'Sir Alex Ferguson awoke yesterday morning to a "fuzzy" head and 75 text messages on his mobile phone. He laughed a weary laugh and, deciding that he could wait to find out who the wellwishers were - José Mourinho possibly among them - switched off his phone and drove to Manchester United's training ground, where he was applauded over the threshold by the staff and later, to his apparent bewilderment, by sections of the media.
'It has been some time since Ferguson has elicited the kind of back-slapping bonhomie that was in the air at Carrington yesterday. One of his fiercest critics in the media asked whether the 65-year-old had ever felt, as many of us did, that he was in danger of unravelling his reputation the longer he stayed on as manager.
'"No," he said with a smile, "because you lot aren't the best judges. What people said didn't hurt me. I'm experienced enough to know that that's the name of the game and that, if you're not doing well at this club, then you're going to get criticism."
'Dealing with criticism is one thing, but Ferguson has been aware of another adversary in more recent times. "Age," he said. "It creeps up on you quickly. I still think I'm 58. And then all of a sudden you look in the papers and see that you're 65 and I think, 'I can't be that old.' Jesus Christ - somebody wrote that I was 66. It happens with age. You wonder where the years have gone. You wonder how you compare with five or six years ago. I don't notice any dramatic changes in me, although there must be some.
'"Last season I was tired in the sense that I wanted to get on my holiday, get started on this season. There were moments last season when we went on a great run and thought we might just catch Chelsea. And then you draw with Sunderland on a Friday night. That's when you need your holiday.
'"I never thought it was time for someone else," Ferguson said. "We had made the decisions. The thing then was to get it all together."
'The decisions in question included getting rid of Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy. To outsiders, the failure to find an obvious replacement for either player was baffling. However, insiders have said that it was the best thing that Ferguson did. One source talked yesterday of the liberating effect it had on the younger players, particularly Cristiano Ronaldo, who was finally free to express himself without fear of an ear-bashing from Van Nistelrooy, his fiercest critic.
'Ferguson put it more diplomatically. "We had to make big, important decisions about how we changed the team," he said. "Roy was certainly difficult. He had been such a big influence on the club. I'm not so sure about Van Nistelrooy. That wasn't such a big decision at all. You need a good team spirit in the dressing-room and from Day One this group seemed to gel right away. That was what I wanted. I kept referring to that. The spirit was brilliant and that was important."
'The key will be to ensure that they build on this season's success, which may yet include victory over Chelsea in the FA Cup Final on May 19. The first signing is likely to be Owen Hargreaves, the Bayern Munich midfield player. Old Trafford officials expressed caution yesterday about the prospect of a deal for Hargreaves, citing a £21 million valuation that may prove prohibitive, but formal negotiations between the clubs have reopened over the past 48 hours, with the likelihood that a deal in the region of £19 million will be struck before the end of the season.
'Ferguson, though, indicated that there was still plenty of life left in Giggs, with the winger doubtless drawing inspiration from his manager's longevity. Ferguson insisted that he would not "do a Bobby Robson" and would get out of the game long before his 70th birthday. For Mourinho, Arsène Wenger, Rafael BenÍtez and the rest, that day cannot come quickly enough.'