Flanked by two of his most bitter adversaries in football, Arsene Wenger could have been forgiven for questioning what exactly was in the box.
We were moments away from kick-off at Old Trafford and the outgoing Arsenal manager had been plucked from his place in the dugout by Jose Mourinho to meet Sir Alex Ferguson on the touchline.
Ferguson greeted Wenger with a warm embrace and invited a reluctant Mourinho to join them as he presented the Frenchman with his leaving gift in a presentation case.
Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson present Arsene Wenger with a gift to mark his departure
The Arsenal manager was given a warm welcome by two of his biggest rivals
It was a silver vase but Wenger must have been tempted to double check.
After all, no other managers have been quite as critical, even cruel, about Wenger over his 22 years in English football than Ferguson and Mourinho.
Here, on his 28th and final visit to Old Trafford, they were queueing up to pay their respects. It’s funny how people change towards you when you’re on your way out.
Ferguson experienced the adulation and acclaim of his peers when he departed the stage here five years ago with another Premier League title under his belt.
Wenger, on the other hand, leaves on a rather different note, eased out of the hot-seat by his employers in a move that has hardly caused uproar among supporters.
Ferguson, for one, believes the time is right for his old adversary to bid farewell.
Ferguson believes that the time is right for his old adversary to bid farewell to the club
‘After doing 22 years at such a massive club, I think he knows himself that it’s time,’ said Ferguson. ‘The job he’s done in those 22 years is phenomenal in terms of the Premier League.
‘He did 22 years: it’ll not be done again. It’s not easy in the modern world to manage a club for that length of time, and it takes an exceptional person to do that.
‘Apart from is managerial skills, he’s shown an incredible endurance, durability and determination to last as long as he did.’ After Mourinho acknowledged in the build-up to this game that he regretted some of his more vitriolic attacks on Wenger, Ferguson too was at pains to put their intense rivalry into perspective.
It was always said about the Scot that the more he feared a rival manager, the more he would target him. No-one was targeted more than Wenger as Arsenal shared the top two places in the Premier League with United for six seasons between 1998 and 2004.
‘In my time we had a few arguments but I did always really respect the man because he did a fantastic job at his club,’ said Ferguson.
Marouane Fellaini celebrates after scoring Manchester United’s winner against Arsenal
‘We have dinner every year now at the coaching meetings in Switzerland and we go to the same little restaurant. We enjoy the company. You get older and you forget all the battles in the sense of what they meant at the time. Over the years things get better for you. I really am pleased for him.
‘United against Arsenal was great for the game. It made the Premier League. That’s a rivalry that I always look back on. We had to beat them. Had to. They were such a big club and such a good team, that when we did meet, they were such feisty occasions. There were some almighty battles. Sometimes we won, sometimes we lost.
‘Virtually every game we played against Arsenal, there was a real edge to the match. There were confrontations because here were two teams and two managers battling for one award: the Premier League.’
Down the years, Old Trafford has brought some momentous occasions for Wenger; Marc Overmars’s famous winner that opened the door to his first title in ’98, completing the Double here in 2002 and the infamous Battle of the Buffet to name but a few.
Hector Bellerin of Arsenal looks dejected after his team conceded a late goal at Old Trafford
He walked out here as Arsenal manager for the last time flanked by a TV camera crew and, briefly, United’s mascot Fred the Red to be met with warm applause from all four corners of Old Trafford.
After the presentation, he disappeared from view for a while until Paul Pogba gave United the lead. Immediately that familiar, lanky figure returned to the touchline, impeccably dressed in his club suit and tie. The trademark overcoat was left on the bench throughout.
The United fans cheekily called for Wenger to stay and Arsenal supporters responded with a chorus of ‘Arsene Wenger, he won the league here.’ Those days are long gone unfortunately.
Arsenal’s best chance of qualifying for the Champions League is by winning the Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid on Thursday and going all the way in Europe’s junior competition, just as Mourinho did with United a year ago.
Wenger looks on as his team’s terrible run away from home continued on Sunday afternoon
Their victory here, secured by Marouane Fellaini’s injury-time winner, confirmed United’s place in next season’s Champions League, while Arsenal are still in danger of being overtaken by Burnley.
It is not how Wenger would have chosen to go out, but not everybody gets to write their own script like Ferguson.
‘That respect will all come out now,’ said United’s legendary manager, speaking from experience. ‘Every Arsenal fan will be pleased for him and I think they’ll recognise that in the weeks ahead.
‘He goes down in the history books for their club. No Arsenal manager comes anywhere near those 22 years, but in the modern football world what he’s done is exceptional. His contribution to the Premier League has been huge. You can’t ignore the job he’s done, it’s been absolutely fantastic.’