Hanley pops Fergie's party balloon

Manchester United 2 Blackburn Rovers 3: Fit defenders underlined at top of United manager's birthday wish list as his makeshift back four succumb to Blackburn's never-say-die attitude

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The Independent Football

Having played the role of benevolent godfather to the beleaguered Steve Kean with his pre-match words of encouragement, the last thing Sir Alex Ferguson expected on his 70th birthday was to be extending congratulations to his fellow Glaswegian on a win at Old Trafford.

What he did expect, in keeping with the celebratory mood set by the birthday choir that serenaded him on the way to the dug-out, was a continuation of United's ruthless riposte to their upstart rivals from across town, knocking Manchester City off their perch at the top of the Premier League just in time to see in another new year.

After the 5-0 demolitions of Fulham and Wigan, even with his options still limited by extensive injuries and reports last night that Wayne Rooney had been omitted because of an ill-judged night out, there was no reason to anticipate anything but more of the same. Yet, on a sticky pitch that hampered both passing and ball control, Ferguson's latest patchwork line-up suddenly looked an untidy mess.

Two Yakubu goals down by the 51st minute, they recovered to 2-2 thanks to a double response from Dimitar Berbatov and appeared to have summoned the momentum that customarily carries them home. But Blackburn, buoyed by a 1-1 draw against Liverpool at Anfield, were unwilling to sit back and accept the inevitable. Pouring forward to test United's vulnerabilities again, they were rewarded with 10 minutes left by a goal from the 20-year-old Grant Hanley, one of the defensive pillars of a similarly makeshift Blackburn line-up, to clinch the most unlikely victory of the pilloried Kean's season.

The goal reflected badly on David de Gea, who had regained his place from Anders Lindegaard but must have jeopardised it again after Hanley beat him hands down to Morten Gamst Pedersen's corner, although the Blackburn youngster had to win a second header, this time against Rafael, to force the ball over the line.

Kean, enjoying only his eighth win in 39 League matches as Blackburn manager, felt the performance confirmed the strong spirit in a young team and hoped it might lead the fans who have been calling for his scalp to call a new year truce. "I hope that can happen," Kean said. "I've always respected the fans but what will get them behind us is winning games, particularly at home. We were very disappointing in our last two home games against West Brom and Bolton but with the results at Liverpool and here today I hope we have gone some way towards turning things round.

"I'm delighted with the way we played today. When it got to 2-1 with United's fans getting behind them we feared we would be defending wave after wave of attacks but coming here showed what we are as a young group. Even at 2-2 we were still prepared to go forward in the way that we had talked about before the game because we felt that with the way United play the best way to defend here can be to break quickly on the counter-attack."

Ferguson admitted that the result took him by surprise. "We did not see that coming," he said. "We gave way two terrible goals and you can't do that. Blackburn are fighting for their lives, they were resilient and defended really well, blocking shots near the line all day.

"The pitch did not help us in the first half," he added. "It has been raining heavily all week and it was really boggy. We rallied in the second half and at 2-2 I thought there was only one winner but then we gave away a third goal where we all could have done better."

Blackburn had gone ahead after only 16 minutes when Berbatov, grabbing at his opponent's shirt, hauled down Chris Samba to concede a penalty. Yakubu sent De Gea the wrong way from the spot.

United, with Phil Jones and Michael Carrick teamed in another new partnership in central defence and full back Rafael alongside Park Ji-sung in central midfield, looked disjointed. In the absence of Rooney, the combination of Berbatov with Javier Hernandez, with Danny Welback on the left flank, was ineffective.

Yakubu, charging through a Carrick tackle and gliding past Jones, increased the lead six minutes into the second half with his 13th goal of the season. Berbatov, stooping to head home Rafael's cross, replied from the restart and his sixth in three games levelled the scores 10 minutes later.

With Anderson now in midfield, Rafael back in defence and Welbeck moved to the middle, United looked to have the coherence and the legs to secure the points that would have seen them end the year at the top of the table. Instead they must rally again.

Looking to the future: 'I think I've got threemore years at the club'

Sir Alex Ferguson marked his 70th birthday yesterday by giving himself "another three years" as Manchester United manager before handing the reins to a younger man. However, he has announced his retirement before only to change his mind.

Having dodged questions about his future 24 hours earlier, Ferguson told United's own television channel yesterday that he wanted to win a third European Cup with United's latest crop of young players.

"I think I've got three years at the club," he said. "As long as my health stays up, and as long as I'm still enjoying it and getting the satisfaction of the team doing its best. There are new players that have come in, like [Phil] Jones, [Chris] Smalling, Ashley Young, [Danny] Welbeck... and they haven't won any League medals yet.

"Without question, winning a European Cup is important at this club. You can't be greedy, and having won two in my [25 years here] is an achievement. They were special, it was terrific to win them. I think I'd be very keen to do that [again]."

Ferguson announced he would step down at the end of the 2001-02 season only to rescind the decision the following February. Three years ago, he said he did not intend still tobe a manager when he was 70.

John Culley

Manchester Utd (4-4-2): De Gea; Valencia, Carrick, Jones, Evra; Nani, Rafael (Keane, 85), Park, Welbeck; Berbatov, Hernandez (Anderson, h-t).

Blackburn (4-1-4-1): Bunn; Lowe, Samba, Hanley, Henley; Nzonzi; Formica (Goodwillie, 85), Petrovic, Rochina (Morris, 55), Perdersen; Yakubu (Slew, 89).

Referee: Mike Dean.

Man of the match: Hanley (Blackburn).

Match rating: 7/10.