Manager hails club's unique qualities knowing victory over Arsenal tomorrow will all but seal the title
Of all the barbs aimed at Arsne Wenger amid the wreckage of another imploded campaign, the one that struck hardest was Paul Merson's remark that Arsenal did not understand that the final five games were entirely different to the previous 33.
Once, not long after Merson had left Highbury, they did understand it. In 1998 and 2002, a different, tougher, older Arsenal reeled off a string of 10 and 13 straight victories respectively to push past Manchester United in the final furlongs. The first remains one of only two occasions in which Sir Alex Ferguson has lost a significant lead in the final weeks of the season.
When Manchester United lose a championship, it is generally from a long way out - between 2003 and 2006 they could not live with the early pace set by first Arsenal and then Chelsea. But in the final weeks, in the hard yards of football's marathon, they rarely falter.
"We have the strong spirit, the strong mentality," said Patrice Evra after the marvellously controlled Champions League performance that strangled the life from Schalke in their own arena. "Every time we pull on the shirt, you know we respect the history of the club. It doesn't matter if we play well or badly, we have to keep it at 100 per cent.
"That is what Manchester United are doing every year. I don't say it because I am playing for them but it is amazing, completely amazing. When you arrive there, they tell you the story; you watch it on a DVD and you learn.
"I think every young lad has to do that because when you know the story of the club, you play with more respect. You know that every time you have to do your job because the people who have played before you did."
If you mention any aspect of football to Ferguson, the conversation will eventually come down to one word: "experience". In 1968 he was part of a Glasgow Rangers side that froze when the Scottish title was not just in their hands but clutched to their chests. They had yet to lose a match but were deeply and improbably unnerved by comments from Celtic's great manager, Jock Stein, that the title was "theirs to lose".
They were words Ferguson never forgot. He has written six books about his life in football but the one with the most apt title was named A Will to Win.
"It is a natural thing," he said when asked about resilience at the end of a campaign yesterday. "The personality of a manager is the most important thing at a football club. Personality is very important for anyone who leads a unit, whether it be a football team or a business. That personality can inspire the players to be better, to believe and to trust - and these are the qualities we are seeing in the team at the moment."
Significantly, when Les Ferdinand recalled Newcastle's failure to win the title in 1996, the year of the 12-point lead, he said that nerves stalked the corridors of St James' Park and that they came from the top.
Alan Hansen would forever be mocked for his observation that Manchester United "would win nothing with kids" but the men who snatched the title from Tyneside were Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, the hardened veterans who kept six clean sheets in the final eight games, and Eric Cantona, who scored in seven of the last 10 matches.
"The longer players are here, it becomes a natural progression of the way the club has been over the last 15 years," Ferguson said. "It has its qualities. It has a fantastic profile, history and a good philosophy in the way they play the game. They have had winning qualities going back all these years and that is why they are dominant now.
"We had that resilience at Aberdeen also," said Ferguson, who captured his first Scottish title in 1980 by coming from behind to overhaul Celtic, using the same "the title is theirs to throw away" speech he remembered Stein giving. …