Sir Alex Ferguson was as relaxed as Neil Warnock had seen him in a long time as they took a glass of wine together in his office at 2.30pm on Saturday, and judging by the reverence with which the visitors were greeted here, it was little wonder.
"There's something romantic about the way Manchester United play their football," Warnock enthused in his programme notes. Then, after Warnock had booted Sir Alex out at 2.35pm ("I said 'bloody hell, it's all right for you with your team. I've got to go and try to motivate my lads'," he revealed later) the Bramall Lane faithful were asked for - and provided - a standing ovation for his 20 years at Old Trafford by a stadium announcer who didn't give much for the home side's chances. "The last time we beat United, Sean Bean scored," he told the crowd, in reference to the fictional victory which came a full 10 years ago, in the film When Saturday Comes.
If all this was designed to soften up the visitors for a sucker punch, then 13 minutes in it seemed to have worked when Keith Gillespie, whose United career ended in the exchange deal for Andrew Cole which took him to Newcastle, met Derek Geary's 20-yard cross with a header of a power and precision befitting most strikers Sir Alex has signed down the years.
But Warnock could not have expected his programme notes to prove quite so prescient. "Romantic football", had he called it? It is hard to conjure a more appropriate epithet for the exhibition of midfield movement, touch and engineering which Gillespie's strike seemed to conjure from Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, intermittently Paul Scholes and most especially Wayne Rooney - who took three exquisite touches to find his two goals and delivered passes of a vision not seen at this ground for many a long year. "Two great strikes from The King," Warnock said later. Again, no hyperbole.
And set against all that in this old-fashioned kind of football place was an old-fashioned kind of hero, wearing a pink piece of elastoplast in the place where his right eyebrow used to be. If Paddy Kenny is, as his manager said this week, proof that "it's the thick ones you have to watch" then IQ tests need be no requisite for Premiership survival. Kenny saved twice at full stretch from Rooney in a five-minute spell - and grinned - as United purred. "I've told him he should put a plaster on the other eye if he plays as well as that," his manager said later.
Parity was inevitable, of course, despite the Blades' graft and what, at times, looked like a flat back seven. Louis Saha had just been flattened by Rob Kozluk in one of three strong first-half penalty appeals when Gary Neville delivered with his "wrong" foot to Rooney who raced past Claude Davis. A touch with the left instep and a strike with the right boot did the job.
Just the single touch was needed for his second - arguably the better, which came when it seemed that Warnock's men might just hold out. Ghosting away again from the tormented Davis, he drove Patrice Evra's 30-yard cross into the ground and the net for a goal which had many United fans talking about a similar Cantona strike from a Neville cross at St James' Park 10 years ago.
The Sheffield faithful had only Ronaldo's eccentricities for compensation. The Portuguese seemed so delighted to maintain Kozluk's torment in the game's closing stages that one run included about eight feints and step-overs. But after two wretched finishes, came the sidefooted miss from two yards that will feature on YouTube for many a day.
Warnock insists his season starts here and, with United, Chelsea and Arsenal now out of the way and West Ham, Watford and Charlton up ahead, the next three weeks will be among his season's most important. It is also hard to resist the impression that he hopes and believes his old friend will conquer all this season.
"If I had to pay money to watch I would watch United," he said. "Alex has got the glint in his eye and it couldn't come at a better time."
Goals: Gillespie (13) 1-0; Rooney (30) 1-1; Rooney (75) 1-2.
Sheffield United (4-1-4-1): Kenny; Kozluk, Davis, Jagielka, Geary; Gillespie; Law, Leigertwood, Quinn (Kabba, 86), Kazim-Richards (Nade, 79); Hulse. Substitutes not used: Morgan, Sommeil, Montgomery.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra (Heinze 80); Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Giggs; Rooney, Saha. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), O'Shea, Fletcher, Silvestre.
Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).
Booked: Sheffield United Gillespie; Manchester United Giggs.
Man of the Match: Rooney.
One in the eye for Kenny
Paddy Kenny, the Sheffield United goalkeeper, sported a large plaster over his left eyebrow after having had it bitten off during a late night fracas at a Halifax takeaway last week. Neil Warnock, the Blades manager, had hoped Kenny's appearance would scare United, but Ferguson's high flyers only had eyes for three points.Reuse content