• 'I didn't know anything about it,' says Scot
• Plans in place to erect a statue at Old Trafford
By the end of Sir Alex Ferguson's 25th anniversary weekend it felt like the only thing his club had forgotten was for the oldest and most successful manager in the business to be given the freedom of Manchester. Ferguson will have to make do with a stand named in his honour, a statue to follow, the framed photograph and too many slaps on the back to count. And, besides, he is already a freeman of Glasgow. "I'm allowed to hang my washing on Glasgow Green. And if I ever get arrested in the city I'm entitled to my own cell. Which could come in handy at some point."
The mood was light, full of levity and banter, on the day the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand was unveiled and, for one of the few times in the past quarter of a century, the old man had to hold up his hands and admit he did not know what was going on inside his own club. "I've told him he must be losing his touch," Steve Bruce, the Sunderland manager, said of his former manager. "I've never known anything at Manchester United be kept secret."
So how did they do it? The beauty of Saturday's presentation was seeing the expression on Ferguson's face, the look of utter surprise, the way he stooped forward a little and blew out his cheeks and realising that the man who controls large swaths of the United workforce and likes to have spies and informants all across the north of England had no idea what was being planned. Heck, for a few seconds Ferguson even stopped chewing his gum.
The idea belonged to the chief executive, David Gill, and only eight out of 660 full-time employees were let into the secret. The first meeting took place on Wednesday, before the Champions League tie against Otelul Galati, and it was here that Gill emphasised the need for complete secrecy and he and his colleagues made a pact they would not tell a soul.
It was an operation that had to be conducted under the cover of darkness. The work began once the final organised tour of Old Trafford had finished on Thursday evening and went on until 2am the following morning. First, the workmen had to remove the original "Old Trafford, Manchester" sign. Then the new letters went up, three at a time. The six-man team, using abseils to inch down from the roof of the steepest stand at Old Trafford, had been asked to sign confidentiality agreements, as had the company that produced the huge red lettering.
Even then, the operation was shrouded in doubt. Old Trafford has a tour every seven minutes and a small army of security and ground staff. "The driving motive," according to one of the people involved, "was to make sure it was a surprise and that nobody found out. We were desperate not to let the manager hear about it beforehand." So United commissioned a 20-metre banner to go over the top of the new letters, designed in the style of the original sign.
The nearest they came to being rumbled was when the assistant manager, Mike Phelan, taking the players for their pre-match warm-up, noticed the banner flapping in the wind. But Phelan said nothing. "So he's sacked," Ferguson said later. In fact, nobody from the football side had been trusted with the news, the group of eight comprising Gill, three employees from group property, one from marketing design, a member of the operations team, the club secretary and someone from the communications team to rush out a press release during the game. Journalists inquiring last week were told there would "be something low-key, maybe a bottle of wine".
The group then had a second meeting at 5pm on Friday when Gill reiterated the need for secrecy and disclosed the statue plan. By now, the director Joel Glazer had been contacted but no staff were informed until five minutes before Ferguson emerged through the guard of honour. "I didn't know anything about it," he beamed later. "I have to thank the club because it's a proud moment."
All of this might have been spoiled a little if United had not won and, at times, they did threaten to make it a bittersweet day for Ferguson once the 1,409th game of his reign began. It wasn't particularly illuminating and a tired-looking Ferguson said afterwards it had been a "long day" and he would have been happy for the game to end once Wes Brown, of all people, had inadvertently headed Nani's corner into his own net. Sunderland put up a decent show but left, as Bruce always seems to here, with nothing but hard-luck stories, losing Connor Wickham to what the club fear are ruptured knee ligaments.
As for Ferguson, this was one of those days when we saw a softer-focus United manager. There should be more of them. But one thought, something for the future, maybe: shouldn't there be a Sir Matt Busby Stand too?
Man of the match Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)