It was by the law of unintended consequences that the label Manchester United had dreamt up to market the return to Old Trafford – ‘ReUnited14’ – captured the sense that this is a club seeking to dump the past 12 months in the dark recesses of time and return this stadium to the place it used to be.
No-one is banking on the restoration project happening in a hurry, though. We are bearing witness to a club which can only hold its breath and hope that Louis van Gaal might be the one to rescue them from that purgatory. Even the identity of their matchwinner here – the maligned and scorned Marouane Fellaini – demonstrated that so much is still unknown. Fellaini seemed to have nudged a Valencia defender into the goalkeeper before chesting the ball down and placing it into an empty net to win the match, but it was sweet vindication for a player whose every touch had been greeted by ironic cheers since his arrival with 14 minutes to play.
There are good omens about what lies ahead for those seeking them. Van Gaal picks up the Old Trafford baton on Saturday facing the self-same club against whom Ferguson laid it down: Swansea City. But few could muster euphoria for van Gaal’s inaugural night. There were no introductions on the pitch. No banners. No anthems. Not the faintest mention of his name.
Neither is it his own way to be effusive, in his programme notes least of all, and the stiff formality of his first of those – thank you for attending, our tour went well, we have so many fans - did not offer a sense that he has reached his life’s destiny here. “There was only one football country I wanted to see inside and that was England,” he informed those who arrived to see the opening of another chapter, with no indication that United had to be that club. “I have already heard from my cook that I will have goosebumps, so I shall experience that,” he said, rather mechanically, before the kick-off.
There were some nice touches, for all that – him running his hand along the out-stretched palms of supporters in the front row as he arrived to take his seat for a second half which was already several minutes underway – but this is a man who wants to dispel emotion and notions of instant revolution. In nearly all the places where he has laid his hat – Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich – it has taken time to imbue his players with his creed of fast-moving, possession football. He has already warned that this place will be no different.
It is still too soon to judge the wisdom of that warning, which he made in Washington DC two weeks ago. The new United, designed to ship the ball around at speed, materialised in intermittent bursts here. Ander Herrera has looked from the outset like a player in the Dutchman’s mould. Darren Fletcher - dancing around Javi Fuego and Nicolas Otamendi in the first half, then opening United’s account with a slide rule shot delivered from his right instep from Herrara’s lay-off in the second - might be re-born under van Gaal. It was Fletcher’s first goal since coming back from a debilitating long term illness. But overall there was little pomp and ceremony about the arrival of King Louis.
There was even a fleeting piece of early evidence from Valencia that United’s three-man defence will have its vulnerable moments when rapid counter attacks come down the flanks. An early raid required the best of Chris Smalling to make a clean and hasty interception to a low cross from the right. If Rooney had converted the first half penalty he won after a slightly dubious looking dive, rather than hit the post, the course of the night could have been different. But the flatness and lack of pace about United bore witness to the fact that the sweeping, coast-to coast triumphs of the United States tour were not the full picture.
The wing backs who are the crux of the new system – Ashley Young and Reece James for much of this match – were no terror, and when Rooney had levelled the ball inaccurately, rather than shooting from Young’s pass which sprung the offside trap, the Spanish side found a route back into the game. They equalised on 71 minutes, when the horror story which Tom Cleverley’s United career has become continued with a sliced stab at blocking a free kick which sent the ball spinning to Rodrigo Moreno, to score. The rain was falling and the night was heavy, then. A double save by David de Gea was required to prevent his side falling behind.
Van Gaal reflected after Fellaini’s 90th minute winner that it had been the poorest United display under his management. “We have to pass the ball better. We haven’t done that and that’s a pity,” he said, also disclosing that a side hardly stuffed with defenders after the departures of Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand and failure to sign Thomas Vermahlen may be without three more on Saturday. Jonny Evans, Luke Shaw and wing back Antonio Valencia all missed this match through injury.
The Dutchman seemed to have discovered euphoria in the Old Trafford environment, subdued though it seemed. “Fantastic, to hear them shouting and screaming your name,” he said. And he found encouragement from a performance which took us a long way from David Moyes’ equivalent 3-1 defeat to Sevilla last August. “You cannot change everything in three or four weeks,” he said. “The players can’t change either. You have to wait and see. To develop, you need time. But we have won every game until now. We have great confidence.” At a stadium 200 miles to the south, Sir Alex Ferguson was choosing to watch tonight’s Super Cup. In his own way, he is treading on eggshells, giving this successor the space that Moyes never found and hoping that United have appointed more wisely this time. We are about to discover the answer.