Manchester United placed Steve Bruce back on the rack after only two minutes and 14 seconds of yesterday's victory before a record Premiership crowd. Perhaps mindful of the contribution the Birmingham City manager once made to their former pre-eminent position in the English game, they refused to complete the torture.
Steve Bruce has been unable to sleep since enduring "the worst night of my life" at St Andrew's last Tuesday. It illustrates how thankless the task of a relegation-threatened manager can be, however, that he still revisited a nightmare at Old Trafford yesterday.
Following the humiliation of the FA Cup defeat by Liverpool and the subsequent public arguments about the character of Birmingham City players among the club's hierarchy, Bruce returned to Manchester United in need of the emphatic response that could preserve his top flight status and his job. Instead, he was placed back on the rack before a record Premiership audience a mere two minutes and 14 seconds after kick-off, when Ryan Giggs maintained the onslaught began by Sami Hyypia six days previously, and was only spared further torture by the mercy of his former employers.
"It must be agony for both Steve and Bryan Robson," admitted Sir Alex Ferguson, who has increased the prospects of two former United captains leaving the Premiership in the past week. "These guys were instrumental in the success we had. They are two great professionals and I feel for them but they will fight on. They are both battlers." That could well have been the sermon Ferguson delivered to his players at half-time given their casual approach to the second half with the game, and a return to second, already secure.
For 45 minutes United had toyed with Birmingham in a manner reminiscent of the 7-0 cup humbling that prompted the co-owner, David Sullivan, to lambast the players' desire. Once Giggs had added a second goal, and Wayne Rooney had squandered several excellent opportunities, however, they eased off to enable Birmingham to escape with their reputations more enhanced than their prospects of survival.
"Once that first goal went in we had to make sure we were not humiliated again," admitted Bruce. "At least they did roll their sleeves up and did not collapse. I didn't like my owner's comments this week, that's for sure. Where I'm from you say nothing and come out fighting, and at least our players tried to salvage some pride today." With a trip to Stamford Bridge next, it could be a while before the conversation turns to salvaging their Premiership status.
Bruce made five changes from Tuesday's 7-0 home defeat yet the attempt to cajole a response from demoralised players was rendered cosmetic once their fragile confidence was assaulted by another early goal. Against Liverpool they had fallen behind after only 54 seconds. Against United their clean sheet lasted a mere 80 seconds longer before Giggs converted a 25-yard free-kick via a combination of the post and Maik Taylor's head.
"I can only imagine what they were thinking when that went in," confessed Gary Neville, who became only the eighth player in United's history to make 500 appearances for the club yesterday.
On 15 minutes Giggs collected his third goal of the season when he found Rooney and continued a run in anticipation of the outstanding return pass that the England striker subsequently threaded through four blue shirts. With only Taylor to beat, the other member of United's 500 club on display duly converted. But for erratic finishing from Rooney Birmingham would have departed at half-time on course for their second emphatic reverse in succession. Taylor was forced to confront the marauding United striker twice within a minute as his fellow defenders stood and admired, but they were spared as Rooney dragged both efforts wide and also had a shot blocked by Martin Latka with the visitors in disarray.
It was Bruce's misfortune to confront a United side enjoying their most consistent and exuberant spell of the season. In Giggs and John O'Shea, Ferguson has finally found a makeshift central midfield partnership that serves the team's more expressive talents and with Louis Saha justifying his place ahead of Ruud Van Nistelrooy with an unselfish contribution United at times delivered an exhibition to mark the opening of 1000 extra seats at Old Trafford.
Though Birmingham improved after the interval, Emile Heskey sending one glorious chance high over the bar and Edwin van der Sar foiling Stephen Clemence following a goalmouth scramble, their punishment abated. In the 82nd minute, however, Rooney made amends for earlier errors and secured a more fitting scoreline when he latched on to a Cristiano Ronaldo header and finally found the target.
"I was disappointed with our second-half performance but in the first half we were superb," said Ferguson. "Perhaps going in at 2-0 encouraged Birmingham, but we are showing great consistency now." How he must wish they had found it before Chelsea disappeared over the horizon.
Goals: Taylor (3og) 1-0; Giggs (15) 2-0; Rooney (83) 3-0.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Silvestre; Ronaldo, O'Shea, Giggs (Fletcher, 77), Richardson (Park, 39); Rooney, Saha (Van Nistelrooy, 73). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Evra.
Birmingham City (4-5-1): Taylor; Melchiot (Tebily, 82), Latka, Cunningham, Lazaridis (Bruce, 87); Pennant, Johnson, Jarosik, Clemence, Campbell; Heskey (Kilkenny, 87). Substitutes not used: Vaesen (gk), Forssell.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Booked: Birmingham Latka, Jarosik, Pennant.
Man of the match: Giggs.
Birmingham's last 10 games
Sat 14 (A) Charlton L 0-2
Sat 21 (H) Portsmouth W 5-0
Wed 1 (A) Liverpool D 1-1
Sat 4 (H) Arsenal L 0-2
Mon 13 (A) West Ham L 0-3
Sat 25 (H) Sunderland W 1-0
Sat 4 (A) Middlesbrough L 0-1
Sat 11 (H) WBA D 1-1
Sat 18 (H) Tottenham L 0-2
Sun 26 (A) Man Utd L 0-3Reuse content