The opening day of 2011, and the first of Sir Alex Ferguson's 70th year, delivered only a second away victory for a Manchester United side who took their lead from Wayne Rooney's return to form and his first League goal from open play since March. However, the unbeaten leaders rode their luck with one penalty that was not awarded to Albion and another squandered by Peter Odemwingie.
Rooney caught Roberto Di Matteo's side cold with an early header, only for Albion to roar back with a stunning riposte from James Morrison. The hosts were staggered to see the referee, Chris Foy, wave aside their appeals when Gary Neville felled Graham Dorrans – even Ferguson admitted "I thought it was a penalty" – and when they did have the chance to go ahead from the spot midway through the second half, Odemwingie scuffed the ball wide.
The Mexican substitute Javier Hernandez consigned Albion to an eighth defeat in 11 matches, heading his eighth goal for United with 15 minutes to play. Rooney epitomised their spirit when, having limped off with an injured left ankle, he returned to the fray to help them through five minutes of stoppage time rather than leave them with 10 men.
In a season when Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City have all been blighted by inconsistency, a United team that can scarcely be termed one of the club's best are showing the resilience which may be enough to take them past Liverpool's record of 18 English titles. Their prospects will only be enhanced if Rooney maintains the standards he reached at The Hawthorns.
"I thought Wayne was out of this world. He was absolutely unbelievable and drove us on all afternoon," said Ferguson, who expected Rooney to be fit to face Stoke on Tuesday. "I'm very pleased for him. That's him off the mark, and hopefully he will be on a run now."
The United manager added: "This is a massive result for us. It was a really tough game and West Brom are a very good team. It looked a bit as if we were hanging on, but down the years we've often had to battle out games and we did it again today."
A frustrated Di Matteo knew that Albion, for all their superiority when the contest was level, had passed up a chance to end a run of six home losses to United stretching back to 1984. The Italian was particularly irked that United would have been a man short and a goal behind had Mr Foy shared his view that Neville denied Dorrans a scoring opportunity. "It was so clear," the manager sighed. "Neville never touched the ball, and my player was through. Everybody could see it. Only the main man who was supposed to see it couldn't, apparently."
United had gone ahead in only 124 seconds following a curling cross by Patrice Evra. No Albion player attacked the ball – Pablo Ibanez and Paul Scharner were playing as centre-backs together for the first time – which allowed Rooney the space to score with a downward header.
Albion might have been expected to buckle. Instead they came at Unitedwith the spirit and enterprise that saw them earn a point at Old Trafford after trailing 2-0. Before the match, the giant TV screen replayed the goals from Albion's fabled 5-3 win at United almost 32 years to the day earlier – sumptuous build-ups and ferocious finishing by Tony "Bomber" Brown, Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham et al – and Morrison's equaliser was of comparable quality.
It had its origin in a long ball by Chris Brunt. Nemanja Vidic rose above Odemwingie to head clear, but only as far as a lurking Morrison. After letting the ball bounce he unleashed a volley with the outside of the right foot that tore past Tomasz Kuszczak into the far corner.
Neville, United's weakest link, received the benefit of the slenderest doubt when he toppled Dorrans from behind in the 26th minute. The United captain Rio Ferdinand confessed afterwards that his thought was "Where's the ref? What's he doing? Is he putting the whistle to his lips?"
The sense was of United's unbeaten record being there for the taking if Albion continued to believe. When Ferdinand hooked a leg round Jerome Thomas in the 62nd minute, causing the Albion winger to tumble, the case was finally sufficiently strong even for Mr Foy. Yet Odemwingie's miskick saw the momentum shift to United. They also had a penalty appeal rejected when Thomas used an arm to block Fabio's cross, but within a minute their hold over Albion was restored. Rooney was again involved, delivering the corner that Hernandez glanced home as Scott Carson and his protectors reacted too slowly.
Referee: Chris Foy
Man of the match: Rooney