The ticket prices – £45 for the away fans: £20 more than any other club have charged this week – demonstrated that Manchester United always believe they can put on some theatre.
By the end, there were rather more thrills than Sir Alex Ferguson had probably hoped for, in the severe physical examination of perhaps the youngest defence he has ever fielded. But there were also grounds for some extreme satisfaction – even if a fourth-round tie at Stamford Bridge took the edge off the night. The hard evidence of a resurgent, returning Wayne Rooney was just part of it. There were also reminders of why Ferguson has described Tom Cleverley as England’s best midfielder; 90 minutes of football for Darren Fletcher and the knowledge that the defence held on against big men like Shola Ameobi and Papiss Cissé.
Rooney, back with his right leg in strapping, did not look like a man who had been missing for a month and a day when he dropped deep as United’s creative nexus – his face as red as his shirt with the intensity of effort. There were two gorgeous first-half passes from him – one clipped 20 yards, one thumped fully 50 yards, from which first Javier Hernandez and then Danny Welbeck might have scored –
However, from his unusual vantage point in the stands Ferguson was looking for something he did not already know. Anderson told him that. The Brazilian has already been granted a few chances too many to prove himself here and in two powerful, driving runs - brushing off first Fabricio Coloccini, then Dan Gosling – we saw why he is still clinging on to an Old Trafford career. It was the second of those runs which he wrapped up with a powerful 20-yard shot, to send United ahead.
Then, if evidence were actually needed of the 24-year-old’s painful inconsistency, he ballooned over a ball laid into his path by the enterprising Welbeck in the early minutes of the first half.
The fledgling back four – with one previous senior start and one substitute’s appearance between them – was the real source of interest and Ferguson’s momentary struggle for a way of summing them up, after the match, suggests they have work to do. “They did their best,” said the manager, not exactly a garland of praise. Fletcher was more enthusiastic: “For two young centre-halves playing against top strikers they were fantastic.” But Michael Keane, the centre-back they talk a lot about at United, was by no means unbeatable.
Ameobi hustled the 19-year-old in the air to nod down a volleyed chance which Gosling spurned early on and the neat, quick feet of Haris Vuckic dazzled him as the Slovenian danced past to shoot on 53 minutes. But Keane was calm and composed in the teeth of no ordinary offensive threat. These were grounds for promise.
That threat intensified after Cleverley atoned for a bad first half missing by curling in his first United goal just before the hour. Alan Pardew threw on two substitutes who combined to score within a minute of arriving from the bench. Shane Ferguson provided the deep, accurate cross which Keane’s 21-year-old defensive partner Scott Wootton lost the flight of, allowing Cissé to rise behind him to power home a header. Wootton was then powerless to prevent a Cissé bicycle-kick which struck the bar.
Pardew’s complaint that the referee had not really given his side enough was tame. “We were every bit as good as United,” he said. His side, while ambitious, were second best. Ryan Tunnicliffe’s father wore a big smile when his son arrived from the bench, delivering him £10,000 on the £100 bet he had placed on this outcome when his boy was nine years old.
But Ferguson’s grin was the broadest, when the night’s work of a pitch invader came to a spectacular end on the turf. This looked the smile of satisfaction – from one who knows how hurtful this tournament’s early rounds can be.