In the end it took 180 excruciating minutes of FA Cup football for Manchester United to see off Exeter City by two goals, and if Sir Alex Ferguson thought the goalless draw at Old Trafford was an embarrassment then last night was an ordeal. On a bumpy old patch of a pitch, his first team so nearly failed in spectacular style.
When Sean Devine touched the ball past Tim Howard on 76 minutes, St James' Park erupted at the prospect of extra time only for the referee, Phil Dowd, to signal that the equaliser was offside. It capped a second half in which the Conference side, 97 places below United, fought for their lives. These two matches will be stashed away in the darkest corner of United's FA Cup history and forgotten. But they will live long in the memory of Exeter City.
No chances were taken this time with the United team and there was no shortage of famous international footballers. By anyone's reckoning, Sir Alex Ferguson picked at least £50m-worth of his players to wrestle back some of the dignity that the original Manchester United side for this FA Cup third-round tie left out on the pitch at Old Trafford last week. Just four survivors from the United team that was left goalless and stranded the first time around and those who made it included two of the worst offenders from the original tie.
Against the odds, Liam Miller and Eric Djemba Djemba were trusted with the centre of midfield again, but they were joined by Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Scholes from United's first string. The players were an incongruous sight warming up in front of an away terrace just 10 steps deep and backed by a modest garden hedge.
The garden hedge was matched by a pitch that needed just 10 minutes to turn to a consistency not dissimilar to a freshly dug flowerbed. Not that it seemed to matter to Ronaldo who fluttered down the right wing on six minutes and sent a ball across an empty Exeter box. His marker was Exeter's veteran assistant manager, Scott Hiley, and for him it looked like a busy night.
There was only nine minutes gone when Ronaldo claimed the lead for United. It was a simple pass through the Exeter defence from Scholes that barely stretched the playmaker's inventive repertoire. Ronaldo took a few steps to gather possession and poked his shot past goalkeeper Paul Jones and into the far corner.
For a while, United threatened to exact a hefty price for that ignominious draw at Old Trafford. Dean Moxey had to throw himself in front of Scholes' drive after Rooney had crossed from the right. The resistance that Exeter had previously put up in midfield crumbled and Miller was allowed the time to chip a ball into Rooney's stride, but his shot was well saved by Jones.
Rooney was not always on his best behaviour. When he failed with the first attempt to kick his marker Kwame Ampadu, the only Exeter player last night who was not in the Old Trafford first XI, he made sure he caught him the second time. It was ungracious and worthy of a booking and he was lucky to escape without a caution.
There was something, however, in United's performance that suggested hope for Exeter and, as usual, it could be found in the display of Howard. He flapped at Alex Jeannin's cross on 26 minutes to allow Steve Flack a free header and, with just two minutes left, failed to claim a cross that Sean Devine struck wide.
United were denied a decisive second goal on 57 minutes when Rooney's chip over a grounded Jones rolled into the goalmouth and was slowed down enough by the quagmire between the posts to allow the Exeter defence to hustle the ball clear of the danger area. Devine volleyed another chance wide and soon Ferguson was on his feet on the touchline complaining to referee Dowd about the treatment of his team.
Exeter surged forward in search of an equaliser and very nearly got one when Rooney fouled the former United trainee Andy Taylor out by the left touchline. While the teenager remonstrated with the referee, Taylor lined up his strike and his curling free-kick demanded a full-stretch save from Howard.
Devine had the ball in the net with 14 minutes left, but his goal was disallowed. With Exeter committed to the attack, both Rooney and Ronaldo were unleashed on a home defence that had stretched itself to its very limits.
Both teenagers broke through on the Exeter goal twice but could only put their shots into the away crowd behind the goal.
Finally, with three minutes left, Rooney collected a ball from Louis Saha, beat Jones as he went to ground and rolled the ball into the goal. It was testament to Exeter's performance that it came as a relief to United. They had matched Ferguson's B-string and they ran his first team very close.
Exeter City (4-4-1-1): Jones; Hiley, Sawyer, Gaia, Jeannin; Taylor (Martin, 87), Clay, Ampadu (Afful, 69), Moxey; Flack (Edwards, 75); Devine. Substitutes not used: Rice (gk), Todd.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Howard; P Neville, G Neville, O'Shea, Fortune; Ronaldo, Miller (Fletcher, 66), Djemba Djemba (Silvestre, 80), Giggs (Saha, 70); Scholes, Rooney. Substitutes not used: Ricardo (gk), Bellion.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
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