It is clear that Alex Ferguson knew. That when the Manchester United manager chose his starting eleven for last month's Champions League final in Rome, he was aware that in picking Cristiano Ronaldo up front on his own, he was selecting the Portuguese international for the final time. That as he walked around the Stadio Olimpico at full-time, not as visibly upset as you might have suspected him to be, he knew full well that if he was to get to this stage once again, it would be without his star player. He would even have known as United paraded their 10th Premier League title around Old Trafford in May that the furore surrounding Carlos Tevez would be blown away when the other news broke.
And yet in the end the decision was still his, as most have been in his 22 years as United manager. Ferguson would have known all season long that if he dug his claws in, if he stirred up that stubborn streak of his, he could have held onto the World Footballer of the Year whether Real Madrid were offering £160m, or the player himself went on strike. He knew that despite the inevitability of it all, the path that had been so clearly laid out, he could have put a stop to any deal.
That is how it turned out, too. On Wednesday evening, Real's newly elected president Florentino Perez rang David Gill to tell him the money was in place to conclude the deal. The United chief executive first rang Ferguson, then the Glazers and when the owners told him that the decision was the manager's to make, and his alone, he rang the manager again. Gill rang Perez back within two hours, which proved that Ferguson's final decision could not have taken long.
You cannot but wonder what flashed through his mind on Wednesday, or indeed throughout the year as he realised Ronaldo wanted out and wondered whether he should allow him to depart. There was his talent, sure, but then again there was also the ego. Surely, then, his mind must have thought back to the summer 14 years ago when he made the decision to let go not one, but three key players from a side that had, just 12 months previous, won the double.
Mark Hughes's exit to Chelsea, he could have justified to anyone. The 31-year-old striker's powers were beginning to wane and with Andy Cole recently joined from Newcastle, and Eric Cantona soon to be over his eight-month suspension, Hughes was only going to be a substitute in his best side. No fuss there, then. Andrei Kanchelskis' departure also had logic behind it. The Russian winger had never enjoyed a warm relationship with Ferguson and the bizarre behaviour of the player's agent hastened his departure. One afternoon, he handed Ferguson a box with £40,000 inside. After the money had been returned, United's then chief executive Martin Edwards was advised, ever so politely by Kanchelskis' people, that if the player wasn't transferred during the summer, Edwards wouldn't be around for "much longer". Neither the chief executive himself, nor Ferguson, were too keen to discover in what sense his advisors meant it.
It was the transfer of Paul Ince (right) to Inter Milan, however, that represented Ferguson's real decision in the summer of 1995. The midfielder had been a crucial component of two title-winning sides and seemingly at the peak of his fairly substantial powers. In his autobiography, Roy Keane described his midfield partner as "a good lad, popular in the dressing room and he did his stuff on the park" and admitted to being a little perplexed when he was sold. He wasn't the only one surprised. While Ince himself was half interested in a move abroad, and Inter were keen enough to sign the player, the entire process was pushed towards a conclusion by Ferguson's calculated desire to let the player go.
Michael Crick, in his detailed biography of the Scot, outlines how on 16 May that year, a few days before United would lose the FA Cup final to Everton, and not long after Blackburn Rovers had pipped them to the title, Ferguson told a United board meeting that he was going to sell Ince. On 5 June he came out in public and announced: "Paul Ince is not for sale, I am adamant about that". It was a game; less than a month later, he was an Inter Milan player.
Until now, it has probably been his most queried decision. "Had the decision failed, he would undoubtedly have paid the ultimate price," says Keane in his book and that sums up neatly the feeling in Manchester at the time. A Manchester Evening News phone poll before the start of the 2005/06 season showed that 53 per cent of participants believed that Ferguson should resign, not just because he had sold Hughes, Kanchelskis and, most importantly, Ince but also because by the start of the season the United manager had signed precisely nobody to replace the trio.
Jump back to today, and he's unlikely to face such a backlash. Firstly, Ronaldo is nowhere near as popular a figure as Ince was back then. When news emerged that the midfielder was on his way to Italy, a delegation from the IMUSA (Independent Manchester United Supporters Association) called around to the player's house for a 90-minute meeting to persuade him to stay. While any similar attempt today would probably see supporters shot by Ronaldo's protection people, the truth is that nobody seems inclined to encourage him to stay. Most supporters would probably volunteer to help with the moving.
That's one reason why Ferguson is unlikely to face a backlash; the other is that unlike the summer of 1995, this time around he is certainly going to replace his principal departee with a handful of big-money signings. First in the door in the next few days is going to be Antonio Valencia, Wigan's Ecuadorian right-winger. Where Ronaldo picked up the ball and could run in any given direction, Valencia will find the quickest route to the byline and provide ammunition for United's strikers from there. That's one of the Portuguese's roles covered.
The second will be to find somebody to replace his haul of goals. Karim Benzema, Lyon's talented front-man, has been mentioned but a fee of anything over £30m for the player and Ferguson will be reluctant to commit, particularly as he already has two players of a similar value in Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov. He may be happy to get by with that pair, Danny Welbeck, a player he rates highly, and Carlos Tevez, if he can be persuaded to stay. If he can't, Ferguson will dip back into his fund and sign another striker, someone in the mould of Blackburn's Roque Santa Cruz.
As for replacing the off-the-cuff brilliance that Ronaldo brought to the party, Ferguson might be content to get by without it. The player's ability to produce something from nothing, to turn a single league point into a perhaps underserved three with a moment of genius, has effectively won United their past two league titles but it might well be a trait that Ferguson is happy to sideline. Waiting for a single player to dig the side out of trouble can become something of a dependency, and not a healthy one. Perhaps the goal for Ferguson now will be to mould a rounded side, an outfit talented and competitive enough to ensure that they don't have to rely on Hail Mary strikes to rescue them. That's why it would be no surprise to see the rest of the Ronaldo money spent on strengthening the side in general, rather than attempting to directly replace the bronzed one.
But if the doubts began to swarm around his own mind on Wednesday evening, Ferguson just needed to think back to the 1995/96 season to repel them. Instead of signing new players back then to replace an experienced trio, he relied on his kids instead, the likes of Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. The youngsters did an incredible job, winning United a second double the very next season. Ferguson's decision back then was completely justified. Which is why he made it all over again.