As the teams came out of the tunnel before Manchester United’s 3-1 Premier League victory over Burnley at Old Trafford, a giant banner was pulled across the Stretford End wishing a happy 80th birthday to Sir Alex Ferguson.
It is hard to believe Ferguson has reached such a landmark, partly because it means that by the end of this season, nine years will have elapsed since he vacated the Old Trafford hotseat.
Ever since then, United have been trying desperately to restore their status as England’s number one club, which they assumed with authority for so much of Ferguson’s reign.
Twelve months ago, they seemed to be getting close. They were top of the Premier League on New Year’s Day.
The intervening year has not been good to United. Their title challenge faded before January was through, they lost another semi-final to Manchester City and the Europa League final to Villarreal. And, after losing their way completely during a disastrous autumn, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lost his job.
Ralf Rangnick’s stuttering start at Old Trafford at least sparked back to life quickly enough for United to end the year in the top six, as they have done every year since 1989.
But, evidently, the German still has a lot of work ahead of him.
When Rangnick first spoke to the media after arriving at Old Trafford at the start of December, he observed “the squad is definitely not too small”.
On the back of United’s match programme the names of 32 players are listed, all of whom could legitimately claim a place in the first-team squad.
Some of the futures of those younger players have already been shaped. Amad Diallo will go out on loan after missing out on selection for Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations. In contrast, the plan is for Anthony Elanga to stay and try to build on the three senior appearances he has already made this term.
For others, it is more tricky.
France striker Anthony Martial has told Rangnick he wants to leave. Sevilla are interested but have already had one loan request turned down as United demand all Martial’s wages are covered, in addition to his club receiving a loan fee.
Talks continue to find some common ground. In the meantime, Martial remains on the outside.
The same is true of Jesse Lingard, whose contract expires in the summer. With Lingard resistant to a January move, it looks increasingly likely he will leave Old Trafford as a free agent.
Dean Henderson wants to play first-team football somewhere over the second half of the campaign but Rangnick wants to keep him.
Juan Mata could leave next month having not started a Premier League game since signing a one-year extension last summer, and then there is Paul Pogba, whose contract also expires in the summer with United in the uncomfortable position of either offering improved terms to a player who hardly deserves it, or risk losing him for nothing for a second time.
The team ethic
Even among the players whose immediate futures lay firmly at Old Trafford, there have been issues to address.
Former United skipper Gary Neville labelled some of the club’s players “whinge bags” during their recent 1-1 draw with Newcastle, saying the arm-waving of Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes in particular was a depressing sight.
In the aftermath of the game, Rangnick said he was not as interested by that as the below-par performance of his team.
After the Burnley win, he told a different story.
“In team sports it is always important you are convinced about what you are doing,” he said.
“At Newcastle it was a difficult game for us. We were 1-0 down after seven minutes. They did well and we didn’t play well, therefore the reaction to what is happening on the pitch is the question.
“Do we fight back and show them we are a team that believes in themselves? Or do we shake our heads and wave our arms, help the other team and damage our own? For me it was clear to tell them it is important we work and behave as a team and don’t show these kinds of side effects on the pitch.”
Between them, Michael Carrick and Rangnick have presided over an eight-match unbeaten run, which is the longest United have been on since the middle of last season.
Fourth-placed Arsenal are within sight, even if leaders Manchester City are almost as far in front of Rangnick’s team in points terms as United are ahead of bottom side Norwich.
Ronaldo evidently still has his goalscoring touch and Scott McTominay has impressed in central midfield.
It proved beyond Solskjaer, but if Rangnick can find a solid central defensive pairing – something the continued fitness of Raphael Varane would make easier – United may have a base from which to unleash their unquestioned attacking talents.
Yet for all the positives, there is no certainty. It has been that way for nearly nine years now.
As Ferguson celebrates his 80th birthday on New Year’s Eve, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward gets ready to relinquish his role.
In terms of silverware, Woodward’s tenure has not been a positive one.
United fans can only hope Woodward’s successor enjoys significantly better fortune.