Alan Smith was, in the words of his agent, slightly "delirious" as he was carried off the Anfield pitch on Saturday and the sound of that hostile old stadium echoing to sympathetic Scouse applause for a Manchester United player must have added to his deepening sense of unreality. By yesterday morning, Smith was back in control of his senses, readying himself for surgery and clinging to the consolation that his broken left leg and dislocated ankle should not end his career.
That was what the surgeon told United's 25-year-old midfielder, his agent Alex Black said yesterday, before Smith underwent a succesful operation that will see him fitted with a protective boot for up to eight weeks. Despite the severity of the injury, Smith, who is likely to be in hospital until tomorrow, could still "wiggle his toes" according to Black and had begun to plot the length of his rehabilitation - 10 months would seem to be the most hopeful of estimates.
The story of Smith's injury provided a diversion, however unwelcome, from a United performance of sparse imagination, and an FA Cup defeat that, realistically, shrinks their season's aims to Champions' League qualification and Sunday's tussle with Wigan for the Carling Cup. February is not yet over and Old Trafford has little to look forward to, although on Saturday the sight of one footballer after another turning away in horror from Smith's leg briefly relegated United's wider concerns to the margins.
It was not pleasant to watch. Wes Brown, a veteran of two cruciate knee ligament operations, tried to help Smith to his feet before realising the gut-wrenching extent of the break. Ruud van Nistelrooy, another member of the cruciate club, simply turned away unable to look. Gary Neville, Wayne Rooney and John Arne Riise placed a hand on Smith's head as he lay prone on the ground. There is nothing like the simple horror of a terrible injury to unite professional football's disparate community and there are few who would have understood Smith's plight quite so well as Djibril Cissé.
The Frenchman broke the tibia and fibula in his left leg in October 2004 but was still fit to play 10 games at the end of last season, including a substitute's appearance at the European Cup final. It is hard to imagine that United's straight-talking Yorkshireman has much else in common with the flamboyant, heavily tattooed French striker, but as Smith waited to be taken to hospital it was Cissé's words of encouragement he heard.
Cissé said Smith's injury had reminded him of his own. Sustained in equally innocuous circumstances - Cissé was chasing Blackburn's Jay McEveley, Smith was closing down Riise - the force that dislocated Smith's ankle as it folded underneath him then transferred to break his leg.
Cissé was expected to miss the rest of his debut Liverpool season and he said that Smith appeared "the kind of person" who would withstand the long, lonely hours of rehabilitation. "After the game I went straight to the United dressing-room, I wanted to see him and say that I know how he is feeling, but that everything will be OK for him like it has been for me," Cissé said. "I just told him to be strong. It is a hard moment for him."
"The break looked to be bad, but he can recover from it well and get even stronger after," Cissé added. "The hardest part is when your team-mates are going out on the pitch, playing, and you know that you cannot. That is the difficult part and that is when you have to be strong in your head. He is tough and can deal with this. A year ago I was recovering from a broken leg and now I am playing again. I am sure he will do the same."
A former schoolboy BMX bike champion, and a resilient enough character to take the abuse that accompanied his move from Leeds, Smith was, Black said, fearful of the long-term implications for his health in the immediate aftermath of the injury.
"Alan said when you look down and see your foot in that sort of condition your priorities suddenly go away from football," Black said. "Now he's got that [football priority] back and he knows it could have been a lot worse."
A place in the England World Cup squad, now out of the question, was never a guarantee to Smith who came on as a 77th-minute substitute to stiffen United's midfield. He should have started the game. Rafael Benitez's team won the match in that area, Mohamed Sissoko and Dietmar Hamann overwhelming Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher. Sir Alex Ferguson claimed Liverpool "play for only five minutes and win the game" but Benitez's side had a stoicism United lacked.
It was not a beautiful spectacle but the victorswon courtesy of a 19th-minute Peter Crouch header that owed much to a bad lapse of concentration by Nemanja Vidic as Steve Finnan's cross drifted over. The rest was a Benitez masterpiece of containment and resistance and United's failure to test goalkeeper Jose Reina in any meaningful way.
The "Harry versus Gary" battle on United's right looked like it might explode after Kewell body-checked Neville in the fourth minute but the Australian was comfortably contained thereafter. Jamie Carragher was, as ever, distinguished and so too Sissoko. How United could do with a midfielder as destructive him. Wayne Rooney flicked a V-sign at the Kop in frustration but by the end only Smith, among the defeated side, could justifiably feel sorry for himself.
Goal: Crouch (19) 1-0.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Gerrard, Sissoko, Hamann, Kewell (Kromkamp, 82); Morientes (Garcia, 62); Crouch (Cissé, 88). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Traoré.
Manchester United (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Neville, Vidic, Brown, Silvestre (Saha, h-t); Rooney, Fletcher (Smith, 77; Park, 89), Giggs, Richardson, Ronaldo; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Pique.
Referee: H Webb (Yorkshire).
Booked: Liverpool Hamann, Hyypia, Kewell; Manchester United Giggs, Neville, Vidic.
Man of the match: Carragher.