Outside Old Trafford, memorabilia is selling well – but there's a sense of trepidation about what happens after the end of an era
"Alex Ferguson commemorative scarves, 10 pounddds!" yelled Paul, a 49-year-old hawker stationed outside the Manchester United Megastore at Old Trafford. It was a rainy, blustery morning, but with more than 3,000 visitors booked on a stadium tour on Saturday, he was doing brisk business. His customers came from Norway, China and – let's bury the stereotype about United's far-flung fanbase – quite a few were locals too.
The range of Fergie memorabilia was impressive – flags, banners, a T-shirt featuring a pastiche of the Godfather poster's puppet strings – all knocked up since the surprise announcement on Wednesday that the United manager was stepping down at the end of the season.
"We're busy people, Mancunians," said Paul. "Look at the Manchester coat of arms: at the top there's a globe, which refers to our world trade connections, and around it there's a swarm of bees, because we're hard-working – it harks back to the industrial revolution, which started in Manchester."
Some might dispute Paul's history, but over the years Manchester has defined itself as being a world leader in different fields: from cotton processing in the 18th century to the clubbing and music scene in recent times. But now, unmistakably, football is king.
This should be particularly evident on the biggest weekend for football in the city since the Premier League was decided in dramatic circumstances – in Manchester City's favour – last May. On Saturday, City fans decamped to Wembley to watch their team surprisingly lose to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup final. On Sunday afternoon, United play Swansea City in Ferguson's last game in charge at Old Trafford.
At Old Trafford, Liam Brennan, 35, had come from Worsley, 15 miles away, with his six-year-old son Luca to see if any tickets had been returned for Sunday's match. He was not in luck: there has been talk of £45 seats being re-sold for £1,000. Swansea fans have been reminded by their club that re-sale of tickets is illegal and they face being stripped of season tickets if they transgress.
"I knew there'd be no chance of a ticket," said Liam. "But I wanted to come with my son to see the players walk around Old Trafford with the Premier League trophy, because you can't take that for granted. How long is it going to be before we win anything again?"
The success that the 71-year-old Ferguson has enjoyed at United since taking over on 6 November 1986 is certainly unprecedented in the modern era. His trophy count is 38: among them 13 league titles, two European Cups, five FA Cups and four League Cups. This record is even more impressive considering that when he arrived at the club, Manchester United had not won a league title for nearly two decades and were languishing in 19th place in the old first division.
"I'm just about old enough to remember the bad times before Ferguson arrived," said Liam. "But all my son has ever seen is me jumping around the living room when we've won trophies. So it's that sense of the unknown: it's like a death in the family."
There is sure to be enthusiastic appreciation for Ferguson from supporters on Sunday afternoon, but the club has no special plans to honour his final home fixture. It will be business as usual and much of the pomp will be held back for an open-top bus parade through Manchester on Monday evening to celebrate the club's 20th league title.
That parade has already become a source of local controversy. Manchester City fans had complained that the day should have been set aside for them, in the event of winning the FA Cup final, but that United sneaked in ahead of them. There is also a widely held belief that Ferguson chose this moment to retire specifically so that he could attract attention away from City's second FA Cup final in three seasons. Whether it was intentional or not, the build-up to the match was starved of oxygen by the United manager's bombshell.
"That's what happened, without a shadow," said Paul the hawker. "You've got to understand that it's a bitter rivalry. It's tribal hatred."
The rivalry is now entering a new phase, with a fresh cast of protagonists. Ferguson's replacement, the Everton boss David Moyes, who has never won a major trophy and has no experience of managing in the Champions League, has not exactly been heartily embraced by United fans. The striker Wayne Rooney is also lobbying for a transfer, although it was hard to find too many in the red half of Manchester who said they would be devastated at his departure. "No loyalty," said Imran, a taxi driver. "We've had the best of him now."
Meanwhile, speculation is growing that Manchester City are set to replace their manager, Roberto Mancini, with the coach of Malaga, Manuel Pellegrini. Come next season, the Manchester derby could have a very different feel to it. Ferguson will be missed, and – to everyone's surprise – even some City fans are not as delirious at his departure as might be imagined.
In 2007, as the rest of us selected our "Great Britons", the Manchester Evening News launched a poll to anoint the greatest-ever Mancunian. Contenders included the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, artist LS Lowry, the Gallagher brothers from Oasis and Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the modern police force. Also eligible were those who had "a significant influence on Greater Manchester", such as computer pioneer Alan Turing, philosopher Friedrich Engels and a host of footballers, including David Beckham.
The poll was won by Morrissey, the former lead singer of the Smiths, while Ferguson came sixth. This was not a bad result considering that half of Manchester pretty much hated his guts.
If the same poll were held today, one suspects Ferguson might move up a few places. "I'm a City fan but I've got to be honest, the man's an absolute genius," said Paull, outside the sprawling United Megastore that wouldn't exist without Ferguson's contributions to the club. "And football in general will miss him because he's a character."