Ferguson focused on regaining title
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has made reclaiming the Premier League title "priority number one".
With the waves of the Indian Ocean crashing within earshot and the sun blazing out of a blue sky even though it is winter in Durban, it seemed a world away from the travails of an arduous championship campaign.
Yet the manner of last year’s crushing disappointment; two Manchester City goals in injury-time, the last of which came after the final whistle had gone on United’s season, has meant what lies ahead has never been far from Ferguson’s mind.
So it was that, ahead of the first of six pre-season matches, against South African midtable outfit AmaZulu, Ferguson laid bare his vision for the next 10 months.
"After the disappointment of last year, we want to recover the title," he said.
"We either win the title or come second, it’s an important part of the history of our club over the last 20 years.
"We have to recover, as we’ve done many times. That’s our target this year. Priority number one is to win the title back."
The quest is a tough one, with City once again preparing to spend big, possibly on Robin van Persie, with whom Ferguson has also been linked.
United’s manager is not one to shirk a challenge though, as he has proved so often before.
"When Arsenal won the title from us in 1998 we won the Treble the next year," he said.
"Then Chelsea came along and got off to a flyer in the league for the first two years, so we changed our pre-season a little to make sure we got off to quick starts.
"Recovery is so important and the same applies this season."
Not that the preparation is going to be particularly easy.
For the first half of a pre-season campaign that will see them fly 22,000 miles – on this leg United also have a game in Cape Town on Saturday before a 13-hour flight to Shanghai for a single game next Wednesday – Ferguson will be without all but Anders Lindegaard of his Euro 2012 contingent.
After that, he will be missing Ryan Giggs, Tom Cleverley, David De Gea and Rafael who are about to try and win Olympic gold, knowing the final takes place on August 11, the same day as their club’s last friendly in Hanover.
Somewhere into that schedule skipper Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling must be slotted after coming back from knee and groin injuries. Ferguson expects them to have recovered in time to face Everton at Goodison Park on August 20.
Jonny Evans may struggle to make any of it as he battles back from ankle surgery.
Nevertheless, Ferguson cautions against anyone believing the younger element of his present party can be dismissed.
"When I first started picking the young players, we played Port Vale in a League Cup game and an MP from Stoke protested to the government, saying we were cheating the public and they wanted their money back," said Ferguson.
"Little did she know she was watching perhaps the greatest group of young players to come through at a football club in England.
"The same applies here."
Ferguson identified midfielder Jesse Lingard as a likely starter tomorrow, in addition to Robbie Brady, who spent last season at Hull and is widely regarded to be a left-sided midfield player but who could yet turn out to be this season’s deputy for Patrice Evra.
A United bid for Leighton Baines has been predicted for most of the summer.
Yet amid an acknowledgement he is looking at his options in the position now Fabio has been allowed to join QPR on loan, there was no sense from Ferguson that Evra’s status is in danger, which would seem to be the logical conclusion from Baines’ arrival.
"It is an area we’re paying attention to," said Ferguson.
"In the last five years Patrice has played an average of 45-50 games, which is phenomenal. I don’t know if anybody else has achieved that.
"He’s still a fit lad. He is a fighter and has the same drive and ambition.
"But because he is never injured the opportunities haven’t been there for Fabio, who needs to play because he has enormous ability.
"With him at QPR for a year, we are a little bit short in that department, which is why we are trying Robbie there because we believe there is the possibility he will develop into a left-back.
"But we also have Tyler Blackett, who is a big strong boy, tall and quick going forward.
"He’s only just turned 18. He has time on his side, but he’s here for the experience and he may yet surprise us."