Darron Gibson is too old to be considered a "kid" anywhere apart from Manchester United where even the most talented young players have to wait for their chance. The two goals that the Irishman scored last night suggested that, for this particular young man, the wait is over: he is at last ready to join the grown-ups.
At 22 years old, Gibson needed this rites of passage performance to define his future, no matter how much potential Sir Alex Ferguson might have identified in him. At United it is not enough just to be considered promising, sooner or later you have to deliver or face joining the legions of broken-hearted young footballers over the years who got close to the first team at Old Trafford but not close enough.
The two goals that Gibson swept past Heurelho Gomes in the first half last night were the most substantial vindication of the praise that Ferguson has heaped upon him all season as he has tried to keep his protégé patient. Gibson scored a beauty against Hull City on the last day of last season and signed a new contract in July but last night was the moment that he truly changed his status at United from promising to arrived.
It booked United a place in the Carling Cup semi-finals – the draw is tonight – and it also went some way to exorcising the false start that United's younger generation suffered against Besiktas in the Champions League last week. Ferguson has been moaning about the criticism they received for that defeat and he was eager to play up just how impressive he believed the young ones had been this time round.
Gibson and Luis Anderson were excellent, although Danny Welbeck, Gabriel Obertan and Ritchie De Laet are still awaiting their signature performances. As for Federico Macheda, who played such a starring role last season, he was only a late substitute last night. Macheda is the proof to Gibson that, however big the initial impact, it is no guarantee that you have made it.
Gibson scored goals in the FA Cup last season but he has had to wait this year with so many established first-team midfielders ahead of him. He first turned down a trial at United as a teenager because he did not want to travel to England from Derry for another try-out but was persuaded at the last moment. He also controversially invoked the Good Friday Agreement to play for the Republic of Ireland rather than his native Northern Ireland.
The short shrift which he gave the Sky Sports interviewer after the match suggested that Gibson has something of Roy Keane's truculence about him. Even so, Ferguson did switch to a 4-3-3 formation just to shore up the midfield at the end, bringing on Michael Carrick to do the job alongside the young Irishman.
It helped United that Tottenham were insipid in the second half, incapable of putting the home side under any pressure. The Spurs manager, Harry Redknapp, blamed the flat atmosphere inside Old Trafford – and even with 57,212 in there you could see what he meant – but there was also a dreadful lethargy about Spurs after the break. They have not won at Old Trafford for 20 years and this was not the night to break the hex.
The Carling Cup holders were obliged to call up some of the proper big guns, most notably Nemanja Vidic and Dimitar Berbatov, both of whom made telling contributions. Ferguson served the last game of his touchline ban in the directors' box and he even had an early clearance into the stand drop right in his lap.
There were two decent attempts from Jermain Defoe and then Robbie Keane before Gibson scored his first on 16 minutes and for a while at least the United kids were looking a bit out of their depth. The goal was beautifully worked, primarily by Anderson who took Park Ji-sung's pass and beat the tackle of Michael Dawson to lay it off for Gibson. His low shot found the corner of Gomes' goal.
The influence of Berbatov, playing alongside Welbeck in attack, grew considerably through the first half. Before he made the second for Gibson, Spurs twice went close. The first time the 21-year-old De Laet, on his first United start, blocked Defoe's shot. The second saw a brilliant double tackle by Vidic on Keane in the area.
United's second was a beauty. It went from Park to Berbatov to Gibson who exchanged passes with Welbeck and bent a shot around Gomes from the edge of the area.
Redknapp brought on Tom Huddlestone and Peter Crouch after the break but Spurs just seemed to get worse. By the end they had given up and even Ferguson had lost interest. He was signing autographs around the directors' box as the last few moments were played out. This night belonged to Gibson and he will not want to look backwards now.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Neville, Brown, Vidic, De Laet; Park, Anderson (Tosic, 82), Gibson, Obertan (Carrick, 62); Berbatov (Macheda, 62), Welbeck. Substitutes not used: Owen, Giggs, Fletcher, Amos (gk).
Tottenham (4-4-2): Gomes; Hutton, Dawson, Bassong, Bale; Bentley, Palacios (Huddlestone, h-t), Jenas, Lennon; Keane (Crouch, 66), Defoe. Substitutes not used: Pavlyuchenko, Walker (gk), Naughton, Corluka, Rose.
Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).