It is an irony lost in the mists of time but George Best, whose legend Manchester United remembered here on the 50th anniversary of his debut as a slip of a 17-year-old, hated to go down under any tackle, real or imaginary. Hitting the turf was a sign that the defender had won, he always thought.
Ashley Young is no Best – very far from it – and United possess no-one like him – very far from it – so the only hope after two more swallow dives which gained him a booking and United an opening goal is that Young will appreciate that he is earning himself a reputation. Sir Alex Ferguson said he had “had a word” with him about a year or so ago, after Young won penalties at the expense of QPR’s Sean Derry and Aston Villa’s equally unfortunate Ciaran Clark. Rather more memorably, Roberto Mancini once made swimming gestures when the player’s name cropped up in conversation.
David Moyes argued, irrationally, that the penalty Young secured for Robin van Persie to tuck away on the stroke of half time, resulting in Kagisho Dikgacoi taking an early walk of the precise same distance Derry did two years ago, was vindication for the pressure United had applied by that stage. That is certainly no good reason to point to the spot.
The truth of it is that rather than take the fine chance to score that he was gifted by Palace’s Mile Jedinak, Young leaned into Dikgacoi and engineered the contact - just as he did when making a barrier of the same Palace player’s leg and executing a theatrical leap over it, midway through the first half. Referee Jon Moss had no evidence on which to award a penalty. “I can’t tell you; I can’t help you,” his linesman Andy Halliday said, his words picked up by pitch microphone. But he gave it anyway. Ian Holloway said plenty by saying nothing. “I’m not going to say a word. I honestly can’t afford it,” said a manager already serving a touchline ban, with an £18,000 fine, for speaking so liberally about Mark Clattenburg’s refereeing at Tottenham two weeks ago.
Moyes, who admitted Moss was right to book Young, will be speaking to the player. “I don’t want my players diving. I will definitely say to Ash it’s not what I want,” he declared. But this was a grubby business and all rather beneath the memory of Best, who so entranced this stadium in the 1-0 defeat of West Bromwich Albion precisely half a century ago that Matt Busby wondered aloud whether he dreamt what he had just seen.
Though Palace hardly threatened United – only Dwight Gayle caused a heart-stop when he eased Adrian Pariappa’s 40-yard ball past Rio Ferdinand and clipped a gaping opportunity wide – it required Wayne Rooney’s delicious late free kick to convert a pinched victory into something more meaningful.
Rooney was wearing what Moyes described on Friday as a ‘Fozzie’ (Steve Foster) headband - a one-piece black wrapping for his head wound which had the grinning manager making comparisons between the player and “a sumo wrestler.” Curiously, for a club with a resource like United’s, Moyes said the adornment – not custom-made - had only arrived on Friday. It was worth the wait. Roy Hodgson’s sense of indignation will only have been compounded by the sight of the player England were deprived of in Ukraine chasing around for 90 minutes and United can reflect on his part in the only moment of the game befitting the legend of Best. Rooney ripped a 30-yard cross from just inside the right touchline which Robin van Persie took on his chest and thumped against the crossbar on the volley.
Palace defended stoically, justifying Holloway’s pointed observation about the way his club had “behaved themselves and acquitted themselves.” But with Sir Alex Ferguson in directors’ box attendance for the first time, the new manager will have taken pleasure in his own addition to the fabric of the place - Marouane Fellaini - making a convincing contribution. There was a half volleyed effort, a brief threat in the penalty area and some clean passes, which is a lot more than can be said of Anderson, who made way for him.
Yet the greatest cause for satisfaction was 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj, who on the face of things has some of the ice in his veins that Best displayed all those years ago. Moyes had been contemplating starting the match with him and given how things transpired for Young may wish he had followed that instinct. The Belgian floated a cross which Van Persie had blasted over and rolled a beautiful ball inside Danny Gabbidon for Rooney to experiment with a chip which was rather too Hollywood. Then he won the free kick which was converted to give the scoreline a little conviction. A little grandeur amid the gamesmanship.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Anderson (Fellaini, 62), Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Young (Januzaj, 67); Van Persie (Hernandez, 79).
Crystal Palace (4-2-3-1): Speroni; Mariappa, Gabbidon, Delaney, Moxey; Dikgacoi, Jedinak; Puncheon, Gayle (Jerome, 64), Campana (Guedioura, 59); Chamakh (Kebe, 74).
Referee: J. Moss (West Yorkshire)
Match rating: 6/10
Man of the match:: Rooney