Mark Robins may once have saved Alex Ferguson's bacon, but he was unable to give his old boss the Barnsley chop on a night of trouble on and off the pitch at Oakwell.
A Manchester United team showing 11 changes from the one that lost to Liverpool were too slick for the side fifth from the foot of the Championship, reaching the fifth round despite the dismissal of Gary Neville shortly after Michael Owen put them 2-0 up. Owen's goal, his third since arriving on a free transfer from Newcastle, increased the lead secured by Danny Welbeck's header in the opening minutes and was hailed by Sir Alex as "fantastic – unbelievably good feet and a marvellous quick finish".
The three-time League Cup winners appeared to be in an unassailable position, but Neville's sending-off by Chris Foy, for clattering into Adam Hammill, forced them to play for 27 minutes with 10 men. Ferguson, who had earlier accepted a charge of improper conduct from the Football Association, did not seek to defend his captain. "He followed through and caught the boy – not high, but just above the ankle," the United manager said. "I think in the present climate the referee was correct."
The tie was further soured by reports that United supporters had wrecked the catering outlets in the North Stand, which could bring the club before the FA again. A Barnsley spokesman confirmed that they have launched a "full investigation" into the incidents, in which tills were looted. Staff, who were forced to barricade themselves in a store room for fear of injury, were later interviewed by the South Yorkshire Police.
Robins, weary of being asked about whether the goal he scored at Nottingham Forest 20 years ago next January really did save Ferguson's job, praised his old club. "They've got quality everywhere," the Barnsley manager said, "whatever team they put out. But look at the stats: we had 17 efforts on goal – you'll be hard-pressed to find any team that makes that many chances against any United side." Pressed to comment on Neville's dismissal, Robins added: "His foot was fairly high, and if he has caught Adam the referee has to make a decision."
Robins may have felt an uneasy sense of déjà vu about United's opener. For, like Robins' effort at the City Ground, it came from a free header. From an Anderson corner, Welbeck headed firmly past Luke Steele, the former United reserve goalkeeper. And unlike Robins in the quagmire, he did not have Stuart Pearce breathing down his neck.
Welbeck, bringing down a pass by Anderson, might have doubled United's tally within minutes but for a sprawling save by Steele. At that point, United's second string looked as if they were enjoying a kick-about at Carrington.
Like their Championship hosts, however, they proved fallible in the face of a set-piece speared into the six-yard box, Stephen Foster meeting Hammill's corner with a header that smacked the bar on its way over. The near-miss galvanised Barnsley. Their Libya-born striker Daniel Bogdanovic caused problems with his robust approach, once sending a low cross which was just too far ahead of Hugo Colace as it flashed across the goal.
Memories are fresh in Barnsley of their epic victories over Liverpool and Chelsea en route to the FA Cup semi-finals last year. They kept probing admirably, but after Bogdanovic evaded Rafael da Siilva, and fed Anderson da Silva, he skewed his shot wide. By that stage Welbeck had left the fray. It said much for the depth of United's resources that the player who replaced him, Zoran Tosic, is a full international with Serbia and may yet be playing in next year's World Cup finals.
Whether the same can be said for Owen still appears unlikely, yet in the 59th minute he confirmed he still has much to offer. Receiving a throw-in from Fabio da Silva, he turned, nutmegged Darren Moore and broke into the penalty area before driving the ball with the outside of his right foot beyond Steele and into the far corner of the net.
Four minutes later, Neville fouled Hammill, a Liverpudlian, and the pair exchanged shoves. Mr Foy reached straight for the red card for the veteran defender, the fourth United have incurred this season.
Barnsley (4-4-2): Steele; Kozluk, Foster, Moore, Gray; Anderson de Silva (Campbell-Ryce, 71), Hallfredsson, Colace (Butterfield, 77), Hammill; Macken (Hume, 65), Bogdanovic. Substitutes not used: Preece (gk),Hassell, Thompson, Devaney.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Foster; Neville, Brown, J Evans, Fabio; Obertan, Rafael, Anderson, Welbeck (Tosic, 53); Owen (De Laet, 65), Macheda. Substitutes not used: Amos (gk), O'Shea, C Evans, King, James.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
Changes Sir Alex Ferguson made to his starting line-up for last night's tie with Barnsley.