The vast home support departed Old Trafford as they had arrived yesterday - mourning the loss of a great striker. All that changed in the midst of Manchester United's most convincing opening-day scoreline for 40 years was his name, as Wayne Rooney illustrated once again that he, and not Ruud van Nistelrooy, is the one man that Sir Alex Ferguson cannot do without.
A stirring display against hapless Fulham, one that combined potency in front of goal with a rekindled understanding with Cristiano Ronaldo, emphasised why Rooney's guardians will go to such extremes to keep him operating in his natural habitat. Without him, as United and England will now be until 17 September due to two separate yet consecutive suspensions, ordinariness can prevail. With him, even a forward as prolific and popular with the fans as Van Nistelrooy can be forgotten temporarily and Ferguson can continue to talk up the prospects of a first title in four years. " If we are thereabouts in March or April we'll have a great chance," said the United manager yesterday.
Fortunately, Ferguson did accept that this was no time for judging championship credentials, particularly as this was not a contest. Fulham were abysmal, gutless, their defence surrendering to United's pace, invention and, more alarmingly for manager Chris Coleman, a greater desire.
It required 19 games before Fulham won on their travels last season and within 19 minutes here they had been utterly humiliated, the embarrassment proving too much for one young supporter in the directors' box - a chap with a striking resemblance to Coleman in both looks and mannerisms - who took his leave within seconds of Ronaldo volleying United's fourth goal through the unprotected guard of Antti Niemi. If Coleman the elder wished to vanish too then he disguised the urge well, standing dumbstruck on the touchline as the feeble resistance unfolded, but well aware that other occupants of the privileged seats will not accept such routs for long this season.
The scrap of consolation for Fulham is that United waited so long to execute their fifth, given how dominant and fluent they were throughout. Perversely the visitors had created the first two chances of the afternoon, Papa Bouba Diop shooting straight at Edwin van der Sar and Collins John foiled by an outstanding tackle from Patrice Evra as they obeyed Coleman's commitment to positive football. His instructions did not reach the defence, however, and once Louis Saha headed home a Ryan Giggs' cross against his former club in the seventh minute, United wasted little time in waltzing to three points.
Giggs instigated the second with a fine pass through the Fulham defence to Rooney who, having found Ronaldo who in turn fed Saha, pressurised Ian Pearce into swiping the French striker's cross into his own net. Two minutes later Rooney opened this season's Premiership account with a simple tap-in after Niemi had parried Saha's volley at the far post and then combined exquisitely with Ronaldo once again to create United's fourth goal in 12 rampant minutes. In truth the England international's delivery should have been intercepted as it sailed across the field towards the advancing Portuguese. Instead Franck Queudrue, quickly in tune with his defensive colleagues on his first Premiership appearance for Fulham, missed his clearance completely and Ronaldo seized upon the mistake.
"People who don't know us have said a lot about us this summer," said Rooney on his tête-à-tête with Ronaldo in Gelsenkirchen. "But we let our football do the talking today."
Though Fulham reduced the arrears when Heidar Helguson's shot took a wicked deflection off Rio Ferdinand, Rooney restored the four-goal margin when he completed a flowing move down the United right with an emphatic finish in the 63rd minute. By then Fulham should have been reduced to 10 men, Michael Brown escaping with only a booking for a disgraceful stamp on Giggs, and should also have conceded a penalty when Liam Rosenior handled inside the area.
"That was a superb performance from a maturing team," said Ferguson, who is maintaining an interest in England midfielder Owen Hargreaves despite Bayern Munich's resistance. "There was great excitement and penetration to our play in the first 20 minutes. We've never had a better start in my time here."
Not since a 5-3 win over West Bromwich Albion in 1966 have United scored five times on the opening day but, as Ferguson appreciates only too well, this season is all about their finale.
Goals: Saha (7) 1-0 ; Pearce og (14) 2-0; Rooney (15) 3-0; Ronaldo (18) 4-0; Ferdinand og (39) 4-1; Rooney (63) 5-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville (Silvestre, 46), Ferdinand, Brown, Evra; Ronaldo, O'Shea, Scholes, Giggs (Park, 61); Rooney, Saha (Solskjaer, 61). Substitutes not used: Fletcher, Kuszczak (gk).
Fulham (4-4-2): Niemi; Rosenior, Christanval, Pearce, Queudrue; Brown (Radzinski, 61), Diop, Bullard, Boa Morte; John (McBride, 64), Helguson. Substitutes not used: Crossley (gk), Volz, Bocanegra.
Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).
Booked: United Giggs; Fulham Brown.
Man of the match: Rooney.
* Owen Hargreaves was omitted from Bayern Munich's squad for yesterday's match against Bochum in the Bundesliga.