One of the more flattering things Neil Warnock said about his Sheffield United players last week was - how can we put it - that they might have problems joining Mensa. Intellectually challenged they may be, but yesterday they gave Manchester United an examination that was far from easy.
Warnock's outburst came after two of his players, Paddy Kenny and Alan Quinn, were involved in late-night fights during the week and, true to their newly acquired image, they stood toe to toe with their supposed betters. Not in terms of quality - the Old Trafford side must have been close to setting a Premiership possession record - but in terms of in-your-face obduracy.
Indeed, but for the efforts of Wayne Rooney, Sir Alex Ferguson would have been questioning the thinking of his own team and Sheffield United would been celebrating a famous victory. Thankfully for the harmony in the visiting dressing room, Rooney scored twice to overtake Keith Gillespie's surprise opening goal in the 13th minute.
"Marvellous goals," was Ferguson's verdict of Rooney's strikes, while Warnock was equally effusive. "They were two great finishes from the king," he said. "There were mistakes with both goals, but with anyone but a world-class finisher we would probably have gone unpunished."
The home side had barely crossed the halfway line when they took the lead, yet no one could fault the quality of the goal nor the paradox behind the identity of the scorer. Gillespie might have had a very different career had Ferguson not sold him as part of the deal that brought Andy Cole to Old Trafford, and even then it is difficult to imagine him scoring a better header. Derek Geary thumped a cross from the left and the winger adjusted to send the ball flying past Edwin Van der Sar. Cue 77 minutes of domination by Manchester United that could not have been more complete if the visitors had annexed Bramall Lane. Yet it required two pieces of ruthless finishing from Rooney to profit from this possession.
His first goal, after 30 minutes, was, on the face of it, a simple matter of teeing up Gary Neville's exquisite pass with his left foot and then putting it across Kenny with his right. All this with the England striker running at close to full pelt as he met the ball with a defender inches behind him. To retain his balance and bearings and react in a blur of movement was wonderful.
"To get that goal before half-time gave us confidence," Ferguson said. "It also gave us the patience to wait, which was important."
It was a case of waiting and wondering, because anxiety was beginning to creep through the visiting ranks before Rooney got his second in the 75th minute. This time, United's other fullback, Patrice Evra, supplied the ammunition, crossing over Claude Davis to where Rooney had made a step back to create space. His volley across Kenny flew in at the far post.
With that the game was over, and the visitors should have increased their advantage. Cristiano Ronaldo hit the bar, Paul Scholes had an overhead kick cleared off the line by Phil Jagielka and Ronaldo made a serious bid for the miss of the decade by ballooning a shot from four yards over an open goal.
Not that Ferguson was too concerned, as he could tuck the points in his pocket and prepare for the visit of Chelsea next weekend. "It was important to go into that game with a lead over them," he said. "That is going to be a fantastic game and the whole world will be watching."
And just to get the mind games rolling, he added: "I just hope it's not going to be decided by a refereeing decision."Reuse content