The weight of the history at this club of ours is a burden that every great Manchester United team must learn to bear and on 10th February 2008 – of all days – it bore down on Sir Alex Ferguson's side like an anvil. The tribute to those they lost at Munich 50 years ago was moving, profound and fitting in all but one regrettable respect: the performance of the men in the retro 1958 red shirts.
Regrettable unless you were part of the sky blue enclave in one corner of the stadium who behaved impeccably through the minute's silence and then, in the 90 that followed, were rewarded beyond their wildest dreams. In the derbies of this great football city one man's pain is another's triumph although for 60 seconds they were united in a silence that did both clubs great credit. And then it was business as usual and the joy for those in the away crowd was unparalleled.
The first City victory at Old Trafford in 34 years was also marked by the worst United performance in recent memory. Sven Goran Eriksson may have achieved wonders at his new club but even he, with three straight victories over Ferguson (including his time at Lazio), cannot have imagined United would play so badly. And no one disappointed more than Cristiano Ronaldo, the United player who embodies the spirit of those Busby Babes more than any other.
Ferguson was obliged to leave the stadium immediately after the match in order to catch a connecting flight to South Africa where he was promoting Manchester United's planned summer tour. Club class on the overnight to Cape Town would have been unusually tense as the old godfather contemplated the culprits. Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Ronaldo, Nani and Ryan Giggs were all well off the pace. The consequences? The gap to Arsenal in first place widened to five points.
In some respects that defeat to City was as crushing as the 5-1 thrashing of United at Maine Road in 1989 after which Ferguson, he later admitted, took to his bed with remorse. Then, of course, he did not have the nine Premier League titles and the knighthood but there was something equally catastrophic about how his team unravelled last February on such an important day in the history of their club. It was the kind of performance that, for the first time, had the fans asking if they had what it takes to win the title. We now know of course that they did.
For Eriksson, however, the goals from Darius Vassell and one on his debut from Benjani Mwaruwari were another big step in the rehabilitation of his reputation. It was his eighth victory as a manager at Old Trafford and it was built on the performances of two players whom he inherited. In defence his captain Richard Dunne was at his stoical, immovable best having been passed fit following illness only the day before the game while in midfield the timeless Dietmar Hamann was outstanding.
But that was not all from Eriksson – in fact there was the lingering feeling that he entirely outfoxed Ferguson with a tactical performance that nullified Ronaldo to the point that the winger became a caricature of his very worst aspects. Hands on hips, eyes to the sky, the Premier League's best player was reduced to a pouting sideshow as City kept United at bay with considerable ease. Michael Carrick's goal in the 92nd minute was much too little and much too late.
This was supposed to be the day in which we saw all that was best about Manchester United and, in the opening ceremony, it was exactly like that. A lone piper led out the two teams through a guard of honour formed by United's academy players and wreaths were laid in the centre of the pitch by Ferguson and Eriksson. The minute's silence was, in Eriksson's words, "absolutely perfect" but then it should never have been anything but. What followed was most definitely not in the script.
It was telling that by the time the City fans hit upon their most cutting chant of the day – "Fergie was right/Your fans are shite" – Old Trafford had no stomach for any response of note. Vassell's goal on 24 minutes followed a litany of defensive errors. Brown's original block fell the way of Martin Petrov who found Stephen Ireland. His shot was stopped by Edwin van der Sar who scrambled up to save again from Vassell before the former England international took his second chance to score.
For Eriksson, victory was a relief after four games in the League and FA Cup without a win.
City's second goal came in the moments before half-time after their third consecutive corner in a period of pressure. Ronaldo's clearing header fell to Petrov on the right who centred again and Benjani got the faintest of touches to put the ball beyond Van der Sar's reach. The new City striker was on his own in the United area and even at half-time City's double over their neighbours this season looked much more than just a possibility.
The excuse offered in absentia by Ferguson, via his assistant Carlos Queiroz, was that too many of his team had been forced to play 90 minutes during the midweek internationals. An interesting point given that the excellent Petrov played 90 minutes for Bulgaria – and scored – against Northern Ireland on Wednesday. It did hint at the anger Ferguson must have felt at Brown and Ferdinand's 90 minutes for England while Rooney, suspended for yesterday's game, played all but the last five minutes against Switzerland.
Carrick's goal – which could in no way be described as a consolation on a day like this – was struck from the edge of the area after a good combination between Owen Hargreaves and Paul Scholes. Shortly before then City's fans had broken into a chant of "There's only one Frank Swift" in memory of their goalkeeper who perished at Munich. Days as glorious as these are rare for City, as rare as Mancunian sun in February, but they had both on that day in Febraury 2008.
[center]"You Can't Win Anything With Kids"
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