The most financially successful football club in the world is facing huge challenges on and off the pitch. Can the men at the top keep it together until the final whistle? Matthew Gwyther and Andrew Saunders report.
It's a gloomy early spring morning and there's a bitter wind blowing across the pitch at Carrington, Manchester United's fortress-like training ground a few miles to the south-west of the city centre. The weather's not quite polar enough to warrant turning on the undersoil heating, but players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gabriel Heinze could be forgiven for wishing they were back home in a warmer climate.
Having just lost to AC Milan, United are out of the Champions League.
Off the pitch, half-year profits have halved and the club is being stalked by an acquisitive American billionaire. For the squad, though, it's training as usual. Phil Neville has just skied one over the bar, while injured brother Gary watches, jogging gently around the perimeter Teenage superstar Wayne Rooney emerges from the hydrotherapy pool and heads for his team mates, stocky frame and rolling Simian gait unmistakable even from 200 metres.
The temperature plummets a few more degrees when manager Sir Alex Ferguson stomps on to the pitch. Red-faced under an incongruous woolly hat, hands thrust into anorak pockets, his body language is unambiguous. In a game where no-one likes to lose, Ferguson likes it least of all, and his baleful glare makes sure that they all know it. Watching from a safe distance of 50 metres, all one can hear is the name Maldini, the Milan defender who denied them even a single point the day before last.
Ferguson is living up to his image as the prime exponent of the hairdryer school of management, the regular dishing out of up-close dressings-down, accompanied by physical outbursts that occasionally end in tears, the most famous instance being the changing-room spat that left David Beckham with a cut brow.
Fast-forward a few hours, off the training pitch and into the warm, Hilton-plush surroundings of the director's dining room at Old Trafford. What is the truth about his motivational techniques? All trace of the morning's pugnacious manner has evaporated, replaced by a thoughtful ambassador for Emotional Intelligence. 'I reminded them today about how good they were. The most important thing is that we lost with dignity. They are big men and it's important to have humility. Be positive even when you lose.'
He seems mild and even-handed, almost reticent, carefully considering questions before responding. It emerges that as well as owning racehorses, he is also something of a wine connoisseur, is learning French and teaching himself to play the piano. (He plays the same one tune - The Tennessee Waltz - that Mohammed Ali used to play.)
Is this really Ferguson? The stories of his explosive temper are legion, a manager who puts the fear of God into players to keep them motivated. In his early career in Scotland, his nickname was Furious.
Even his favourite primary schoolteacher said that for all his many fine qualities, Ferguson was a child who 'could start a fight in an empty room'.
The facts of the matter are a long way from the legend, says the man himself. 'If we lose on Saturday I have to point out why, and sometimes I can be a bit forceful about it. But the one thing I can't deal with is myth. The more successful you are, the bigger the myth is. I've heard stories about me going behind the stands to practise screaming at the players. I've actually read that. Not true.'
But Ferguson is a mythical figure. Since he arrived at Old Trafford in 1986, he has turned Manchester United from an ailing giant into one of the most consistently successful football teams in the world. The club has picked up the Premiership title a record eight times and the FA Cup five times, but Fergie's crowning glory was winning the …