Year end is a time for reflection, for considering what went well, and what should have been better, during the previous 12 months before they are consigned to memory. For two 22-year-olds in opposition at Upton Park on Saturday the verdict on 2007 will be very different. Cristiano Ronaldo has had a year to cherish, Anton Ferdinand has had 12 months to forget. Such, though, is the capriciousness of football fate that only Ferdinand will approach New Year's Eve on a high.
Ronaldo is the player of 2007. In May he won a championship medal and was voted Footballer of the Year. He has continued to perform with bewitching brilliance to be the outstanding player of this half-completed season, a status underlined when, 14 minutes into the match, he scored his 18th goal of the season.
The headlines Ferdinand has attracted have not been the kind mum sticks in a scrapbook. In March he was fined two weeks' wages after flying to South Carolina with friends to celebrate his birthday after telling the West Ham he was visiting a sick grandmother in the Isle of Wight. In June he missed the decisive penalty in England Under-21s' European Championship semi-final shoot-out defeat to the Dutch. In October he suffered a recurrence of a hamstring strain that subsequently kept him out for two months. In November he underwent trial charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm and affray, following an incident outside a nightclub in late 2006.
For Ferdinand that was the nadir. After a week's trial he was cleared of all charges but was still injured. Saturday marked his first appearance since the trial when he came off the bench 10 minutes after the break. Suddenly the prospect of a bright finish to a grim year beckoned.
For Ronaldo the reverse soon loomed. The champions, without playing well, had defended the lead he gave them when, with 23 minutes left, Jonathan Spector handled in the box. As Ronaldo stepped up a sixth straight win seemed certain but, perhaps aware that Rob Green had saved three penalties this season, he went for pace over placement and shot wide.
The miss gave West Ham a lift. Ten minutes later Ferdinand rose between Darren Fletcher and Wes Brown to head in Mark Noble's corner and level the match. Roared on by the home support West Ham struck again five minutes later. Matthew Upson beat Nemanja Vidic to another Noble set piece and, when Arsenal won at Everton two hours later, Manchester United were off the top.
Anton, watched by his father and sisters in the stands, and his brother, Rio, in the opposition, said, "It was great to finally get out there. It's been a hard seven or eight weeks for me at the end of a long hard year. It was good to get back out there and cap it with a goal, and to get a win over my brother was even better."
He added, in reference to his annus horriblis, "Everyone makes mistakes, everyone does wrong things but if you don't learn from them you're a fool. They make you stronger. The things that have happened to me make you realise who your true friends are. I've got a great family behind me, a very strong one and nothing will ever break us."
Rio, who has had a few scrapes himself, is Anton's key confidant. "Rio," said Anton, "has been one of the main parts of me getting through it because he's been through things in his life not to that extreme but he's got experience of things like that. He definitely helped me a lot."
Anton added: "You learn things about yourself. No one can ever say I've shied away from anything. I'm still playing my football. I haven't had a great year but the stats show I didn't have a bad one. That's all in the past now and that's where I want to keep it. I'm looking forward to a brighter 2008."
So is Alan Curbishley after an injury nightmare this season. Post-match, walking along the dressing room corridor which is lined with pictures of the first- team squad, he counted the injured. "[Lee] Bowyer's out, [Julien] Faubert's not kicked a ball in anger, [Kieron] Dyer's hardly played, nor [Craig Bellamy] Bellers really." The tally reached 14, with Scott Parker and Nobby Solano hobbling off on Saturday and Freddie Ljungberg nursing a sore hamstring.
"With all the problems that we have had in the past 12 months, 52 points from 38 games going into today's match is a fantastic achievement by the players," Curbishley said, "the team have given everything every week." He added: "I am looking forward to the next half of the season, but we are desperate for some of the players to get back."
United missed Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick with a stomach bug, and have Gary Neville and Paul Scholes injured, but they have the resources to cope. "We just didn't perform," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "I can't pick out a player who played well for us today, and that tells the story."
Prior to Saturday Ferguson's team had reacted well to the unedifying publicity surrounding their notorious Christmas party. Yesterday, in an oblique reference to the subject, which nevertheless served as a clear warning to his players, the manager said: "Football has changed but you cannot lose your control. That is why we make changes here at Manchester United when we see anyone interfering with this sense of control. When we see this, then it's time for them to go because this club is based on everyone being together."
Birmingham City, their New Year's Day opponents, are likely to feel the backlash of Saturday's defeat. Ferguson added: "The great thing about any team, and particularly our team, is how they respond. We need to go on a long run now. In many ways the season starts on 1 January ."
So, for Anton Ferdinand, does a new chapter in life. Saturday's high was a reminder that, if he learns life's lessons, the rewards are there to be enjoyed.
Goals: Ronaldo (14) 0-1; A Ferdinand (77) 1-1; Upson (82) 2-1.
West Ham United (4-2-3-1): Green; Neill, Spector, Upson, McCartney; Parker (A Ferdinand, 55), Mullins; Solano (Pantsil, 49), Noble, Ljungberg (Ashton, 70); Cole. Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Camara.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): Kuszczak; Brown (O'Shea, 89), R Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Hargreaves (Nani, 80), Fletcher; Ronaldo, Tevez (Anderson, 64), Giggs; Saha. Substitutes not used: Heaton (gk), Pique.
Referee: M Dean (Wirral).
Booked: West Ham Pantsil, Mullins.
Man of the match: Upson.
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