An afternoon at Old Trafford that teemed with sentiment ranging from sadness to nostalgia found its emotional heart halfway through Sir Alex Ferguson's valedictory speech.

In front of the 75,572 crowd who waved red flags and cried and cheered as the stadium became part-wake, part-party, the Scot followed his final home game as Manchester United's manager with the words: "When we had bad times here, the club stood by me, all my staff stood by me, the players stood by me. Your job now is to stand by our new manager. That is important."

Ferguson's use of "our" was the essence of what the occasion was about. At that moment the old cliché about a family club felt true. The adoring congregation was bidding farewell to the paternal figure who had led them through 27 years to glory in Europe and at home, and Ferguson was leaving the stage that had been his Old Vic, still offering a reminder that his successor, David Moyes, required support.

Ferguson had begun his final address by saying, "I've got absolutely no script in my mind, I'm just going to ramble on and hope I get to the core of what this football club has meant to me," after a match in which it was clear what he had meant to Manchester United.

After a brief shake of hands with Michael Bolingbroke, the chief operating officer, in the tunnel Ferguson, chewing gum as always, had walked out for a 723rd and final time on to home turf, through a guard of honour from the United and Swansea City players as The Impossible Dream played and the crowd held up a mosaic that read "Champions".

Then he sat on the bench for a 1,499th occasion in charge of United while above him in the directors' box his 11 grandchildren, who would join him later on the pitch, his wife, Cathy, and their sons Mark, Darren and Jason, watched as the contest threatened to end on the discordant note of a draw. That was until Rio Ferdinand, one of Ferguson's most successful signings, intervened to grab an apt late winner, the defender's 87th-minute goal reminiscent of many of the manager's victories. The release and relief that surged through the crowd was also familiar from the helter-skelter manner in which Ferguson's sides had triumphed so often.

At the end of the match, Ferdinand had paid tribute to his manager, saying: "He deserved to have three points on his final home game. It's emotional, it's like his second home," with Michael Carrick adding: "We wanted to win the match as we wanted to do it for the boss as well as everyone else."

Then came Ferguson's walk to the middle of the pitch and his speech. Introduced by Alan Keegan, the stadium announcer, as the "greatest British manager ever" there was a grin from the 71-year-old as he took the microphone and, standing alone in the centre circle, the ground shaking with applause, he began.

"First of all, it's a thank you to Manchester United. Not just the directors, not just the medical staff, not just the coaching staff, the players or the supporters, it's all of you," he said. "You have been the most fantastic experience of my life. I have been very fortunate. I've been able to manage some of the greatest players in the country, let alone Manchester United. All these players here today have represented our club the proper way – they've won the championship in a fantastic fashion. Well done to the players.

"My retirement doesn't mean the end of my life with the club. I'll be able to now enjoy watching them rather than suffer with them.

"But, if you think about it, those last-minute goals, the comebacks, even the defeats, are all part of this great football club of ours. It's been an unbelievable experience for all of us, so thank you for that. I'm going home, well, I'm going inside for a while, and I want to say thank you again from all the Ferguson family. They're all up there, 11 grandchildren – thank you."

Then, United's 20th championship trophy was presented – a 13th claimed by Ferguson for the club – there was one last walk around the Old Trafford turf as manager, and he was gone.

"It was a special, special day," Carrick said. "The response from everyone and the guard of honour and the atmosphere was electric, and something I will never forget."

It will be a long time before Ferguson is forgotten, too.