contract and as such is in no rush to leave Manchester, despite seeing his influence at Old Trafford dissipate this term.
Much depends on United's selling strategy this summer, though. Having brought forward funds to secure Van Persie and fast-track January's £15m signing of Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace, Ferguson is in a position of having to sell before he can buy ahead of the window.
Nani, Anderson and Anders Lindegaard are seen as priority departures by Ferguson with a view to generating funds, while Old Trafford officials would be willing to listen to bid for Nemanja Vidic, Antonio Valencia and Chicharito, should they receive offers greater than their original outlay on the players.
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As ever though, the wheels of continuity remain in motion at the club, with Ryan Giggs having signed another one-year rolling contract, in-keeping with the United's policy of only offering short-term, reduced deals to their players over 30.
Beyond Giggs, the rejuvenated, Player of the Year-nominated Michael Carrick will be offered a similar package close to £80,000-a-week this summer, while Rio Ferdinand is set to take a 40 per cent pay-cut to stay at the Theatre of Dreams, with a testimonial being planned for the defender. Darren Fletcher, who turns 30 next February, is continuing to be monitored by United medical staff after he returned to light training at Carrington at the end of last month.
However, despite efforts being made on Sir Alex's part to maintain a leading group of trusted, experienced stars, Paul Scholes' second retirement is imminent, though the 38-year-old is set to join the likes of Warren Joyce and Brian McClair as part of the club's swelling coaching staff. Keen to instill the 'United Way' into his next group of fledglings, Ferguson sees promoting from within as a crucial element of his lasting legacy.
Also central to United's ongoing dominance is a quite astonishing commercial drive away from the pitch, which will be overseen by new CEO Ed Woodward at the club's Mayfair office as of July 1.
The former executive vice chairman, who is a close ally of the Glazer family, will replace the outgoing David Gill and remain largely remote from Sir Alex and the club's playing staff in Carrington, facilitating transfer strategy and working closely with the club's commercial team.
Woodward will be in place in time for the club's money-spinning pre-season tour of Asia and Australia, as the club look to expand their commercial reach in the southern hemisphere. With fixtures in Bangkok, Sydney, Yokohama, Osaka and Hong Kong, the club are determined spread their significant portfolio of commercial partners, typified by the recent nine-year deal brokered with American car giant Chevrolet worth £357m.
Such astronomic sums and air-miles are simply indicative of Sir Alex's model and his modern Manchester United. A relentless drive from the boardroom to the boot room, cultivated over his 26-year reign.
And typically, another year, another title and another look ahead raises further questions about the man who is central to it all. This title win, perhaps more than any other, seems so clearly down to the 71-year-old's golden touch. The masterful man-management. The seamless squad rotation. The will to win. Sir Alex remains the constant. He's still not going away.
But he knows it's not forever. The Glazer family are comfortable with Sir Alex having a significant input into plans regarding his eventual replacement.
Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have both been earmarked by the Scot as suitable successors, but with the Spaniard Munich-bound and doubts remaining among the United hierarchy over the Special One's perceived short-term mentality, Sir Alex will spend this summer with one eye on retaining his title and another even further into the club's future.
After all, from the despair of last May to the delight of title No. 20, his same, simple message remains. United never sit still. United always stride on.
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