When Phil Neville accepted the homecoming invitation, it was always likely to be emotional. Manchester United is his club by birthright and he was never going to turn down the chance to follow David Moyes, as a coach, from Everton to Old Trafford last summer. In his most jolting nightmares, though, Neville never saw it playing out like this.
"I've got to say that walking around the pitch after the last home game of the season against Hull City was probably the emptiest I've ever felt on a football field," Neville said, with a nod towards Tuesday night's end-of-season ritual, in which the appreciation was entirely one-way from the pitch to the stands.
"I took the job at United fully expecting to be walking around after the last home game of the season either challenging for a league title or parading a league title because that's what this club demands. We've got to make sure next season we are doing that."
The inquest into the car crash that has been United's season has evolved to take in the blueprint for the future; to the pursuit of a manager to succeed Moyes, who was sacked after a record scarred by seven home defeats, six of which came in the Premier League; the other in the FA Cup. Louis van Gaal is expected to be confirmed as the man to take over from the caretaker manager Ryan Giggs.
But Neville, who survived the cull of Moyes' assistants, does linger on the dismissal of a man he describes as a friend. The pain is clear. Moyes signed him as a player for Everton in 2005 from United, where he had progressed from the youth ranks to the first-team, and he had wanted Neville to join him on the coaching staff at Goodison Park.
Moyes planted the seed in Neville's mind over the final years of the latter's playing career. But when Neville retired at the end of last season and Moyes was lured to Old Trafford take over from Sir Alex Ferguson, the opportunity knocked for him back in Manchester. Neville had other offers, "some unbelievable options," he said at the time, "one of which was to stay at Everton." But the pull of United was too strong.
"It's been a real difficult season," Neville added. "For a club that should be challenging for league titles to finish sixth or seventh is obviously not good enough. And to see a man who, for the last nine years, has put so much faith in me, giving me a platform either to play or to coach, to see him lose his job was probably one of the toughest days that I've had in football."
Perhaps the blow was heightened by the novelty factor for Neville. The 37-year-old has never previously been at a club where the manager has been sacked. "As a player I never experienced anything like it, apart from maybe with Kevin Keegan at England [in 2000]," he said. "Ferguson and Moyes have been the bedrock of my professional life, so to see him [Moyes] lose his job, it took a while to sink in.
"David has taken the majority of the criticism from outside the club but if you speak to anyone inside the club then we've all got to take collective responsibility – the players, the staff, everybody. Everyone connected to the club will take responsibility because we win together and we lose together. It was really disappointing when David lost his job because I class him as a friend."
United have since lost another home game under Giggs – to Sunderland in the league last Saturday – while the total for the season stands at nine if the Capital One Cup semi-final second-leg penalty shoot-out defeat to Sunderland is included. Moyes' team had won that tie 2-1 on the night at Old Trafford.
"If you ask me for one thing that we've collectively failed on, it's definitely that we have lost nine games at Old Trafford this season," Neville said. "That, for any club in the Premier League, is not acceptable.
"If we played all our games away from home, then we'd be league champions. But we don't and we've lost games at Old Trafford against teams that we should be beating. It has been the biggest single failing. Maybe teams coming to Old Trafford thought that they had a chance."
Neville spoke at the launch of the BBC's World Cup coverage; he will be one of its pundits in Brazil and like his older brother Gary, he will not be afraid of expressing his opinions. But he admitted that he is unsure about his future at United. Van Gaal is expected to retain Giggs as his assistant but it is unclear how many others of the club's "class of 92"graduates will remain.
Giggs has brought Paul Scholes on to his coaching staff while Nicky Butt has worked with the under-21s.
"We do work well together but there has been no real collective plan for us all to stay together," Neville said. "It's just worked out that, more often than not, our paths have taken the same route.
"My remit has been to support Ryan in his job and give my best for the club. But I want to be part of Man United's future. I'm a Man United person. Take the results and what's happened aside, and it's been an incredible learning experience for me this season at a club that I love. I want to be here for the rest of my life. That's my hope."