Arsene Wenger agonised over whether to take to the stands for Arsenal at Tottenham on Tuesday but Sir Alex Ferguson did not even take to the ground. For a little less than half an hour last night it looked as though the Manchester United manager's decision to forgo a night in Scunthorpe for an evening in Valencia, where next week's Champions League opponents drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid, seemed like an error of judgement.
But as Ferguson contemplated a rioja, his players made up for the profligacy in front of goal to which he has ascribed their uncertain start to the season. The frustration for those doing the scoring, and particularly Michael Owen who netted twice, was that the manager was not there.
Assistant manager Mike Phelan insisted later that Ferguson – whose only previous absences left United in the charge of Steve McClaren for the Maine Road derby in 2000 because his son was getting married and when a League match with Middlesbrough went ahead when he attended a family funeral – had not shown disrespect to the competition his side have won for the past two years. "Why should there be an accusation that it's disrespectful?" Phelan said. "He had to make some priorities and go to watch Valencia. It's important after the Rangers [Champions League] game and the draw that we are properly prepared and Valencia have started very well."
Owen's two goals, a beautifully clipped right-foot shot on the counter-attack and a poacher's finish, came the week after he articulated his frustration at being on the bench, though he said last night that he believed more midweek games would yield him more playing time. "I would like to think there are plenty of games coming thick and fast now," he said.
Chris Smalling, whom Ferguson has been insisting will justify his £10m transfer fee, revealed his potential. His defensive performance in a game during which goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak was called on to make perhaps 10 saves, was commanding. His goal and the exquisite pass which set up Darron Gibson's finish also revealed the offensive side to his game which is leading some to suggest that Rio Ferdinand, who also played, has a bit of serious competition.
During the opening period Scunthorpe revealed the ambition their caretaker manager, Ian Baraclough, had promised for his first home game in charge and their midfielder Josh Wright immediately took the eye. The 20-year-old's senior experience might be almost as limited as Bebe for United – the young Londoner played only twice for Charlton before ending a succession of loan deals with his move to Glanford Park in July – but he thumped Scunthorpe ahead after Martyn Woolford had breezed in from the left past Wes Brown and laid the ball back.
The lead lasted just four minutes and the quality of the finishing will delight Ferguson when he finally settles down to the recording today. Smalling's lofted ball found Gibson and the midfielder allowed the ball one bounce before a piece of quite brilliant technical ability saw him lob the ball over goalkeeper Joe Murphy from an acute angle.
Cliff Byrne's thumping header from a corner flew over when he should have found the target for Scunthorpe while the pace of Jonathan Forte posed a threat to Ferdinand. But class told and Smalling revealed more of it when he stepped into the six-yard box and delivered a dinked right-foot finish from Park Ji-sung's cross with all the flourish of a forward.
All that anticipation about him, yet the Portuguese striker Bebe found himself eclipsed by a Lincolnshire man wearing no more than a pair of socks and some stout shoes when he finally made the field. The 19-year-old, who has been the source of more curiosity than perhaps any other new United player of recent years, had been on the field for about 10 seconds when the pale torso of an intruder loomed into view at the start of a mazy run every bit in keeping with Scunthorpe's virtuous and ambitious display. Perhaps happily for a player who arrived at Old Trafford short of physical fitness last month, there was little to do. The experience, bewildering though it may have been, will have served him almost as well as the other United players who were clamouring for the attention of a manager 1,000 miles away.
Scunthorpe United 4-4-2: Murphy; Byrne, Mirfin, Canavan, Nolan; Wright, O'Connor (Grant, 61), Togwell (Collins, 72), Woolford; Forte, Dagnall (Godden, 81). Substitutes not used Slocombe (gk), Wright, Jones, Raynes.
Manchester United 4-4-2: Kuszczak; Brown, Smallin, Ferdinand, Rafael; Park (Bebe, 74), Gibson, Anderson, Hernandez (Obertan, 68); Owen, Macheda. Substitutes not used Van der Sar (gk), O'Shea, De Laet, C Evans, Eikrem
Man of the match Kuszczak.
Referee M Dean (Wirral).
Match rating 8/10.