A telling, unscripted little scene from sub-zero St Andrew's late on Saturday evening. Alex McLeish, attempting to escape the perishing night air with Lee Bowyer and James McFadden after what on any other occasion might be called a warm-down, had to wait at a closed door in the cold. Behind it was Sir Alex Ferguson, it transpired, finishing up his interview for Manchester United's television station. A case of once the boss, always the boss, it seemed. "I'm delighted to have finally got something from the boss," McLeish said, confirming that general impression when he sat down to talk, his post-match drink with Ferguson having delayed his interviews by about a good half-hour.
Ferguson will always be the man who made him. "Sometimes we speak three or four times in a week and then we don't speak for months," explained McLeish, "But I know that he's there for advice and anything I need and I get the occasional phone call from him as well. We've got a relationship that goes way back. It would be stupid not to use it." But does he really need to? McLeish stuck with the same team for the ninth time on Saturday evening as Birmingham secured a club record 12th successive match unbeaten in the top flight – an extraordinary achievement – while Ferguson changed his for the 100th successive occasion, only to reinforce the sense that he has a mighty difficult spring on his hands.
McLeish has bought two of the Premier League's most convincing central defenders from the Championship – Roger Johnson and Scott Dann, at £8.5m for the pair – while Ferguson refuses to accept that any new signing is worth the money this month, despite a defensive injury crisis which has lasted for a year.
McLeish's rearguard might be cheap but it was the best of the two on Saturday evening. Rafael da Silva's inconsistencies bore an excruciating comparison with Stephen Carr, McLeish's captain, while Jonny Evans, one of football's most honest players, acknowledged that the poor goal United conceded to Cameron Jerome after failing to clear their lines from a corner, came because, "I was a bit too deep and played them onside." Evans looks imperious alongside Nemanja Vidic and a lot less without him.
The same applied at the other end of the football equation where the pace and strength of Jerome and Christian Benitez posed a threat which Wayne Rooney, alone up front again, was unable to match. "Have you been watching the game?" Ferguson snapped when asked about Rooney's isolation but the question was valid. As United went in search of the winner which could have sent them to the top of the Premier League table, Mame Diouf, an untested Senegalese who has spent the first half of the season playing in the Norwegian league, was preferred to Michael Owen, who has been granted 152 minutes of football since his Champions League hat-trick at Wolfsburg on 8 December. Or for that matter Danny Welbeck, whose three goals in six games last winter hinted at such a thrilling prospect.
Ferguson said that Diouf was a victim of the reorganisation forced by Darren Fletcher's 84th-minute dismissal, for a clip on Jerome, though the 22-year-old's first touch in English football ceded that phase of possession to Birmingham in the first place.
That Fletcher should have needed to take such actions was a consequence of United's lack of star quality, despite a first half they dominated. Their fans sang the Eric Cantona "12 Days of Christmas" song ("12 Cantonas, 11 Cantonas...") and must wonder where their next diable rouge might be.
There wasn't even a recognised captain. Patrice Evra took the armband and contributed as much as anyone in red. Fletcher's dismissal was yet another smokescreen for United's failure to overcome opponents who, for all the tackles and blocks they launched into, would have been swept aside when they played like champions.
Tomasz Kuszczak's performance, his best for the club, was one bright spot for Ferguson whose installation of Ben Amos on the bench looked like another hammer blow for Ben Foster. "I've been given my chance just recently," said the Pole, who saved quite brilliantly on three occasions. "That's the 11th game I've played now and I hope I can keep going. There's always big talk about whether United have a got a replacement for Edwin [van der Sar]. I've just been given the chance and I try to do well."
Joe Hart continued to build his own reputation, throwing his right leg in front of Rooney's big first-half chance after Antonio Valencia's clipped ball sent him through. McLeish, with the recent 0-0 shut-out of Chelsea to go with this, did not dismiss the suggestion that the so-called top four, and especially United, have lost their aura. "I think you have to treat any game as a one-off," he said. "I think there are seven clubs [that no one] else will get near by the end of the season and there are probably five or six that we've no right to be above as well. That's why it's important to keep the expectations levels at a level where everyone can't get carried away." But might he one day be the man United call the boss? "I think we'll stop that there!" he said, leaving with the sense of serfdom intact.
Birmingham City (4-4-2) Hart; Carr, R Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson (Fahey, 83), Bowyer, Ferguson, McFadden; Jerome, Benitez. Substitutes not used: Maik Taylor (gk), Martin Taylor, Phillips, McSheffrey, Queudrue, D Johnson.
Manchester United (4-3-2-1 ) Kuszczak; R Da Silva, Brown, Evans, Evra; Carrick, Scholes (Diouf, 81), Fletcher; Valencia, Park (Giggs, 66); Rooney. Substitutes not used: Amos (gk), Neville, Owen, Anderson, F Da Silva.
Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).
Booked: Birmingham City Carr, Larsson; Manchester United Fletcher.
Sent off: Fletcher (84).
Man of the match: Bowyer.
United spring a leak: Reds' rearguard record
*Already this season, Manchester United have conceded 19 goals in the League, just five less than they let in during the whole of 2008-09.
*At this stage last season, after 21 League games, United had conceded only 10 goals and boasted the tightest defence in the League.
*United kept 24 clean sheets during last season's title-winning campaign. So far this season they have kept eight and have been unable to record two in succession.