Manchester United laid bare the reality of life without Wayne Rooney last night and, living down to all expectations, what a barren, chastening experience it proved to be.
A goalless draw against a Middlesbrough side with one eye on the Uefa Cup final and the other on the likely departure of their manager ended with Manchester United uncertain of automatic qualification for the Champions' League and their captain, Gary Neville, embroiled in a furious row with a supporter as he headed towards the Old Trafford tunnel.
Could it get any worse? According to Sir Alex Ferguson's sombre assessment on the fitness of his stricken striker, it is certain to do so for England.
On a night when United, or to be more precise, Ruud van Nistelrooy, squandered the opportunityof effectively sealing second place in the Premiership from Liverpool by failing to convert a second-half penalty, Neville was restrained by team-mates and coaching staff after confronting an irate fan who could be seen describing either the performance or the reaction as "a disgrace". The captain's lack of restraint encapsulated the frustration of a testing few days for club and country, although the boos that rang from the Stretford End towards the defender suggested sympathy was very much in short supply.
The ugly dispute and even uglier performance from United diverted attention from an accomplished then resilient display by Middlesbrough and an effective tactical showing from their manager ahead of his anticipated coronation as England manager. McClaren turns 45 tomorrow and may have reason to extend the birthday celebrations by an additional 24 hours if he lands the present that appeared beyond him when it was unwrapped for Luiz Felipe Scolari in Lisbon last week.
The Middlesbrough manager is expected to be anointed Sven Goran Eriksson's successor at a scheduled Football Association board meeting on Thursday. "There are a lot of good English applicants," insisted Ferguson. "And I am surprised they didn't go for an Englishman in the first place. They are all ably qualified for the job and the advantage Steve has is that he has knowledge of the camp. He has been there for a few years and knows all the staff."
The FA could be in a position to announce their new manager shortly after Thursday's meeting as McClaren signed a new contract at the Riverside in January that contains a clause detailing the compensation owed to Middlesbrough in the event of his departure to England, although it is the club's Uefa Cup final commitments and whether their chairman, Steve Gibson, will want a distraction before the game in Eindhoven next Wednesday that could determine the official end of the saga.
The Old Trafford crowd offered their former assistant manager a warm reception as he walked to his place in the dug-out before kick-off, but United minds were clearly with their stricken No 8 last night. Rooney's name reverberated around the stadium but the greatest tribute to his influence came from his United team-mates, who appeared lost without the zest or vision of the 20-year-old to guide them.
Van Nistelrooy's evening was encapsulated when the Middlesbrough defender Matthew Bates inexplicably stretched out two arms to catch Ryan Giggs' corner inside his own area in the 66th minute. The subsequent spot-kick possessed power but not accuracy, however, and Brad Jones produced a decent save to heighten the Dutchman's and United's obvious discomfort. For Middlesbrough, who created several openings before the break and had to rely on their defensive solidity to secure a point in the second half, their dramas have only just begun.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, Silvestre; Park (Ronaldo, 55), O'Shea, Giggs, Evra (Richardson, 55); Van Nistelrooy, Saha (Rossi, 80). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Vidic.
Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Jones; Parnaby, Riggott, Bates, Queudrue (Taylor, 61); Morrison (Christie, 72) , Cattermole, Boateng, Rochemback, Downing; Maccarone (Parlour, 79). Substitutes not used: Wheater, Knight (gk).
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).Reuse content