Everton. . . . . . . .0
IT WAS a hollow victory for Manchester United, but a worthy performance on a day when the overwhelming echoes of history came blowing in on the wind across Old Trafford. A day to wear a scarf but leave it with the rest piled high outside in memory of Sir Matt Busby. A day on which Everton, reluctantly, had to intrude on Manchester's private grief and football's immense loss. That they contributed so much to the occasion helped to turn it into the sort of celebration for football that the old guv'nor would have applauded.
In return for a lifetime committed so single-mindedly to the club, United have dedicated the season to Sir Matt, whose place in the main stand, empty yesterday, had for so long been an inspiration, and sometimes an intimidation, for several generations of players. Old Trafford without that mighty character, who always seemed like a blend of grandfather and godfather, is going to be a mansion without its foundation stone, and yesterday everyone wanted to be there, least of all for the match, primarily to make the dedication personal.
Another vast crowd moved more quietly than usual into a stadium hardly recognisable from the one in which the Busby Babes grew up, but none the less a tribute in itself to the ability of one man to ensure that Manchester United continued to grow and hold their place in football's mystique even when fulfilment on the pitch was elusive.
Alex Ferguson was always close to Sir Matt. They had a similar outlook about the way the game should be played, and, particularly, they saw football without wingers as a game without the means to reach the heights of emotion.
Emotion overwhelmed the day and Ferguson admitted that 'this was in some ways our least important match of the season'. United's substantial lead in the Premiership allowed them to come to yesterday's sombre occasion not needing to worry about the outcome but, for Sir Matt's sake, obviously determined to play the way he preached.
Everton's unenviable involvement came at a time when they urgently needed to overcome the disappointment of defeat in the FA Cup and maintain the signs of revival that Mike Walker's arrival had instigated. But United were instantly on the wing, Ryan Giggs gliding past Matthew Jackson and Andrei Kanchelskis drifting into the area to head Roy Keane's long centre wide.
Although Giggs continued to be tantalisingly effective, Everton settled well enough and though Eric Cantona was twice rebuffed - first when a near-post header was well blocked by Neville Southall and later when another of his headers was denied almost on the goal-line by John Ebrell - they forced an instinctively outstanding save from Peter Schmeichel when Neil Moore, making his full debut, headed inside the far post.
Giggs, who must surely have been Sir Matt's favourite player of recent seasons, quickly restored United's domination. As Keane strode purposefully down the right wing, Giggs was weaving and dodging defenders in the goal area. Keane's centre came across and Giggs finally eluded everyone and headed in from the space he had so cunningly created.
The biggest crowd anywhere in the Premiership this season (44,750) became absorbed in an enthralling game but more particularly in the fascinating talent of Giggs, who twice in the first half attracted two or three Everton players towards him and seemed to transfix them before darting away so excitingly that on this day more than any other, the comparison with Sir Matt's protege George Best was irresistible.
The fact that Everton lost their leading goalscorer, Tony Cottee, through injury allowed United to confidently carry on looking to increase their lead. Cantona's power and touch, supported by the searching forward running of Paul Ince would have destroyed Everton a few weeks ago, but Walker has brought some steel to their defence and midfield, even if the attack continues to be indecisive.
For a long time in the early part of the second half, United put on a demonstration that drew poignant attention to the huge divide between their capabilities and the rest of the League.
Cantona, of course, has become the real jewel that makes United sparkle on days when things are going well.
Yesterday, in the second half, one cameo encapsulated everything that would make a season ticket at Old Trafford seem cheap at any price. Giggs was taking the ball down the left flank when he saw the advantage of a quick centre to Cantona. The ball came high to the big Frenchman but, back to goal, he chested it up even higher, allowing himself to spin and smack a shot against the foot of the post - breathtaking in any language.
Southall then had to tip another shot from Cantona over the top and Kanchelskis hit the crossbar. Everton, having thought they had survived the earlier onslaught fairly well, eventually found themselves spectators to United's subsequent exhibition of possession football.
If the crowd yesterday will never forget the occasion, probably Giggs will never forget the match. Not only did he decide its outcome, he confirmed totally that he is an exceptional footballer by the standards of any era.
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