Football: Day the new Babes were humbled

Andrew Longmore captures the emotions as Old Trafford marks a moving anniversary; 'The week has restored faith and reminded a few that a healthy bank balance is not the only measure of dignity'
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The Independent Online
ALEX Ferguson has read from a few team-sheets in his time, but never have the names meant so much to so many: David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Billy Whelan, Duncan Edwards. And 19 more victims of the Munich air disaster. The mere selection of a football side will pale into insignificance alongside the rollcall of the dead, to which Ferguson's deep Govan tones lent particular resonance in Manchester Cathedral on Friday night.

Yesterday was a poignant occasion, the climax of a cathartic week for the club. If United's minds were not on the task, no one could blame them. The gathering of a point in a 1-1 draw with Bolton seemed an irrelevance just for this week. "It was a difficult day for both sets of players," Ferguson said, "but particularly for my players, to get the day over with." Even the fixtures computer connived with history, bringing another giant industrial team, Bolton Wanderers, to Old Trafford in a replay of the 1958 Cup final. Sentiment demanded that United win that day; the striking grey-haired figure, who laid a wreath in the centre circle before kick- off yesterday, was a reminder of football's own indomitable will. Nat Lofthouse, now president of Bolton, scored twice to ensure the Cup went further north than Manchester.

Not the least of Ferguson's tasks was to concentrate the minds of his young side on the mundane matter of Premiership prosperity. His team had sat not 20 yards away from the lectern as their manager spoke about the courage, skill, team spirit, perseverance and, above all, the style demanded of subsequent United sides in memory of the Busby Babes. Many who failed listened with intent, including Dave Sexton, sacked at the end of a 12- game unbeaten run because his team lacked that essential quality.

With the awkward acoustics of the cathedral, the word "style" sounded like "steel", a confusion not altogether misplaced. At the heart of this United - as at the heart of all their great sides - lies a blend of style and steel, a hard core, reflected by hard men such as Mark Jones and David Pegg 40 years ago and by good Salford boys like Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes today. For style, you need a Stiles. Nobby was there too.

Behind his captain, Peter Schmeichel, sat David Beckham, pounds 3.5m the richer for a new boot deal with Adidas which was worth nothing compared to the robust simplicity of the tributes. Perhaps only during that hour, with an audience 55 times below the capacity of Old Trafford, did the younger United players truly understand how much is invested in them. "A grim and gruesome place" Sir Bobby Charlton said of 1950s Manchester "but the players lit up the city".

The duties of remembrance continued yesterday to the referee's whistle. A simple ceremony of wreath-laying was followed by a minute's silence, impeccably observed by a crowd, many of whom were not born on 6 February 1958, but understand the date no less keenly for that. Though the club often stands accused of exploiting its past, supporting United involves more complex passions than simply donning the shirt.

The week has restored faith to the club, reminded a few that a healthy bank balance is not the only measure of dignity. Rachel Viollet, daughter of Dennis Viollet, who survived the crash and scored 159 goals in 259 league games for United but was not well enough to attend, was flown in for the service and the game. A memorial match against the Eric Cantona All Stars on 24 February will belatedly raise funds for the families.

Ferguson had to tune his team to a different wavelength in time for kick- off, symbolically delayed until 3.15pm, one day 10 minutes and 57 seconds beyond the 40th anniversary of the impact. The team that died were an inspiration, he had said on Friday evening. But he would have been aware that inevitable comparisons with the past could prove an impossible burden in the present. Three defeats in four games did not leave much room for error. Nor could Bolton afford to play the role of fall guys first allotted to them in a spectacular piece of miscasting 40 years ago. They needed points desperately after a thrashing by Coventry. Never mind the quality, feel the width.

In a search for a style to match the occasion, Ferguson went for broke, pushing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer forward to partner Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham in attack. The early tempo matched the United calypso which accompanied the ceremonial party off the pitch. Babes the United side might be. Bouncing? Not really. Though Sheringham hit the post in the second minute, only two fine saves by Schmeichel stopped Bolton from spoiling the party much earlier than they did.

With too many players performing indifferently - Beckham and Ryan Giggs were the main culprits - in an unbalanced formation, United lacked width and craft. Passes were misplaced, crosses poor, even the work rate faltered.

It was no real surprise when the visitors took the lead 10 minutes after half-time, Jamie Pollock's low cross being met by Bob Taylor, who forced his first goal for Bolton past Schmeichel from the prone position. Ferguson took off Sheringham and brought on Henning Berg, pushing Solskjaer into the centre and moving Giggs wide. But coherence proved elusive. Cole swivelled and shot straight at Keith Branagan and headed against a post before, deservedly, launching himself at a loose ball to equalise five minutes from time and sending Old Trafford into a frenzy.

Solskjaer should have won the match, but his flying header was inches over and Gary Neville hit the bar in the closing seconds. Once again, United had to rely on Liverpool and Blackburn to increase their lead at the top of the Premiership. A touch of charity to follow a week of faith and hope.