Sir Alex Ferguson will have expected to have left Burnley last night, having offered a few platitudes about this passionate little football town and wrapped up three easy points. In the end he did not just go home defeated, he departed with a set of awkward questions about Manchester United's season that have no easy answers.
The post-Cristiano Ronaldo era started in earnest last night and it was painful and embarrassing for United. Ferguson's team were one-paced, they lacked edge and they were beaten by a club that last hosted top-flight football 33 years ago. For all the armchair strategists who said that Ronaldo's and Carlos Tevez's absences could be compensated for, there was a huge body of evidence last night that said otherwise.
In front of Fabio Capello, Michael Owen gave the England manager a dozen more reasons not to pick him for England. He did not look like England's most prolific current goalscorer, rather a nervous young pup who was badly short of confidence, hopeless in front of goal and generally ineffective for the 63 minutes he figured. Further east in Hull, Jermain Defoe was notching a hat-trick for Spurs to push himself further ahead.
As if to make the point about Ronaldo's absence, United also missed a penalty before half-time, a spot-kick tamely jabbed by Michael Carrick too close to Burnley's goalkeeper Brian Jensen. Only Patrice Evra and Wayne Rooney really looked like they might make a difference and that was before the latter almost lost the plot near the end with the kind of ludicrous tackle that might easily have been a red card.
But at this point we really should mention Burnley. This club has an august history, 50 years ago they were embarking on a championship-winning season themselves, but this game will rank with the very best Turf Moor has seen. Robbie Blake scored the winner, a goal to savour if it had been scored against Stoke City, never mind that it was against the dominant English club of this generation.
It was a magical night for Burnley. Goodness knows what went through the mind of their talented young manager Owen Coyle as he walked the 20 yards or so from the home dugout to where Ferguson was standing at the end of the game to shake the hand of his fellow Glaswegian: Gorbals 1, Govan 0. "He was as gracious as ever," Coyle said, "he said 'Well done Owen' and that's why he's the best manager in world football."
Burnley's players matched United all over the pitch. Graham Alexander and Wade Elliott were magnificent in midfield, Clarke Carlisle equally so in defence. There was an intensity about them that you expected to be exhausted at some point but it never was: they chased United to the very end and they deserved everything they got.
There were injuries for United to contend with, most noticeably Rio Ferdinand, who was in the stand watching, and Nemanja Vidic, who was not. One game of the season gone and already the defence looked patched-up and improvised. Of the first choice back four, only Evra started last night and, back at centre-half after a long absence in that position, Wes Brown looked badly out of sorts.
When the Burnley goal went in on 18 minutes you could feel Turf Moor's James Hargreaves stand shaking with joy and, yes, a touch of disbelief. It came in a flurry of pressure for Burnley in which they nearly scored seconds earlier when Elliott played in Martin Paterson and his shot was saved by Ben Foster.
The ball was only recycled as far as Stephen Jordan and the Manchester City academy graduate crossed to the back post where Evra got a clearing header which dropped to Blake. So many newly promoted teams lack the quality and finesse to survive but in that moment Blake provided it. His goal was a wonderful volley inside Foster's near post.
Carrick's penalty came when Blake brought down Evra before half-time. Jensen later expressed surprise that Rooney had not elected to take it and the way in which Carrick stroked it too close to the goalkeeper suggests it will be Rooney who takes them in future.
Jensen stopped shots from Park Ji-sung and Ryan Giggs in the second half while earlier Owen had often looked incapable of even reacting. He failed to get a foot or a head to two first-half crosses. One of his last contributions was a pass to John O'Shea that was hopelessly short.
The problem for Ferguson was that the man he had to rely on to get him out of this tight spot was Dimitar Berbatov. No inspiration there. And in the closing stages Rooney plunged a set of studs down on the thigh of Tyrone Mears. You could tell by the way the striker put a matey hand on referee Alan Wiley's shoulder that he was worried about a red card. But at least Rooney was still battling, some of his team-mates looked like they had run out of ideas long before then.
Burnley (4-1-4-1): Jensen 8; Mears 6, Bikey 7, Carlisle 7, Jordan 6; Alexander 8 (Gudjonsson, 71, 6), Blake 8, Elliott 7, McCann 7, Fletcher 6 (Thompson, 81); Paterson 6 (Eagles, 71, 5). Substitutes not used: Penny (gk), Kalvenes, McDonald, Guerrero.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Foster 6; O'Shea 5, Brown 4, (Neville, 70, 5), Evans, Evra 7; Park 5, Carrick 4, Giggs 6, Anderson 4 (Valencia, 58, 5); Rooney 7, Owen 3 (Berbatov, 63, 4). Substitutes not used: Scholes, Gibson, Kuszczak (gk), De Laet.
Booked: Burnley Paterson, Blake. Man United Rooney.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Man of the match: Carlisle.
Attendance: 20,872.Reuse content