This is why you would not want to be a football manager. Not just Roy Keane, anybody. After holding out for 90 minutes and four seconds, after frustrating Manchester United at every turn with a performance of massed defiance and no little spirit, Sunderland finally cracked last night. They did not deserve to win and, given United had 23 chances and 71 per cent of possession, you could argue that Sunderland did not even deserve a point; but that they held out for so long meant that when the crack came it felt sharp and cruel.
It was administered by Nemanja Vidic, who popped up unmarked and hungry after Michael Carrick's drilled, deflected shot cannoned back off the post. Vidic had an empty net to find and he did. United celebrated as if a siege had been lifted.
That was how the Stretford End felt. It had witnessed the combined efforts of Dimitar Berbatov, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and the roared-on substitute Carlos Tevez fail. With Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal having won earlier, United looked to be dropping two points to a side beaten 4-1 at home by Bolton Wanderers last week.
But late goals are hardly a rarity at this stadium and perseverance – the most important word in football according to Keane – paid off again. "Hard work!" said Sir Alex Ferguson. "We were in complete control, we felt they were never a threat. You can understand Sunderland, they're down the League and desperate to get a point. And it's difficult to break down."
Marton Fulop was particularly hard to break down. "Everyone knows how highly I rate Marton," was a Keane refrain heard so frequently that by the end it was uncertain whether it was a joke or not. But the big Hungarian keeper, signed by Keane from Tottenham's reserves long before Craig Gordon moved south, proved Keane's opinion here.
Fulop made three unspectacular but defining saves in the first half-hour and that gave Sunderland a platform of belief that almost took them to a draw. The caretaker manager Ricky Sbragia praised his team's positional "discipline" and said it was not a quality seen "in the last six weeks". He said the players had been "roving".
Just in case that was interpreted as criticism of Keane's grip on them, Sbragia defended his former superior. Speaking of Keane's resignation on Thursday morning, Sbragia said: "Thursday was a shock to the players, a shock to us all. Deep down we've all been hurt but we had a game to play and you have got to focus on that. The players were exceptional today. It was the suddenness of it. I came to Sunderland to work with Roy Keane."
Were the players against Keane, he was asked. "No, not at all," he said. "The players were really down when Roy left. But it's like everywhere else. At Manchester United the players who are not playing are going to be disappointed. We changed little things today and the players responded."
Sbragia added that Friday's training session had been changed too and that the players were shown a video of their display against Arsenal in the 1-1 game at the Stadium of Light two months ago.
The organisation then was praised and a replica was the obvious ambition here. Sunderland stuck Djibril Cissé up front on his own and invited United on. And on they came, Fulop blocking Rooney and Berbatov in the first 15 minutes, then Park Ji-Sung after he had robbed Dwight Yorke on the edge of the area in the 28th minute.
Sunderland were content with this, even though at times the lack of forward progress was an embarrassment to the League. But then these are battered players and they were up against the European champions.
The European Footballer of Year was among them but Ronaldo drifted after being lively initially. He was submerged by visiting blue jerseys at every turn and blasted over a good opportunity on the hour after Berbatov had smuggled the ball across the penalty area.
Five minutes later, having taken a kick on the hip, Ronaldo booted the ball into touch to stop play and promptly substituted himself. A pained expression on his face, he walked straight down the tunnel. Ferguson said it would be looked at today but the same injury kept Rooney out for a couple of games last season. Rooney, who was also subdued by the crush of Sunderland's bodies, will also be missing next week having collected a late booking and a suspension.
Nor was it Berbatov's best evening's work. That was summed up by his header over when unchallenged six yards out with 20 minutes to go. Carrick supplied the cross. Tevez then shot wide and the groans grew ever louder.
Sunderland even had the audacity to attack late in the second half and they won a corner as the game died out. But then four minutes of added time were announced, United breathed again and launched one last effort. It worked.
Sunderland were done for but wherever Keane watched this, his emotions must have swirled with some pride – and perhaps confusion – that Sunderland came to Old Trafford and were so close to holding out.
But then part of him may also have thought that this was proof it was no day to be a manager.
Referee: Mark Halsey
Man of the match: Fulop
Match rating: 7/10Reuse content