One of the defining images of last season's dramatic finish to the Premier League was the sight of Sir Alex Ferguson on the Stadium of Light pitch as it registered (from the noise of a pocket of Sunderland supporters) that Manchester City had scored and Manchester United had lost the title.
A twitch, a question to a member of staff near him for clarification, a handshake and off he went down the tunnel, to briefly lick a wound then plot, with obvious intent, his team's response. For 90 minutes he had been a ball of energy, shouting orders at his players, checking the score at the Etihad Stadium with his backroom staff and, increasingly as the afternoon wore on, with a man from Sky.
It was the contrast yesterday that told the story of this season for his football club, and for the club he promised revenge on. For the majority of the second half Ferguson didn't even feel the need to stand in his technical area. There were times when it was empty, even devoid of Mike Phelan, who increasingly looks like the head of security at a nightclub, at least from the back. That is how easy victory was. That is arguably how comfortable this campaign has been. When the final whistle blew at Sunderland this time, the gap between United and City was 18 points, though City returned it to 15 later in the afternoon. Goal difference, so significant last May, does not matter now.
Like last season, the game finished 1-0. Like last season, it was a poor game. But this time, such was the superiority that Manchester United held over their hosts that there was a clear easing off the pedal at half-time. By then they were ahead. It did not take much to break the paltry resistance that Sunderland offered.
In the 27th minute Robin van Persie picked up the ball on the United left. Phil Bardsley, the Sunderland right-back, making his first start since January, stood off him. When Van Persie went on to his right foot, the defender still gave up too much space. Van Persie took the invitation, going back on to his favoured left and shooting towards goal. The shot clipped Bardsley, and as Titus Bramble instinctively stuck out his leg the effort, which on the replay appeared to be going wide, clipped the centre-half's right thigh and diverted past Simon Mignolet into the Sunderland goal.
Martin O'Neill called his side tentative in the first half. That was generous. He cannot crush what fragile confidence remains from an eight-game run that has yielded three points. Thus he focused on the second half. "It gives us something to take forward, very much so," he said. "It is not a false confidence. The players have put everything into the game. We chased everything down in the second half."
That said, it was the 62nd minute before Ferguson felt the need to walk into his technical area after the interval. Even then, it was to check on the health of his goalkeeper, David de Gea, who had clashed heads with team-mate Nemanja Vidic. He stayed there for 20 minutes while Sunderland built up a fairly predictable head of steam. Ferguson was back in his seat by the time the home side had their first shot of the afternoon. There were 28 seconds remaining of the 90 when Connor Wickham, a 76th-minute substitute, shot tamely at De Gea. It sparked life from United. Alex Buttner and Van Persie both went close to extending the lead.
"It was a battling performance by the players," said Ferguson. "We have to win four games now, I think, but it's important to focus on our next League match, which is Manchester City at home. Courage got us through in the second half. It was important to win because we go into the Manchester City game next week with at least a 15-point lead. It was a wicked hit by him [Van Persie]. It was a fantastic shot.
"I don't know if it was going in, but it was certainly a difficult ball for any keeper to handle. We have won 25 of our first 30 games and I think that's a record, which is all down to the efforts of the players." Ferguson pointed all of those players towards the travelling supporters, high in the Upper North Stand, when referee Kevin Friend blew the final whistle. There was a handshake for O'Neill. There were handshakes for everyone on the visiting bench. There were handshakes for some Sunderland players. There were waves to the United supporters. There were handshakes for all of the officials, even a joke shared with Friend. Ten-and-a-half months after he last stood on the pitch at the Stadium of Light, Ferguson had righted a wrong.
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