Season ticket-holders were persuaded from their armchairs on a foul night by the prospect of qualifying for tickets when the opponents are Juventus in the semi-finals of the European Cup not Bury in the increasingly irrelevant Worthington Cup. But, as one supporter pointed out, if you had a ticket for a West End show and eight of the main cast were out, getting a refund would be the least of your demands.
That the draw for the fourth round has thrown up some cracking ties will be of little comfort to Alex Ferguson, whose pleasure at seeing his young turks plough to victory over Bury was tempered by the prospect of repeating the exercise in brinkmanship, with the Football Association as well as his own supporters, against Nottingham Forest. The arrival of Paul Scholes and Wesley Brown halfway through the second half was greeted by the one expression of disaffection at Old Trafford, the jeers and the applause reflecting growing impatience at the team's inability to break down stubborn opponents as much as a lingering sense of anger.
Ferguson, as ever, had the last word. A 2-0 victory, albeit earned in the second period of extra time, without Beckham, Butt, Cole, Yorke, Giggs, Stam, Gary Neville, Schmeichel, Irwin or Blomquist hardly justified accusations of complacency, but had worrying implications for the widening gap between the top two leagues. The old Bill Shankly wisecrack about there being only two teams on Merseyside, Liverpool and Liverpool Reserves, is beginning to find an uncomfortable resonance a few miles to the east. United Reserves would more than hold their own in the Nationwide First Division. Indeed, it might only be a matter of time before Bury, a club with whom United have particularly strong affiliations, give up the struggle and assume the identity of United Second XI.
If nothing else, the evening demonstrated the extraordinary embarrassment of riches at United's disposal. No sooner has the last generation of youngsters graduated to the England squad than the next are lining the conveyor belt, perfectly formed replicas of the earlier batch, all stamped at quality control. The identity parade before kick-off was confused by the fact that every one of the new boys walked like David Beckham. Chips off the young block. "The thing about United's players - and I've dealt with five or six of them now - is that they all want to do well," Peter Taylor, the England Under-21 coach, said. "They all seem the same, their attitudes are spot on." Those who fail the litmus test - and the United system is as ruthless as any other - have to make their living elsewhere: Ben Thornley at Huddersfield, Grant Brebner and Chris Casper at Reading. The benefits of being cast at United is that other clubs are generally happy to accept the cast-offs.
Just as Scholes, Butt, the Neville brothers and Beckham emerged in formation from the ranks of United juniors under the guidance of Eric Harrison, the head coach of the youth team, so the starting line-up against Bury was a tribute to the class of '95. Michael Clegg, Philip Mulryne and John Curtis all signed that summer. Another trainee, Mark Wilson, graduated the following year along with Brown, a substitute on Wednesday whose astonishing composure has already prompted extravagant claims after just four first-team starts.
Never has the chorus of the United calypso - "Busby's bouncing Babes" and all that - seemed so appropriate. At 21, Clegg is the oldest, Curtis and Mulryne are 20, the rest 19. The Babes have become Fergie's Fledglings, but the philosophy - "if you're good enough, you're old enough" - has been inscribed in United tradition since the days of Duncan Edwards.
Not the least of Ferguson's skills is his instinctive timing. So stealthily has he introduced his young players to the realities of first-team football, only two - Wilson and Jonathan Greening - made their full debuts against Bury and Wilson had already tasted success as a substitute against Brondby 10 days ago. Brown, composed and mature, has been fast-tracked into the first team and looks like a fixture; Curtis is waiting his opportunity, but suffered from a rare lapse of judgement by Ferguson last season when matched against Marc Overmars at Old Trafford. Run ragged, moved to left midfield at half-time, Curtis was substituted 10 minutes later. Overmars scored the winner. Wednesday was a matter of rehabilitation for the England Under-21 international and a rite of passage for many of his colleagues.
"Normally, they would come into a team with experienced players," Ferguson said afterwards. "Putting them all in together where they're all expected to produce was something they learned a lot from. They're all young lads, so it's good for them that way. If they want to make it here, they've got to cope with that level of expectancy." And cope they did, with old heads and young legs.
Had Greening finished off what his own quick footwork and deft drop of the shoulder had created, the end would have been swifter. No one at York City, where Greening learnt his trade, would have been any the wiser. "We'd never seen any boy with his sort of talent," Alan Little, the York manager, said. "He came to us at 10 or 11 and we've taken him all the way through the ranks." When United called, Little's heart sank. "Well, it means you've got to go out and find another one, doesn't it? United can bring him on quicker than we can with all their specialist coaches, but it'll be a few years before he emerges in the first team. It's a credit to him that Alex has put him in so early. It means he's making an impression." It also means United might be back for more. Greening cost pounds 350,000 last spring; each further step up the ladder will increase the figure. "He's good enough to make it," Little added. "It's up to him now."
Dave Williams, architect of the bright young Norwich side who once mounted an unlikely challenge for the Championship, has taken over as head of youth development on the retirement of Harrison. He has inherited a treasure chest and the vow of silence. Old Trafford is Bletchley Park where methods of recruitment and development are concerned. The last journalist who tried to interview Harrison felt the full force of Ferguson's impressive temper. "But," as Peter Taylor says, "whoever's bringing them up is doing something right because they're all good pros who want to keep improving."