This was not the place to be uplifted by any idea that the Premier League has become some kind of distillation of a hard, competitive mentality. Even as we imagined Roy Keane barricaded in his Cheshire mansion just down the road , contemplating the skull's head of his career as a top-flight manager, there was the equally skeletal vision of what was left of the aggressive instincts of the team he abandoned at the first sniff of crisis.
Sunderland's defensive organisation was a tribute to the man attempting to rescue something from the wreckage of Keane's defection, assistant manager Ricky Sbragia, but as an example of a performance pitched at anything more than the most desperate survival it was pitiful.
So, too, was the way Cristiano Ronaldo represented himself as the newly crowned European Footballer of the Year.
This was whelping self-indulgence that outstripped even the exacting standards he has set for himself.
The body language of his eventual departure, after 15 minutes of discomfort following a blow in the ribs from Andy Reid, could only be described as unprecedented as a statement of disregard for the immediate needs of his team. He was not required to play injured, Ryan Giggs was eager enough to take his place, but there was something of an obligation to go through the usual formalities – a consultation with a trainer, an inspection of the injury, a little time for the bench to reorganise the team. Instead of such consideration, Ronaldo put the ball out of play and marched to the dressing room.
One consequence was that United, who are reportedly willing to offer him £40m over five years in exchange for his version of loyalty, had to play with 10 men for two minutes. This was not the end of the world, admittedly, against a team who won their first corner on the stroke of full time, but it surely gave us another glimpse into the mindset of a player who for most of the season now could scarcely have made it clearer that he would really rather be somewhere else.
It was only astounding in one sense that Sir Alex Ferguson so swiftly rubber-stamped Ronaldo's behaviour. Some long-term Fergie-watchers were quick to point out that the man who from time to time wields the hair-dryer so ferociously is also capable of much, albeit selective, understanding. Pre-Ronaldo, Eric Cantona was the classic example. He could dress as he pleased, fly off to Paris on request and generally was allowed rope that would have been used to string up players considered less central to the team's morale.
Ferguson's calculation in the case of Cantona was long ago pronounced inspired by football history. For all his arrogance and wilfulness, expressed most dramatically while launching a kung fu attack on a disagreeable Crystal Palace supporter in 1995, Cantona was indeed pivotal to the mood and the success of a young team. He was part of it in a deeply emotional way. On Saturday Ronaldo, right from the start, could hardly have been more separate from United's strivings.
He was an eruption waiting to happen. He was exasperation on the generally half-hearted run. He flounced, he fell, he waved his arms and when he left, it was as the man alone.
He is, plainly, living almost entirely within the borders of his own ego. That he is still eminently capable of having a significant impact on the title race which for most of this mind-sapping game seemed to be going on elsewhere is evident in the fact that despite the patchiness of his form, and apparent commitment, he has still managed to score eight Premier League goals. This no doubt explains Ferguson's willingness to don the kid gloves. However, there is a broader question, surely. How specifically does Ronaldo have to announce his disaffection before Ferguson concludes that he would be better cutting from some new cloth? It is a possibility suggested by the likelihood that Partizan Belgrade's impressively skilled and feisty young Zoran Tosic will soon be arriving with an £8m price tag.
What seems certain is that at his current rate of strange performances – for the second successive week he left the field in the most bizarre circumstances – Ronaldo will at the very least invite Ferguson to reconsider the ultimate value of a player for whom the concept of a team seems ever increasingly remote.
Fortunately for United, in an effort of shockingly failed conviction and almost complete lack of any killing coherence, Nemanja Vidic showed the persistence to follow up when the day's best player, Michael Carrick, had a shot deflected against a Sunderland post.
It was a hard blow for the caretaking Sbragia, who had assembled a defensive formation of such density that United were entitled to spend a little time in finding the best way to penetrate. That they failed for so long was not entirely due to their own ineptitude. Sunderland may have been abandoned and toothless but in their forlorn situation they did show a willingness to gnaw away in pursuit of a point.
Sbragia denied reports that the players had cheered the news that Keane had gone. He also said that it was inevitable he would return to the game because he was a fantastic manager. This, of course, did not quite square with money expended (all £70m of it) and grace and resilience under pressure that crumbled at the first time of asking, but, as we were saying, this was never likely to be a day to glory in the rousing, sacrificial spirit of the Premier League.
Roy Keane had pretty much put paid to that idea and then there was Ronaldo finishing the job. No, it was not a day for heroes. On the terraces, indeed, it must have been hard not to believe it had been designated for mugs.
Goal: Vidic (90) 1-0.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Ronaldo (Giggs, 68), Fletcher (Anderson, 68), Carrick, Park (Tevez,57); Berbatov, Rooney. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Neville, Nani, Evans.
Sunderland (4-1-4-1): Fulop; Chimbonda, Ferdinand, Collins, Bardsley; Yorke (Tainio, 60); Malbranque, Whitehead (Edwards, 76), Reid, Diouf; Cissé (Jones, 69). Substitutes not used: Colgan (gk), Nosworthy, Murphy, Leadbitter.
Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire)
Booked: Manchester United Rooney.
Man of the match: Carrick
Attendance: 75,400.Reuse content