A few days before last weekend's rugby league Challenge Cup final, as Wigan completed their final preparations before heading down to London to meet Leeds Rhinos, their Australian coach Michael Maguire got all the players together at the training ground and told them he had invited a special guest to speak to them. Concerned that Leeds had recent experience of Wembley while none of the present Warriors team had ever been, Maguire said he had found someone to give them a few hints about how to handle the occasion.
Wigan's collection of Antipodeans and northern hard men waited for a few seconds with breath hardly bated. A few eyes might have rolled or turned towards the ceiling as they pondered what sort of motivational speaker their coach would come up with. Some rugby league heavyweight from the past perhaps, a captain of industry or a glib champion of the power of thinking positive? By their very nature teams of sportsmen at the top of their game are difficult to impress. They have to believe they are already the best in the business at what they do, yet equally it is impossible to imagine anyone from any other walk of life being able to tell them how to do it better.
So Wigan were possibly not expecting to be startled when the door opened and Sir Alex Ferguson walked in. "I can't say I know too much about rugby league," the Manchester United manager began. "But I do know about playing at Wembley, what it's like to win there and what it's like to lose."
Slumped shoulders suddenly straightened. The class came to attention in a matter of seconds. "When he walked in you could have heard a pin drop," said Paul Prescott, a prop forward. "It was unreal, I don't think I've ever been so star-struck." The Kiwi half-back Thomas Leuluai described Ferguson as "probably the greatest coach in world sport" but said he was amazed at how down to earth he was, while the Aussie winger Pat Richards said: "Sir Alex was terrific. He told us he still remembered all the losses he has had at Wembley because they stick with you as much as the victories."
It would be stretching a point to suggest Ferguson deserves credit for Wigan's victory in the final, though in terms of finding the right man to impress and motivate his players Maguire clearly hit the spot exactly. Now, here's the question. If Ferguson can have that effect on a bunch of strangers from around the world playing a completely different ball game, what sort of attention and respect can he command in his own dressing room. And, going further, how many other Premier League managers could pull off the same sort of trick?
Maybe Arsène Wenger could have done it once, though certainly not at the moment. Perhaps David Moyes could do the emotional honesty without quite coming across as an international superstar, ditto Kenny Dalglish. José Mourinho in his pomp would have been an impressive guest to book in similar circumstances, as would Brian Clough or perhaps Bob Paisley at the peak of their powers. But that's about it. Just a few people, and only for a few selected years. Whereas Ferguson has been potent and persuasive for all of the last 15 years, if not more. That is what gives Manchester United such a tremendous advantage.
The contrast at the moment between Fergie and his erstwhile rival Wenger is almost uncomfortable to consider. United won the league last time, yet Ferguson identified his transfer targets early and went out and bought them, sometimes paying a trifle over the odds but making sure he got what he wanted. Arsenal finished fourth, and would have slipped further down the table had the season lasted any longer, yet despite clear positional deficiencies and repeated calls from supporters to strengthen the team, Wenger chose to sit on his hands until the last week of the transfer window and then launch an unrealistic bid for Gary Cahill, a player who has been linked with the Gunners for at least six months. Whoever Wenger brings in at the last minute will appear just that – last minute – whereas Ferguson's signings are all up and running and looking as if they have been United players all their lives.
Perhaps Wenger is all too aware he cannot compete financially with Manchester City and Chelsea, though Ferguson knows all about that too. Even in the knowledge that big money targets such as Sergio Agüero and Samir Nasri would be landing at City Ferguson still took the necessary steps to freshen his squad, just as he did in 1998 after Wenger had won his first title with Arsenal.
Several people thought £12.6m was far too much to pay for a bit performer such as Dwight Yorke – the Observer's football correspondent (me) asked at the time whether the world had gone mad – yet 12 months later Yorke and United were skipping around Barcelona with a European Cup to complete their historic treble. Ashley Young, another capture from Aston Villa, already looks capable of growing bigger in a Manchester United shirt, just as Yorke did.
At least a part of that happy facility at the club must be down to the manager's eye for a player and subsequent treatment of the new arrival. Ferguson builds teams, and at present, with Wenger in the doldrums and Roberto Mancini and André Villas-Boas still to fully prove themselves, he is out on his own on that front, with all respect to Dalglish's promising attempts to put Liverpool back together.
United are not favourites to win the title because they have the most money, because they clearly have not. But they do have the most experience, almost all of it residing in Ferguson and his coaches, and most important of all their manager does not appear to have a shelf-life. Wenger's obituaries are already being written, and while that may be premature, it does seem apparent that he is struggling to recapture the vitality and decisiveness of his early years.
Mourinho, Rafa Benítez, Carlo Ancelotti and a host of others have already been and gone. Mancini and Villas-Boas may turn out to be long-term players, who knows? All one can say at the moment is that you wouldn't necessarily bet on them outlasting a soon-to-be septuagenarian at Old Trafford. Because Fergie appears to have discovered the secret formula all the alchemists have been looking for. His teams seem to keep him young. Almost every other manager, quite visibly in some cases, experiences the exact opposite.