The stubborn resistance of the Conference in this season's FA Cup is at an end, though Burton Albion may beg to differ having secured their financial future and made Manchester United perform the role of an awkward host to the very end of last night's third-round replay at Old Trafford.
Despite delivering the scoreline demanded by their manager Sir Alex Ferguson, United knew their place in the grand scheme of this contest and sprinted for the tunnel as soon as referee Howard Webb blew the final whistle. Their hasty exit was not an insult to Nigel Clough's team but a tribute, granting the non-league team the stage to accept a standing ovation from all four sides of Old Trafford and the acclaim their performance over 180 minutes against the 11-time winners had deserved.
Two goals from the impressive Giuseppe Rossi, plus strikes from Louis Saha, Kieran Richardson and Ryan Giggs secured United a fourth-round tie at Wolverhampton Wanderers but this was no humiliation for Albion or the 10,500 supporters who had travelled north for the finest night in the club's history. With 53,564 fans in total at Old Trafford, the Staffordshire club can expect to make £600,000 from this tie alone, perhaps £850,000 in total, but for those who spoke in reverential tones about their first visit to the Theatre of Dreams, who waved giant, yellow hands made of foam throughout and urged Burton's indomitable captain Darren Stride forward in the hope of a late consolation, this was not about money. Rather, as Ferguson had said beforehand, it was about making the FA Cup fashionable again.
"We have had a great day and I hope the experience will stand the players in good stead for the future," said Clough. "I am proud of everyone involved in the club tonight, the players and the supporters."
Exactly 20 years earlier, Clough had scored the winner for Nottingham Forest as his father's team triumphed at Old Trafford in the old First Division, but with Burton adhering to the family's football philosophy in an arena where so many have succumbed to intimidation before, he had greater cause for satisfaction last night. "Our players were challenged tonight," admitted Ferguson, a true assessment and the finest tribute to Burton of all.
The United manager added: "Burton were always going to get the credit for taking us to a replay in the first place, but we've had European teams and Premier League teams coming here and never showing anything like the ambition Burton showed. They come here with one up front, five packed across midfield and bore the pants off everyone, but at least Burton came and gave it a go."
Given their performance in the goalless first encounter, Burton may have deemed it an insult that Ferguson made only one change from the side that took to the field at the Pirelli Stadium, Darren Fletcher replacing Ritchie Jones in midfield, but the Scot had to consider the lesser of two gambles; to risk another mediocre FA Cup performance or destroying the confidence of young players by implying he did not trust them to defeat a Conference side ranked 104 places below. He opted for the self-preservation of those who represent the club's future, albeit with the insurance policy of a formidable subs' bench, and was rewarded for the show of faith by the performances of Rossi and Gerard Pique, plus the early breakthrough that stifled Albion's intent if not the noise from their raucous support.
The goal that eluded United for 90 minutes in Staffordshire took only seven minutes to arrive in Manchester as Saha continued his rehabilitation as an instinctive goalscorer although not, as two glaring misses when clean through on goal later illustrated, a truly reliable marksman. United's promising centre-half Pique instigated the breakthrough with a superb throughball to Richardson and when he delivered a low cross behind the Burton defence from the left, Saha had the freedom of the six-yard area to register his sixth goal in seven starts.
Despite the swift setback, the Conference club had made the more convincing start, with Jon Shaw forcing the first save of the game from Tim Howard and Chris Hall trying his luck from distance as they threatened to give their makeshift hosts the same problems they encountered 10 days earlier.
However, their remote prospects of completing an astonishing cup upset were extinguished completely in the 22nd minute when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whose first appearance at Old Trafford since March 2004 drew the loudest applause of the night from the home faithful, helped create a second. The Norwegian's deep centre initially eluded his team-mates but Mikael Silvestre retrieved possession on the opposite flank and chipped a return back for Rossi to beat the Burton goalkeeper Saul Deeney with a fine centre-forward's header.
Rossi delivered a performance worthy of the suspended forward he had replaced in United's line-up, Wayne Rooney, and sent Richardson running through from the halfway line for the third seven minutes after the restart. The American-born, Italian citizen was then involved in a marvellous exchange with Giggs that resulted in a fourth from the Welsh substitute before earning a deserved second, albeit with the aid of a deflection, with an 18-yard drive in stoppage time. There was little time for the diminutive striker to celebrate, however, as the final whistle soon blew and Burton, rightfully, stepped back into the limelight.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Howard; Bardsley, Brown (Neville, 62), Pique, Silvestre; Solskjaer, Fletcher (Giggs, 62), O'Shea (Ferdinand, 62), Richardson; Saha, Rossi. Substitutes not used: Van Nistelrooy, Van der Sar (gk).
Burton Albion (4-4-2): Deeney; Sedgemore, Tinson, Austin, Corbett; Hall (Webster, 75), Stride, Ducros, Gilroy (Henshaw, 87); Shaw (Anderson, 26), Harrad. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Todd. Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Revised FA Cup fourth round draw
Stoke City v Walsall
Cheltenham Town v Newcastle United
Coventry City v Middlesbrough
Reading v Birmingham City
Portsmouth v Liverpool
Leicester City v Southampton
Bolton Wanderers v Arsenal
Aston Villa v Port Vale
Brentford v Sunderland
Manchester City v Wigan Athletic
Everton v Chelsea
Preston North End v Crystal Palace
West Ham United v Blackburn Rovers
Colchester United v Derby County
Charlton Athletic v Leyton Orient
Wolves v Manchester United
Ties to be played 28-29 JanuaryReuse content