"The dourest and most dependable defender to play for me." That's how Sir Alex Ferguson once summed up Steve Bruce, the man who now stands between him and a 10th League title.
Dependable enough, with his own survival secured, to stand aside when his old mentor brings his team to Wigan in six days for the game which, if Chelsea prevail on Tyneside today, United might need to win? Or too dour to be sentimental? Time will tell soon enough, but those who enjoy the marvellous symmetries football can provide may remember that it was Bruce who had Ferguson and Brian Kidd performing one of Old Trafford's most ridiculous pitch-side dances together 15 years ago after all but delivering United's first title in 26 years with an injury-time winner against Sheffield Wednesday. Now comes Bruce's walk-on role in what, should United take the double in the European Cup, might quite conceivably be Ferguson's swansong.
The United manager might feel he has used up all his favours. There was hardly much reassurance for the west London conspiracy theorists on Saturday when West Ham's fans struck up a rendition of "Chelsea, wherever you may be, you ain't got no history" and it is hard to imagine Bruce, who helped his old manager sleep at nights by snatching two point at Chelsea 21 days ago, will roll over quite like West Ham.
Neither, it should be said, are Ferguson's club in the rudest of health as they head down the home straight. The debts of the club's holding company, it emerged at the weekend, have risen from £641m to £765m in the past financial year, with £152m of borrowings attracting 14.25 per cent annual interest, and fans fear at least £2 extra on the price of the next season tickets. On the playing side, Saturday's emphatic scoreline did not entirely obscure mild concerns for this defining week, either. This was not a display of the kind which humiliated Liverpool, Aston Villa and Bolton in March and it comes to something when Ferguson emerges from the dressing room to talk about using "experience in the second half to run the clock down" when his side had been 3-0 up in 25 minutes.
His West Ham Counterpart, Alan Curbishley did not emerge at all, which was not surprising given the cross-examination he could have expected about his commitment to this game. Instead, Curbishley sent up his erudite assistant Mervyn Day, who seemed unsure about whether the two managers were enjoying a claret downstairs and, momentarily, unclear on precisely who had given the team talk. "I did – I mean Alan did..."
Curbishley's greatest gift to the man from whom he once received airline tickets to New Zealand arrived before the season started. Carlos Tevez, a man of extraordinary work rate, has been Ferguson's most outstanding pre-season signing by a country mile. "He worked so hard again like he did against Barcelona on Tuesday night," Ryan Giggs said of a player who has quietly taken his tally to 19 goals, following his 30-yard strike which sent United 3-0 up.
Tevez, who nicked the 87th-minute equaliser at Blackburn two weeks ago, is also the man who can be relied on at places like Wigan, too. Wayne Rooney seems unlikely to appear there, though Ferguson will not discuss suggestions that a hernia, rather a bruised hip, is afflicting him. Cristiano Ronaldo's two goals on Saturday invite more comparisons with United's legends, making him the first United player since Denis Law 34 years ago to score 30 League goals in a season – but, unlike Law or Best, he does not yet offer in attritional games on pocked pitches like Wigan's what he does on the Old Trafford lawn.
United would not have scored as freely as they did without a defensive generosity Old Trafford has not witnessed in a visiting side this season. George McCartney was on his backside when a cross was diverted in off Ronaldo's groin. Michael Carrick was allowed 20 yards of clear space to run into to dispatch the deflected fourth. Dean Ashton's spectacular overhead kick from Wes Brown's miscued defensive header moderated Curbishley's embarrassment but in one sense it was left to Nani to make a game of things, head-butting Lucas Neill, falling over clutching his temple and justifiably departing to leave his side a man lighter. "Immaturity. We'll be dealing with it," muttered Ferguson. Nani, poor at Stamford Bridge and only marginally better against Barcelona, has something to prove.
Ferguson is just hoping that Saturday's lap of honour at the final whistle does not come back to haunt him. "Sometimes it's difficult to do [that] when you haven't won anything," he said. "Hopefully, it was the right thing to do and, hopefully, we can celebrate properly next Sunday at Wigan."
Goals: Ronaldo (3) 1-0; Ronaldo (24) 2-0; Tevez (26) 3-0; Ashton (28) 3-1; Carrick (59) 4-1.
Manchester United: (4-4-2) Van der Sar; Hargreaves, Ferdinand, Brown, Evra; Nani, Scholes (O'Shea, 72), Carrick, Park (Giggs, 60); Tevez, Ronaldo. Substitutes not used: Anderson, Kuszczak.
West Ham United: (4-4-2) Green; Pantsil, Tomkins, Neill, McCartney; Mullins (Sears, 74), Parker, Noble, Boa Morte (Solano, 50); Ashton (Cole, 56) Zamora. Substitutes not used: Walker, Collison.
Booked: Manchester United Ronaldo; West Ham Neill, McCartney, Zamora.
Sent off: Manchester United Nani (37).
Referee: M Riley (Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Tevez.
Attendance: 76, 013.