Manchester United seem to have turned a bit of a corner in the past few days. While one should not necessarily read too much into an at times laboured home victory over the Premier League's bottom club, just as the false confidence instilled by those four relatively easy fixtures in December was always likely to be blown away by harsh reality in the new year, the arrival of Juan Mata and the promise of more signings have reaffirmed the club's special status and left everyone at Old Trafford feeling better about themselves.
Never mind for now why Chelsea sold Mata, whether he fills the hole United need plugging or whether he is exactly the player David Moyes always wanted, the fact is he is a proven talent and not too many other clubs can spend £37m at the drop of a hat. A couple more signings of that magnitude and United really could reinvent themselves as a force to be reckoned with, even if Moyes would be entitled to ask himself why all the messy rebuilding had to be done at the beginning of his watch rather than towards the end of Sir Alex Ferguson's.
It seems clear now that Mata was one of the deals Moyes had in mind when he announced a couple of weeks ago that leading players were still keen to join Manchester United, proving that the club had lost none of its aura. At the time that seemed a little hopeful, if not desperate, although Moyes was speaking in the plural and now Mata is on the books there is no reason to doubt that advance discussions are already taking place with other targets. Whether in this transfer window or the next, a Cesc Fábregas, Toni Kroos or Luke Shaw could still be possible.
Set against the shambolic way in which United departed the Capital One Cup this time last week that could only be regarded as a significant improvement, although the really significant development of the last few days was Moyes not just turning a corner but crossing a street to step out of Ferguson's shadow. Up to this point Moyes has given every impression of running the United empire according to the textbook Ferguson wrote on the subject and left in his top drawer.
Moyes was always a big admirer of Ferguson while at Everton and since his elevation to United manager has not been afraid to admit that he is in regular contact with the master, frequently seeking advice and instruction. If Ferguson said don't do something it would be hard to imagine Moyes doing it, yet something of that nature must have happened if the new manager has agreed to keep Wayne Rooney abreast of incoming transfers and possibly even consult the striker over possible targets.
Moyes did not exactly promote that information at the weekend but he did not deny it either. Ferguson would have practically booked a slot on the six o'clock news to denounce such scurrilous rumours and would never have agreed to such an arrangement. It is not only that Ferguson famously told Rooney it was none of his business three years ago when the player had the temerity to suggest United had a look at Mesut Özil, it is that the story of Ferguson's entire managerial career has been a fight for sole control.
If I had a pound for every time I have heard him say there can only ever be one manager of a club I would be well on the way to being able to afford a ticket for a category A game at Arsenal. Ferguson can be close to players, he probably bounced a few ideas off Roy Keane in his time, but there was only one decision maker. Ferguson's basic mantra was that no player is ever bigger than the manager, no individual is ever more valuable than the club and, rightly or wrongly, performers of the calibre of Keane, David Beckham, Paul Ince and Ruud van Nistelrooy were moved out as soon as they were perceived to have overstepped the mark or misjudged their own importance.
"The one thing I could never allow was a loss of control," Ferguson says in his latest autobiography. "Control was my only saviour. I think Roy [Keane] was coming to the end of his playing career and starting to think he was the manager. As with David Beckham, I knew the minute a football player started trying to run the club we would all be finished. Real players like a manager who's tough, or can be tough."
If you wish to go back further than that there is a passage in Hugh McIlvanney's version of Ferguson's story where the United board have questioned their manager's judgment in attempting to purchase Dwight Yorke. Brian Kidd, destined to be out of the club before Yorke got his hands on a treble, has let it be known he is not as impressed by the Aston Villa player as his boss seems to be.
"I believed there was nobody associated with Manchester United who was better equipped to assess players than I was," Ferguson says. "I trotted out a pretty impressive catalogue of the purchases made since my arrival, remarkable figures such as Hughes, McClair, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin, Schmeichel, Sharpe, Ince, Kanchelskis, Keane and Cantona. I told Martin [Edwards] and Sir Roland [Smith, then chairman] 'If you don't recognise that I am the best person to judge which players should be bought by the club, I may as well leave now.'"
Can't say fairer than that, can you? Or be more clear on the subject. Yet if there is truth in the suggestions that Rooney is not only in for a substantial pay rise, the future captaincy and a say in transfers to boot, then he is clearly on his way to becoming the most influential person at the club and Moyes would appear to be doing things differently. Despite the reservations some supporters have about rewarding Rooney so generously when he has twice agitated for a move, that is not to say Moyes is wrong in his assessment of the situation or his accommodation of the player. For the simple reason that Ferguson was not always right. Had he listened to Rooney after the 2010 World Cup, after all, instead of sending him away with a flea in his ear, Özil might have been a United player by now.
The Arsenal revival might never have taken place, Shinji Kagawa would have been unnecessary – although that still happened – and United could even have saved themselves a few bob on Mata. Rooney spoke as Özil's transfer from Werder Bremen was going through, although several other clubs, including United and Arsenal, had already been alerted and Real Madrid ended up paying only £12m for a player they imagined would understudy Kaka.
So if Moyes's biggest challenge on taking over United was to stop being a Ferguson Mini-Me and prove himself to be his own man, he has just done it.
Ferguson rowed with Rooney, the pair have no relationship any longer. Moyes rates him as the future of the club and a close confidante. Rooney is 28, the same age as Beckham when the latter was shipped out, and although many supporters believe United have seen his best years already, José Mourinho still rates him. It is an interesting question whether Moyes is rebuilding bridges with Rooney out of conviction or because he is terrified of such a prize asset ending up at Chelsea, but not really an important one.
For the first time in six months, Moyes appears to know what he needs to do – and he is getting on with doing it. If Ferguson has an opinion on the matter, he is stoically keeping shtum. At least until his next autobiography.