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Stand and deliver

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Phil McNulty | 08:41 UK time, Sunday, 6 November 2011

Not much has slipped beneath Sir Alex Ferguson's radar in 25 years at Old Trafford - but even he failed to detect arguably the greatest tribute Manchester United have paid to any single figure in their history.

As Ferguson marched briskly through a guard of honour formed by the players of United and Sunderland towards chief executive David Gill on the centre spot to mark his silver anniversary, he was unaware of the moment his place at the famous old stadium became permanent.

What followed was pure Theatre of Dreams as Gill announced Old Trafford's giant North Stand would now be named the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand.

Workmen perched along the skyline removed a veil to reveal the sign that will stand as a monument to the great manager's reign.


Sir Alex Ferguson walks out to a guard of honour after 25 years as Manchester United manager . PHOTO: Getty

Ferguson turned around in genuine shock. Even after United's 1-0 win over Sunderland, he seemed emotionally drained by the scale of what United had done in his honour. And why not?

It is the success fashioned by Ferguson that enabled the club to build - and fill - the stand on a regular basis. United's other legendary Scottish manager has Sir Matt Busby Way, which runs alongside the stadium.

The trinity of George Best, Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton each have a statue - but no-one, as Gill was at pains to emphasise, has ever had a section of Old Trafford honoured in their name.

Say what you like about Ferguson - and we all have - but seeing the giant red lettering adorning what was known as the plain old North Stand crystallised the achievements of the manager who has defined the Premier League era.

Ferguson was touched as he claimed "about 105 of my family" were in attendance for his big day. He will also get a statue in the shadow of his stand before the start of next season to emphasise his status as a towering influence on the Manchester United story.

The newly named structure will stand as evidence of the empire Ferguson has built since arriving at Old Trafford from Aberdeen in 1986 to start this tale of managerial success.

Ferguson's name was stamped, literally, over every moment of an occasion that provided far more colour than a game that was, for large portions, dreadful.

The Stretford End was adorned by a banner snaking along its stand declaring: "Sir Alex. 25 years - The Impossible Dream Made Possible" and cards were distributed with the slogan "SAF: 25".

Ferguson divides opinion with his contrasting character traits but there is no doubt he ranks among the foremost personalities the game has known. Some neutrals may not like him but you cannot argue against the hard facts of his record.

The game set before him to celebrate his landmark did no justice to his United career and it took a present from an old friend to make the party go with anything like a swing.

History told us that Steve Bruce, who captained United to their first title under Ferguson, would be the ideal guest given his track record of no wins in his previous 17 meetings with his mentor as a manager.

And so it proved, although there was a layer of irony in the fact it was former United defender Wes Brown who ensured Ferguson started his 26th year in charge with a win as he deflected Danny Welbeck's header past goalkeeper Keiren Westwood in first-half stoppage time.

Bruce enjoyed a glass of wine with Ferguson before bemoaning his latest failure as he said: "I will probably be his age before I get a result against him.

"He didn't know a thing about the stand being named after him. I have never known anyone at Manchester United keep something secret.

"I told him maybe it showed he'd taken his finger of the pulse but it is a fitting, magnificent tribute and fully deserved."

Bruce was less charitable towards referee Lee Mason after his assistant Jake Collin indicated a late penalty when Sunderland's Ji-Dong Won rose in an aerial challenge with United captain Nemanja Vidic, only for the decision to be reversed and the South Korean penalised for handball.

It seemed then that no forces would prevent Ferguson marking his anniversary with a win - but this was a match in which United carried all the hallmarks of a team still regaining confidence after that 6-1 defeat at home to Manchester City.

It also illustrated the big move Ferguson must make to increase United's chances of adding new chapters of success to their story.

Wayne Rooney's use as a central midfield man is not quite a panic measure but it is an obvious sign of how the gap left by the retirement of Paul Scholes has not yet been addressed.

Rooney's natural ability makes him of service to Ferguson in that position but he instantly becomes more of a blunt instrument when he is reduced to chasing back towards his own corner flag as opposed to doing damage in areas where opponents can be wounded.

It smacks of Ferguson simply making-do. Rooney may eventually settle for this sort of role but surely not for a few years yet.

Ferguson must add that quality midfield man as a matter of urgency because, while Rooney's current unfamiliar role is hardly an admission of failure in the transfer market, it cannot be a serious long-term proposition.

If we believe Ferguson is not aware of this then we have not learned the lessons of the last 25 years.

Unlike the announcement of the new Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, this is something he will already have on his radar.

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