Contrary to the expectations of many sceptics, Old Trafford did not crumble into dust Wednesday. Locusts did not strip Stretford bare. The Ship Canal did not froth with angry waves. Boddingtons beer did not lose its body. David Beckham has gone but the unique English force that is Manchester United carries on, proud and unbowed.
Far from crisis, the champions of England are merely engaging in a familiar routine. They are shedding some players, including a magnificent one in Beckham, and preparing to welcome other stars such as Ronaldinho, probably, and Paul Robinson, possibly.
New faces having blended with old favourites, United will charge down the tunnel, into the arc-lights of the new season and remind us all that they are the most driven collection of footballers in the land.
In the soap-opera saga of Beckham being ushered out of his sporting home of 14 years it is possible to be an admirer of both the player and the man jabbing a finger towards the exit, Sir Alex Ferguson. The history of United under Ferguson is a celebration of regeneration, of the seemingly irreplaceable moving on and the team still thriving, still seizing trophies. That vintage 1994 Double-winning side, spearheaded by Mark Hughes and Eric Cantona, appeared The Untouchables but changes occurred. It was two striking signings, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who sealed the unprecedented Treble of 1999.
Ferguson’s record in the transfer market is simple: he either buys exceptionally well (Ruud van Nistelrooy) or embarrassingly badly (Juan Sebastian Veron). The Scot is fortunate United can afford his mistakes. Now that his recruiting fund has been swollen by an initial £ 17 million from Real Madrid for Beckham, Ferguson can initiate the incomers’ part of his summer plans.
Many of the building blocks are already in place as he acts the architect to a new 4-2-3-1 structure. But Ferguson needs a goalkeeper to replace the erratic Fabien Barthez and would relish Robinson, providing the Leeds United youngster keeps his weight down. Brad Friedel could give two outstanding years’ service but Blackburn Rovers would surely resist any offer.
Ferguson believed he had enough international defenders in Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Mikael Silvestre, John O’Shea and, when fit, Wes Brown. Yet the lesson of the AC Milan-Juventus Champions League final played out before a fascinated Ferguson at Old Trafford was that when it comes to reliable defenders, the old ones are the best.
Gareth Southgate, who craves Champions League exposure, would make a sensible short-term signing to help Ferdinand. Such a purchase, however unlikely, would allow Silvestre to push across to left-back while O’Shea becomes assistant stoker in an engine room run by Keane.
The clock ticks ever louder on Keane’s career, particularly against Europe’s most mobile units, but enough desire courses through the obstinate Irishman to steer United to another title.
Besides, Keane is his master’s voice on the field, barking out Ferguson’s orders. Until O’Shea’s best position is clarified or Veron works out how to impose his undoubted technical talent, Keane will be partnered by Nicky Butt or Phil Neville.
The three creative types will be Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Ronaldinho, always assuming that Ferguson can land Paris St-Germain’s quick-thinking, quicksilver Brazilian Ronaldinho.
Ferguson’s fired-up XI will enter the new season without Beckham — and without fear.