One day there will be a statue of Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford to match that of Sir Matt Busby, who is depicted over the main entrance holding a football. Ferguson will presumably have to be shown looking at his watch. He has built many teams at Manchester United but they have all played to the principle that any game can be snatched at the death.
One day there will be a statue at Old Trafford to match that of the Holy Trinity – Best, Charlton and Law – that stands opposite the one of their mentor, Busby. The men who embraced on the final whistle yesterday – Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes – would epitomise the age of Ferguson.
And yet when the teamsheets were handed out here, their names appeared to sum up everything about this Manchester derby. The presence of Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy was a signal that the upstarts were going for United's throats. The blue and white tickertape that welcomed the teams would have put Tevez in mind of the Bonbonera or the Monumental in his native Buenos Aires, although the star turn ended up smothered and suffocated.
This was the fourth and, viewed from the blue half of the city, it was by a distance the most disappointing Manchester derby of the season. Perhaps it was just as well that the vast cloud of ash spread by the volcanic eruptions in Iceland prevented Sheikh Mansour from watching his first game here since Abu Dhabi United took over the club. It would not have made for a good introduction.
Meanwhile, Manchester United called once more on Ferguson's imperial guard; men who have seen him through so many campaigns but whose careers should, by any normal method of accounting, be already lost in the gloaming.
These days, Scholes does not score many goals. He last recorded double figures for Manchester United five years ago but like the wonderful, instinctive strike against Barcelona that earned him a place in a European Cup final nine years after he missed the first through suspension, they have tended to be precious moments.
Roberto Mancini may have been asked how his defence allowed "one of the oldest and smallest players on the pitch a clear header in injury time" but it still had to be put away. Scholes directed it into the one corner of the Manchester City net that Shay Given could not cover to give Eastlands one of the common sights of late-season – Ferguson doing his wild, ungainly jig on the touchline. Among public figures only Prince Charles is a worse dancer. And then there was another familiar sight; Scholes, his face reddened by the sun and the running, playing down every question put to him by the man with the microphone and saying "not really" a lot.
In this decade of Premier League bling, he is a link to another age and perhaps Francis Lee, who led City's attack at a time when the brashness of Malcolm Allison contrasted with Busby's fading virtues, was right when he suggested Scholes has been the single most important player of Ferguson's time at Old Trafford. Perhaps Giggs might challenge that statement but there would not be many more.
Neville is not encumbered by Scholes' shyness and remarked afterwards that Scholes "had passed City to death". The Manchester United captain, preferred to the faster Rafael da Silva and placed up against the pace and combustibility of Craig Bellamy, performed manfully.
There have been times since his return from a long-term ankle injury when it seemed it would be kinder for Ferguson to have taken his captain to one side and suggested he begin the coaching career he appears so well suited to.
Yesterday, Neville did what he enjoys most, getting up the noses of his neighbours, whether that be Liverpool or Manchester City. Given the way he strangled Manchester City's attack, there might be a case for Fabio Capello to take him to South Africa as experienced back-up for Glen Johnson, provided the England manager can put up with Neville's moaning about any perceived inadequacies of their training base in Rustenburg. It might be worth it.
We've seen this before...
For all their riches, Manchester City are left counting the cost of three crushing injury-time defeats to their neighbours this season. Paul Scholes's 90th-minute winner at Eastlands yesterday mirrored the finale to January's pulsating Carling Cup semi-final when a Wayne Rooney header tipped the balance in the second leg, also three minutes into added time, to put United in the final 4-3 on aggregate. Both were relatively early blows, however, compared to the League meeting at Old Trafford in September, when Michael Owen scored the game's decisive seventh goal six minutes into added time.
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