Sir Alex Ferguson always said he would carry on as Manchester United manager as long as his health permitted him to do so.
So, when the United boss was informed he would require a hip replacement this summer – as exclusively revealed by the Mirror last week – it proved the beginning of the end of his remarkable Old Trafford reign.
The procedure will leave Ferguson needing up to three months of recuperation and, with the prospect of missing the start of United’s title defence at the start of next season, the 71-year-old heeded it as a message from his body that it was now time to call it a day.
Despite insisting the operation was planned for after United’s pre-season tour of Thailand, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong, the lengthy recovery period meant the Scot being back in the dug-out for the start of the new season was a fanciful notion.
United’s willingness to confirm that Ferguson was to undergo hip surgery raised fresh doubts over whether he could feasibly continue in the role, given the lengthy recovery period involved, despite the club’s insistence it would not affect his ability to carry out his duties.
Ferguson even confided in one loyal journalistic ally at the weekend that the imminent operation would have no bearing on his future as United manager, while his departure was being carefully orchestrated and stage-managed behind the scenes.
The plan had been for Ferguson to break the news to United fans after Sunday’s home game against Swansea, when the club will be presented with the Premier League trophy for the 13th time following their latest championship success.
But when news leaked about Ferguson’s potential departure late on Tuesday, the Scot and United were forced to bring forward the announcement of his intention to stand down after the game at West Brom on May 19, his 1,500th in charge of the Reds.
Unlike when Sir Matt Busby stepped down in 1969, leaving an ageing squad behind that was eventually relegated in 1974, United have no such concerns following Ferguson’s imminent departure.
In many ways, the robust shape of United’s current squad, with the right blend of youth and experience, has made it easier for Ferguson to stand down now, safe in the knowledge his successor, David Moyes, is inheriting a formidable group of players.
“The decision to retire is one that I have thought a great deal about and one that I have not taken lightly,” said Ferguson. “It is the right time.
“It was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so.
“The quality of this league winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level whilst the structure of the youth set-up will ensure that the long-term future of the club remains a bright one.
“Our training facilities are amongst the finest in global sport and our home Old Trafford is rightfully regarded as one of the leading venues in the world.”
There were other key factors, aside from the onset of age and his hip problem, that combined to convince Ferguson this was the right time to end his 26-and-a-half year tenure at United and hand over control of United to Moyes.
The imminent departure of United chief executive David Gill, as well as that of Ferguson’s brother Martin, the club’s European scout for 16 years, provided Ferguson with the perfect exit strategy, on top of the uncertainty over his health.
The United boss had considered quitting at the end of last season, but was persuaded to stay on and win the Premier League title back from Manchester City after losing it such galling fashion on goal difference with virtually the last kick of the campaign.
Ferguson was determined not to end his time at United on a low note and made the decision to stay on and reclaim the domestic title, as well as having one last crack at joining former Liverpool boss Bob Paisley as the only man to win three European Cups.
That dream was dashed with United’s last 16 exit to Real Madrid, which left Ferguson too distraught to attend the post-match press conference at Old Trafford, knowing that his final shot at another Champions League triumph had gone for the last time.
But with the objective of re-asserting United’s domestic dominance achieved, set against the backdrop of his ailing health and the loss of two key allies in Gill and his brother, Ferguson knew this was the moment he had to step down and entrust the future of the club to his successor.
There had been whispers that Ferguson was considering his future at United in the aftermath of United’s latest Premier League title win, which they clinched with four games to spare with a 3-0 win over Aston Villa at Old Trafford on April 22.
On Tuesday, it emerged Ferguson was ready to call it a day, but it was not until he called his players to a meeting in the changing-rooms at the club’s Carrington training complex on Wednesday morning, that his exit was confirmed.
Ferguson held three separate meetings, one each with his players, coaching staff and general staff, in his office, the changing-room and the canteen respectively, to break the news of his intention to retire, with those present claiming the United boss was close to tears as he delivered his bombshell announcement.
Yet, Ferguson, perhaps typically of a man driven by a relentless work ethic forged in his early days as an apprentice toolmaker in Glasgow, remained committed to his job right up until his seismic announcement, not relenting from his hectic schedule for a moment.
On Monday afternoon he was in his native Glasgow to watch a charity game between former Rangers and United players at Ibrox, before dashing back to Manchester to watch United’s reserves in their final game of the season against Liverpool.
Business as usual, until Wednesday’s denouement.
Few managers get to choose the timing of their departure, but in many ways Ferguson has selected the perfect ending to his United tenure, bowing out in front of 75,000 fans at Old Trafford, with the Premier League trophy back at its spiritual home.