Ferguson and Smith were locked in mutual admiration at Old Trafford on Monday at the start of a Champions League campaign United hope to conclude at Wembley in May.
Smith, whose serious public image brilliantly disguises one of the most humorous, personable and astute characters in the game, said: “I don’t think there is anybody who could handle a club of this magnitude for as long as he has. Every manager needs a level of motivation and Manchester United motivates Sir Alex as well as the other way around.
“Around the same age as I am now he maybe felt he had had enough, but then he got a second wind and I am sure everybody at Manchester United is delighted he made that decision. I am sure the calibre of players he is working with is also a motivating factor for him.”
It was a second wind of such force that it sent United sailing towards more Premier League titles and the Champions League in 2008
– and the force of nature that is Ferguson shows now signs of blowing itself out.
Ferguson’s enduring desire to win European club football’s biggest prize for the third time was on show as he was as combative as ever at Old Trafford on Monday.
United’s concession of late goals and flimsy defending were at the heart of that defeat, and the evidence produced so far this season as points were cast aside at Fulham and Everton suggests old failings remain.
Ferguson said: “I don’t think it’s frailty, it’s a lack of concentration.” It might be respectfully suggested that they effectively amount to the same thing.
Rooney will return after his day off at Goodison Park, although the imminent return of Rio Ferdinand may be of even greater significance given the way United’s rearguard issued those open invitations to Fulham and Everton to claim points.
Ferguson is happy with his decision not to invest in high-profile new arrivals, feeling the continued nurturing of young talent alongside established stars has secured United’s future for years.
He admitted United may have to stretch the budget in coming years to compensate for the retirement of the ageless trio of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, but until then Ferguson appears happy to go with what he has got.
Ferguson will need Ferdinand to break the habit of his recent lifetime and stay fit for a lengthy period. Jonny Evans is an undoubted talent, but Everton’s successful targeting of the youngster on Saturday
confirmed that, understandably, he remains a work in progress.
Scholes and Giggs continue to defy age and logic by producing performances of the highest class, but will they be able to sustain them to the end of another gruelling season in both the Premier League and Champions League? Whether they do or not will do much to shape United’s chances given their vast European experience.
Ferguson’s refusal to play what he regards as an inflated market meant he did not add the top-class central defender and midfield operator that may well be required if United are to take the extra steps that pr
oved beyond them in the Champions League last season.
United are well blessed in attack, with Rooney a world-class talent and Dimitar Berbatov, who gave a Rolls Royce performance at Everton, suggesting he is now ready to banish any remaining doubts about his ability to flourish in Old Traford’s rarified atmosphere.
Despite this, there is still the lingering fear that United may come up short again at the sharp end of this season’s Champions League, despite the cast-iron confidence in their capabilities demonstrated by their manager.
True, the late collapse at Everton had a freakish element that almost had to be seen to be believed, but such frailties, or lapses in concentration as Ferguson generously labelled them, will come at an even higher cost in this tournament.
I stated last season, when United’s in-built resilience and undimmed desire to collect trophies somehow took the title to the last day despite a season that was indifferent in levels of performance, that it would rank alongside Ferguson’s greatest achievements if he won the Champions League. The same applies this time around.
It proved beyond them then
and it may prove beyond them now, but what delight Ferguson will take in over-turning the odds and the increased strength of the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
He added: “You always have to assess the manager you are facing. I know Walter personally and have worked with him twice. I know how astute he is and what a good tactician he is. I look and I can see that brain is working.”
And they may have the perfect setting for that dinner party if Smith heads into retirement with another league title and Ferguson can get his hands on the Champions League once more.