After a week in which an FA Cup tie between two Premier League clubs attracted an attendance of under 8,000, the competition badly needed some romance, not least because new sponsors have to be found for next season.
Crawley Town of the Blue Square Premier brought more followers than that here for their evening out with the second richest club in the world and romance endured for the whole 90 minutes of a date from which they could take far greater satisfaction than their hosts.
"Credit to them, they deserved a draw for their commitment in the second half, when we weren't at the races and never had a shot at goal," admitted Manchester United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. "We were second to every ball then, which was disappointing. Maybe some players don't understand what the FA Cup's about."
Maybe he should have fieldedmore of those who do. United, who have won more games in the competition than any other club, but been held by two non-League clubs, Exeter City and Burton Albion, in recent seasons, again sent out what was effectively a reserve team and almost paid a price despite introducing Wayne Rooney – largely in vain – for that second half. They had not threatened a goal before taking the lead in the 28th minute, when Wes Brown was left unmarked at a disputed corner, and in the last quarter of the tie were in greater danger of conceding than scoring again. Indeed, in added time, the substitute Richard Brodie headed over Anders Lindegaard and against the crossbar.
Brodie is the most expensive playerin the history of non-League football and the fact that Crawley were reported to have paid £275,000 to sign him from York City last year is one of the reasons they are so disliked at that level of the game. Yet the courage and resolution shown yesterday will have made them many friends and by August those qualities seem certain to be on display in the Football League, as long as fixture congestion does not unhinge their season.
"We were very, very unfortunate, so we go away disappointed," their manager, Steve Evans, said when he eventually appeared more than 90 minutes after the final whistle. "We thought we could beat Manchester United, and we've done our football club proud."
Brodie could not even win a place in Evans's starting XI, the visitors preferring to start with Matt Tubbs. Tubbs could not add to his 28 in the campaign, admitting "maybe we gave them too much respect in the first half", but he was an energetic presence. At the back the captain Pablo Mills and Kyle McFadzean limited the Premier League leaders to perhaps three chances in the whole game, and the left-back Dean Howell was ever willing and able to push forward.
He had done so twice, setting up opportunities for Tubbs and Ben Smith, before United scored in the 28th minute. Crawley claimed they should have been awarded a goal-kick rather than conceding a sixth corner, but Darron Gibson took it short and, receiving a return pass from Gabriel Obertan, crossed for Brown to guide a neat header inside the far post.
Rooney was brought on for Anderson, and United then had to take off both the Da Silva brothers, leaving Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea as their full-backs. Crawley grew bolder,as they had to, first pushing Craig McAllister a little further forward, then replacing him with Brodie to support Tubbs.
In the last 20 minutes they looked genuinely capable of an equaliser. First Brodie, pulling to the left, crossed and Smith dragged his shot wide from 10 yards. Tubbs attempted an overhead kick, but it flew over the bar and a free-kick was given for dangerous play. Finally, Brodie outjumped Rooney and football held its breath as the header came back off the crossbar.
Not quite the old Cup magic, but the 25-1 outsiders had produced a trick or two.
Referee: Lee Probert
Man of the match: McFadzean