When Sir Alex Ferguson left Old Trafford so, too, did the fear. There would have been a time when a side like West Bromwich Albion would not have dared come to Manchester and taken on United as equals.
Most clubs would approach Old Trafford’s giddying stands with the trepidation of a hobbit catching his first sight of the towers of Mordor. When United wrested the title back from Chelsea in 2011, West Bromwich were the only side to take so much as a point here and that when Edwin van der Sar inexplicably dropped the ball at Somen Tchoyi’s feet.
They took a point then and now they merited more. At 1-1 most sides might have stuck, taken a draw, withdrawn behind their own halfway line and hoped to ride out the inevitable storm. Now, West Bromwich passed with an easy fluidity and, with a shot from the edge of the area from Saido Berahino, they got what they deserved.
It was not the only goal that Berahino, a lovely talent whose family fled a civil war in Burundi to find sanctuary in Birmingham, might have scored. For Manchester United and David Moyes this was worse, far worse, than defeat in the derby last Sunday.
This is, statistically, Manchester United’s worst start to a season since 1989, the last year when it seemed likely that Ferguson might be sacked. Losing to West Bromwich has cost in no particular order Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto di Matteo, Chris Hughton and Paolo di Canio their jobs. Towards the end their supporters, who had not won at this ground since the days of Big Ron and the Three Degrees, were chanting: “We’re West Bromwich Albion, we’ll sack who we want”.
It would take a fevered leap of imagination to picture Moyes losing his job but the stress was evident as he patrolled his touchline, pointing, encouraging and, when what would have been an equaliser from Marouane Fellaini was correctly ruled offside, seizing up with frustration.
He had made seven changes from the side that had been demolished at Eastlands and the casualties included Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, whom he described on Friday as “the best centre-half I have worked with.”
The absences would have had something to do with Manchester United’s long journey to the coalfields of Ukraine to face Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League. Vidic’s chances of starting in the Donbass Arena on Wednesday night increased considerably with this performance.
It left Wayne Rooney as captain, which for so many reasons was not something that could have been predicted in the summer. Despite the fact that he once sued the forward for libel, Rooney is Moyes’ kind of player and with Robin van Persie on the bench through injury, he remained Manchester United’s lone threat. It was his dipping free-kick arriving through a flurry of red shirts that deceived Boaz Myhill for the equaliser and provided United with the kind of opportunity they once exploited greedily and instinctively.
It was only in the closing moments when a far from fit Van Persie had been thrown on that they carried a threat. Often Manchester United appeared to be playing from memory and a very faded one at that.
“It was a poor result and a poor performance,” said Moyes, whose decision to substitute Shinji Kagawa at half-time was a further humiliation to a footballer who because of his iconic status in Japan is under more pressure than anyone else in the home dressing room. Moyes complained that Manchester United “do not seem to be able to open teams up.” That is a role Kagawa performed regularly at Dortmund.
For his opposite number, Steve Clarke, this was a beautifully engineered victory. Old Trafford had been the scene of his first taste of management when taking over as Newcastle’s caretaker after the ruinous reign of Ruud Gullit. Manchester United had won 5-1 with the stadium chanting: “Let’s all laugh at Shearer”. Now, they were silenced.
“We did everything almost perfectly. We were about more than defending doggedly and trying to nick a point,” said Clarke, who had lost Scott Sinclair after 13 minutes and seen his captain, Jonas Olsson have his head bandaged early on. Later, that bandaged head would send the ball against David De Gea’s crossbar.
The last time these sides had met was a 5-5 draw – a schoolboy scoreline in a match that featured schoolboy tactics in what was Ferguson’s final match as manager of Manchester United.
The goal that opened this game up was a schoolboy goal of sorts; the kind you would cherish into middle age. Morgan Amalfitano, brought in on loan from Marseilles, had scored against Sunderland last week but this was on another plane. He began on the right wing, cut inside, placed the ball through Rio Ferdinand’s legs and kept on running. De Gea spread himself and the Frenchman simply chipped the ball over him without a hint of fear in his body.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea, Jones, Ferdinand, Evans, Buttner; Carrick, Anderson (Fellaini, 67); Nani, Rooney, Kagawa (Januzaj, h-t); Hernandez (Van Persie, 58).
West Bromwich Albion (4-2-3-1): Myhill; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Mulumbu, Yacob; Amalfitano, Sessegnon (Rosenberg, 90), Sinclair (Berahino, 13); Anichebe (Lugano, 88).
Referee: Michael Oliver
Man of the match: Morgan Amalfitano (West Bromwich)
Match rating: 7/10