It may have been FA Cup weekend but the the most compelling dramas involving Manchester United remained those developing off the field. If only, Sir Alex Ferguson will have wished at Sixfields yesterday afternoon, his dispute with John Magnier and JP McManus and the ongoing speculation regarding his transfer deals could be dealt with as comfortably as his team's fourth-round opponents were.
Northampton Town rarely looked like becoming the first team outside the top flight to knock out United in Ferguson's long reign. Neither, though, did Colin Calderwood's team ever look like suffering a repeat of the 8-2 drubbing inflicted on their forbears by United 34 years ago.
Further compensation will come in the form of the near-£400,000 they will bank from this fixture. Barely an agent's commission for their well heeled opponents, but a huge sum for the Third Division club.
It was, in truth, all they expected. Northampton are best remembered for conceding six goals to George Best in 1970 but they have some pedigree as giant-killers having thrice beaten top-flight opposition: Sheffield Wednesday, while the Cobblers were still a Southern League club, in 1910; Huddersfield, then a formidable team, in 1934; and Arsenal in 1958. However, this was their first appearance in the fourth round since 1990, when they lost 3-0 at Rochdale.
The main aim yesterday was to avoid a repeat of that 1970 scoreline, with the atmosphere about as intimidating as a county fair. Most Cobblers were thrilled simply to see United in the flesh. Not that many luminaries were on view. Though injury, suspension and ineligibility ruled out Ryan Giggs, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand and Louis Saha, Ferguson still rested Roy Keane and Tim Howard, reducing his team to 10 internationals. The odd one out was David Bellion and his performance made it clear why United have signed Saha.
Despite this penchant, in recent years, for fielding under-strength FA Cup teams, no lower-league team has knocked United out of this competition since Harry Redknapp's Bournemouth did so 20 years ago. No team from the lowest rung has done so since Swindon, of the Third Division South, in 1930. Despite the weight of history against them, Northampton begun confidently, with Derek Asamoah dribbling past Quinton Fortune in the opening minute before driving his shot against Mikaël Silvestre.
Reality seemed about to intrude two minutes later when Chris Carruthers pushed Cristiano Ronaldo in the back as he rose at the far post to meet Fortune's cross and the referee, Steve Bennett, pointed to the spot. But Diego Forlan stepped up and saw his penalty well saved by Lee Harper, a former understudy to David Seaman at Arsenal.
Harper went on to have a fine game, making excellent saves from a Forlan header after 21 minutes, a Paul Scholes shot after 46, a Kieron Richardson drive he touched on to the bar after 79, a deflected Forlan shot three minutes later and, in injury-time, from a one-on-one with Ronaldo.
However, he was also beaten three times. After 33 minutes, Ronaldo, looking offside, hit a drive which Harper was unable to hold following a deflection off Paul Reid, leaving Silvestre to tap in. Two minutes after the break, a United corner caused confusion and Chris Hargreaves put through his own goal. Forlan then stole in to convert a Ronaldo knock-down 22 minutes from time.
The Cobblers never surrendered, Marc Richards volleying against the bar just before the hour and Asamoah hitting the post in injury-time. Ferguson suggested the hosts "had us on the rack" following Richards' effort, but it was already 2-0. Of greater potential significance was a miss by Asamoah when the game was goalless after 18 minutes. Allowed freedom, he saw Roy Carroll block his lob and the rebound roll wide.
While Northampton now return to their League campaign at Doncaster Rovers on Friday, United's three-pronged chase for honours rolls on. Every surviving team outside the Premiership will hope to be paired with them in today's draw but few will expect to win. "We are due a run in the Cup," Ferguson said ominously.
Goals: Silvestre (33) 0-1; Hargreaves og (47) 0-2; Forlan (68) 0-3.
Northampton Town (4-5-1): Harper; Lyttle, Sampson, Willmott, Carruthers (Chambers, 50); Reeves (Richards, h-t), Hargreaves, Reid, Lincoln (Harsley, 72), Smith; Asamoah. Substitutes not used: Thompson (gk), Vieira.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Carroll; O'Shea, Brown, Silvestre (Bardsley, 72), Fortune (Pugh, 89); Fletcher, Butt, Scholes (Richardson, 72); Ronaldo, Bellion, Forlan. Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Keane.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booking: Manchester United: Bardsley.
Man of the match: Harper.
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