At the end Sir Alex Ferguson stood alone in the penalty box in front of the Smethwick End, raised both arms to the Manchester United supporters and took a bow. There was a wave to his family in the main stand, handshakes with his players and then off he headed down the tunnel for the final time.
With that the greatest managerial career in British football, a career that began during the Vietnam War and encompassed 49 major trophies – 11 with Aberdeen and 38 at United – was over.
Ferguson may have been denied an 896 victory in his 1,500 and final fixture as United manager, but as farewell parties go, it was still terrific fun. The champions led 3-0 after half an hour through Shinji Kagawa, Jonas Olsson’s own goal and Alexander Buttner. With ten minutes to go they were 5-2 in front before Albion, inspired by hat-trick hero Romelu Lukaku, struck three times in five minutes to give us the Premier League’s first-ever 5-5 draw. As somebody once said: Football, bloody hell.
Not even a 10-goal thriller, though, could detract from the story of the day. The match programme featured a 40-page tribute for Ferguson and players from both teams formed a guard of honour as he stepped out, wearing his club blazer and tie, and acknowledged the applause from all four sides of the stadium before the game. For the Scot, this was game number 2,145 of a career in management that at East Stirling in the summer of 1974, when he took over a squad containing just eight players and no goalkeeper. It was not hard to find reminders of his remarkable longevity. The referee Michael Oliver was just one when Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford. Watching in the main stand, meanwhile, was Ron Atkinson, Ferguson’s predecessor at United and a man only three years older but long retired from top-level management.
One man who was absent from the party was Wayne Rooney, whose absence was owing to the fact his wife Coleen was scheduled to give birth to their second child. His future will be a matter for David Moyes, Ferguson’s successor, to decide, but he was not missed.
There was a party mood inside the Hawthorns and for the noisy United supporters it grew with every goal. The first was nodded in by Kagawa after six minutes following the kind of counterattack that has been a trademark of Ferguson’s entertaining sides. The champions sped the ball out of their own penalty box before Tom Cleverley, on the halfway line, played a long crossfield pass for Javier Hernandez to chase. He kept the ball in by the right corner flag and crossed for Kagawa to head in at the near post. If Albion helped Kagawa with their slack marking then, they presented them the second gift-wrapped as Olsson stretched out a long leg to turn Antonio Valencia’s low cross into his own net.
A third goal came on the half-hour as Hernandez flicked the ball to Cleverley whose teed up Buttner to drill hard and low across Ben Foster and inside the far corner.
Michael Carrick, voted United’s player of the year by his own team-mates last week, was captaining the side and anchoring their midfield diamond with typical intelligence, dropping back to support his centre-backs as full-backs Antonio Valencia and Alexander Buttner pushed on.
With United in full control, their fans ran through their repertoire of songs. There were references to 20 titles, Bryan Robson and even David Beckham, another man retiring this week, and a new addition to the songbook – a reworking of Slade’s Feel the Noize – in honour of their new manager, Moyes. The outgoing Everton boss will inherit a winning machine quite unlike the side that Ferguson took over in November 1986 and which, as his autobiography detailed, lost Ferguson’s opening fixture at Oxford United, almost 10,000 days ago, after “doing some serious drinking” at Atkinson’s leaving do less than 48 hours earlier.
West Brom looked like they were already packed for their holidays for much of the first half – Hernandez missed a hat-trick of chances – but they pulled a goal back after 40 minutes when James Morrison beat Phil Jones to Billy Jones’s low cross and slotted the ball beneath Anders Lindegaard. Shortly after the restart it was 2-3 as half-time substitute Lukaku struck with a precise low shot that Lindegaard palmed against a post and in.
That was a hint of things to follow but initially United reasserted their superiority. Within three minutes Van Persie had found the roof of the net from Valencia’s cross for his unmatched 26 league goal of the season and Hernandez then turned in a low cross by substitute Ryan Giggs.
Typically even Ferguson’s final United 16 included a nod to youth, with 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj, a Kosovo-born Belgian midfielder, featuring among the substitutes. Yet with the clock ticking down, Ferguson sent on a player at the other end of the age scale, the 38-year-old Paul Scholes for his 720 and final appearance in a red shirt. He showed that, after all these years, he still cannot tackle as he hacked down Billy Jones and later earned a final booking for catching Claudio Yacob.
By then, despite the introduction of Rio Ferdinand, Albion’s madcap comeback was under way. Lukaku, the Chelsea loanee, has played a pivotal role in West Brom’s excellent first season under manager Steve Clarke – their eight-placed finish is their highest since 1981 – and he ran through to get his second of the afternoon before Youssouf Mulumbu made it 4-5 from a Jones cross. The pair then combined to complete a remarkable comeback when Mulumbu met a far-post ball and centred for Lukaku to bundle the ball in at the near post.
Conceding five goals would not have been in the script but Ferguson could still afford a smile as he waved goodbye at the finish and rightly so. A remarkable, unparalleled chapter has come to a close.