Of all the gifts Sir Alex Ferguson was given to commemorate his silver jubilee at Manchester United, none would have been as appreciated as Wes Brown's header into his own net. The manager was given a party, a booklet filled with tributes that was distributed to every supporter with the match programme, a song and a stand named after him. A statue will follow. However, what Ferguson would have wanted most of all was a win.
If Ferguson had to pick a managerand an opponent to play against on his 25th anniversary, he would have chosen Sunderland, managed by Steve Bruce. The Wearsiders last won at Old Trafford in 1968 and Bruce has never beaten Ferguson in his managerial career.
In contrast to the pink sunset that bathed the stadium, this was a drab and colourless victory, although it was a rather better result than previous anniversaries in which United have not quite risen to the occasion. Ferguson's fifth anniversary saw United eliminated from the Cup-Winners' Cup; the 10th came in the middle of four defeats in five games; the 15th was marked by a 3-1 defeat at Liverpool; and the 20th was crowned by a 1-0 League Cup defeat at Southend. In that context, a nervy 1-0 victory counted as something of a triumph.
"It was a very long day for me," Ferguson said. "If the whistle could have gone immediately after we had scored, I'd have been happy. The last 15 minutes were absolute torture because Sunderland threw everything at us. I think the occasion got to the players like it did when we lost to Manchester City on the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster. Something similar happened here."
Perhaps appropriately, the goal came deep into stoppage time, but in the first half rather than the second. Given how much his career blossomed on loan on Wearside, it would have been even more apt had Danny Welbeck scored. Nani's corner was aimed at his head but it struck Brown's instead, with fatal results. During his years at Old Trafford Brown had gained something of a reputation for scoring own goals, and this was not the way he would have wanted to return to United.
Ferguson's celebrations were treated like a royal event that climaxed with him walking to the centre circle at Old Trafford to witness the stadium's great North Stand being named after him. He claimed it was the one event at the club he had known nothing about. Ferguson would always overshadow his successor at Old Trafford. Now, since the stand lies directly opposite the dug-outs, he literally will.
He did not, as Brian Clough did when Nottingham Forest attempted something similar at the City Ground, wonder aloud what had taken them so long. However, the stand, like so much at Old Trafford, would not have been built without him and if Ferguson sought his monument, all he had to do was to look around. At half-time they played a song written in his honour, with predictable lines about Ferguson being a "knight in shining armour", which is absolutely what he is not. If he wears armour, it is scarred and stained with sweat and blood.
Amid all this idolatry a football match took place, and those Sunderland footballers who had lined up to form a guard of honour for a man who was managing on this ground when many of them were not born put up unexpectedly fierce resistance. There was a fabulous double save from Keiren Westwood, first from Wayne Rooney and then from Patrice Evra, that carried faint echoes of Jimmy Montgomery at Wembley in the 1973 FA Cup final. There was also a clearance off the line from Kieran Richardson.
In attack, Sunderland constantly menaced without suggesting they would break through until the moment when Sebastian Larsson swung a cross into the heart ofthe Manchester United defence. Hands went up and the linesman signalled that the ball had struck one belonging to a United player.
Replays and Ferguson suggested it had been Ji Dong-won, brought on to replace Connor Wickham, who suffered a serious knee injury in the opening exchanges. Lee Mason consulted with the linesman, who must have changed his mind. To those who had travelled south from County Durham, it would have appeared an absolutely typical piece of Old Trafford justice. In fact, the decision was perfect.
Manchester Utd (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Jones, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Fletcher (Fabio, 90), Park (Carrick, 83), Rooney; Welbeck (Berbatov, 73), Hernandez.
Sunderland (4-4-1-1): Westwood; Bardsley, Turner, Brown, Richardson; Larsson, Cattermole, Colback (Meyler, 76), Sessègnon (Elmohamady, 76); Wickham (Ji, 4); Bendtner.
Referee: Lee Mason.
Man of the match Westwood (Sunderland)