United's youngsters steal the show

Manchester United 3 Millwall 0
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The Independent Football

Even his close friend, Alistair Campbell, would have been impressed at the spin that Sir Alex Ferguson has put on Manchester United's season. A year of relative failure has largely been recast as one of successful transition.

Even his close friend, Alistair Campbell, would have been impressed at the spin that Sir Alex Ferguson has put on Manchester United's season. A year of relative failure has largely been recast as one of successful transition.

"I'm delighted," said Ferguson after Saturday's comfortable FA Cup final dispatch of Millwall. "Our target at the start of a season is to win a trophy and we've done that. I'm pleased and proud of my players."

After their worst campaign in the Premiership's 12 seasons, and poorest in Europe for eight years, neither Ferguson nor his players are really delighted. As Ferguson himself later admitted when pressed: "No one is happy about our season."

That said, unlike Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle United, they have won a trophy and Ferguson has brought on a pair of young players. Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and David Bellion may have proved disappointing signings to date, but Cristiano Ronaldo looks the real deal. In addition, Darren Fletcher has emerged from the youth ranks.

Ronaldo, said Ferguson, is "potentially better than anything in Europe. We have to realise that potential". The manager said of Fletcher: "He's emerged as a player of real class. We think he will be a top player." Roy Keane concurred. "There's going to be a real battle for central midfield places in years to come, but I think Fletch will be the one."

Fletcher, a leggy 20-year-old Scot, has confidence and talent. His dash to confront Dennis Wise as the Millwall player-manager man-handled Ronaldo midway through the first-half may have been ill-advised, especially for a player dismissed twice this season, but Ferguson will have purred at the sight of one his young tyros sticking up for the other. On such team spirit were his previous winning teams founded.

Ferguson is looking to bring in more young talent in the summer including, possibly, Wayne Rooney, perhaps Kieron Dyer and definitely Alan Smith. Making way will be Nicky Butt and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whose late substitute appearances had a valedictory feel, and Diego Forlan.

A new team is shaping up and this Cup win has bought them time to develop. Ferguson added: "I won't be worrying this summer, I know we'll be back."

You can only occasionally "win things with kids" though and Ferguson will not be pensioning off his experienced core yet. Just as, in 1996, the "kids" were bolstered by Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin, Gary Pallister and Eric Cantona. Two of United's senior servants were also at the heart of this victory. Ryan Giggs, according to reports, has been heading for an Old Trafford exit for the past three seasons yet he remains a vital player. His running was less tricksy but more deadly than Ronaldo's, leading to two goals.

"There are periods when you say 'Ryan, you can do better'," said Ferguson, "but he's been on that bloody touchline for 14 years and when you reflect on that you realise he is an exceptional person with powerful concentration."

Another whose influence remains huge despite constantly being written off is Keane. Sitting in front of the back four, he dictated United's attack and stymied Millwall's.

"He's still a fantastic player," said Wise, an old rival. "He's only 32, that's when I was playing my best football for Chelsea. He has a presence and United miss him when he doesn't play.

"We were worried about him," Wise added. "The way we were set up I didn't want him to have the ball, I wanted Tim [Cahill] or Dave [Livermore] to go very close to him so he had to lay it square because he does cause problems."

Wise had set out to frustrate United, flooding midfield and playing just Neil Harris in attack. Harris worked hard, but never looked like scoring and, with few other players getting forward, a Millwall goal always seemed improbable for all Paul Ifill's enthusiasm. Neither United goalkeeper had a shot to save, just a few crosses to deal with.

Andy Marshall was inevitably busier. United took half an hour to develop a sense of flow, but even before then had had chances with Ruud van Nistelrooy, Giggs and Keane all threatening, the latter bringing an athletic save from Marshall. The breakthrough looked to have come after 40 minutes when Ronaldo met Gary Neville's cross, but Darren Ward cleared off the line.

Millwall did not heed the warning because, four minutes later, a corner was worked across the area by Giggs and Keane to the overlapping Neville and Ronaldo again ghosted in to score.

Wise might have cleared, but said Harris had shouted "Time" swiftly followed by "Oh no". Wise added: "I said to him that's the difference with the Premiership, you can't take that extra second."

The goal killed the contest. A second, delayed by Marshall's save from Paul Scholes, then Wise's goal-line clearance from Mikaël Silvestre, finally arrived when Giggs' mazy run was brusquely ended by Livermore. Van Nistelrooy, bizarrely chosen as man of the match by Sven Goran Eriksson, converted.

One idly wondered whether it would prove his last goal in a United shirt. Not quite, because he then tapped in Giggs's cross-shot with 10 minutes remaining.

Usually, the defeated end would been emptying by then, but Millwall's well-behaved support intended to savour the full FA Cup final experience and lingered for the presentations.

As usual, the Millennium Stadium had provided a day to remember and forget. The venue and city create a superb atmosphere, but the stadium's ancillary facilities remain inadequate and badly run.

With Wembley due on stream in 2006 there is one last chance to get it right.

Manchester United 3 Millwall 0
Ronaldo 43, Van Nistelrooy pen 64, 80

Half-time: 1-0 Att: 71,350

Manchester United (4-1-4-1): Howard (Carroll, 83); G Neville, Brown, Silvestre, O'Shea; Keane; Ronaldo (Solskjaer, 83), Fletcher (Butt, 83), Scholes, Giggs; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: P Neville, Djemba-Djemba.

Millwall (4-5-1): Marshall; Elliott, Lawrence, Ward, Ryan (Cogan, 74); Ifill, Wise (Weston, 88), Cahill, Livermore, Sweeney; Harris (McGammon, 74). Substitutes not used: Gueret (gk), Dunne.

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).

Booked: Millwall: Wise.

Man of the match: Ronaldo.