They were far from home but the location seemed appropriate. A new ground for a new era. Manchester United, average age 24 and not a man over 30, sealed their third championship in five seasons at Middlesbrough's Riverside stadium yesterday. Victory over Liverpool, in Saturday's FA Cup final, will earn them their second Double in three years - and they are still just hinting at their full potential.
Their goals illustrated one of their great strengths: the ability to score throughout the team. No player has scored 20 goals for them this season, but 16 different players have scored, four of them reaching double figures.
Their first, after 14 minutes, came from David May, a 66-1 bet to do so. The second was from almost as unlikely a source - Andy Cole. Having been dropped for his inability to score, he struck with his first touch after coming on as substitute after 53 minutes. The third, with 10 minutes left, was from Ryan Giggs, a player who has emerged from a personal trough to remind us all of his potential.
When the final whistle went they were hugged, one and all, by the architect, Alex Ferguson. Then the manager went to the United fans, their delight already multiplied by news of Manchester City's relegation, and punched the air.
"I'm absolutely delighted," he said afterwards. "I am proud of my players, they deserve it. They have shown a great spirit. The young players have been great, they could be the nucleus of the side for years to come.
"I feel for Newcastle. You do feel sad for them because they have such a passion for the game."
It was a Geordie, Steve Bruce, a substitute yesterday and still wondering over his Cup final chances, who lifted the ostentatious Premiership pot. United's lap of honour followed, during which they were given a generous ovation by the Boro fans, one which was not just down to their denying their rivals, Newcastle.
There had been discontent on Tyneside about this fixture. Not only were Boro local enemies but they were managed by a former Old Trafford stalwart. But, once the match began, there could be no faulting Middlesbrough's desire. Their players tackled fiercely and attacked keenly. Their supporters were no less committed, angrily confronting those United fans who were revealed, by their reaction to May's goal, to be in Boro areas.
That goal came early, but Middlesbrough might already have been ahead. After just 80 seconds Juninho skipped past Denis Irwin on the left, his cross came back to him and, off balance, he swung over another. It picked out Neil Cox less than six yards from goal but, somehow, he managed to put the ball wide.
United's support gasped in relief, their players, shaken, looked equally nervy. They were still struggling to settle when, after 14 minutes, May eased the tension. It was a simple goal - and a surprising one against a team stuffed with big central defenders. Giggs took a corner from the right and May rose, at the far post, to head it down and over the despairing Branco on the line.
Three minutes later it could have been settled when Paul Scholes dribbled into the box and pulled the ball back for Nicky Butt. He shot firmly but Cox had just got across in time to get his body in the way.
That meant the match would at least be a contest for another 40 minutes, and it was a good one. Juninho was bubbling, pulling the strings for a Middlesbrough team whose approach belied their poor recent form.
For a while Boro were on top. Juninho went past Gary Pallister but May cleared; Nick Barmby looped an intelligent header over Peter Schmeichel and just wide; Robbie Mustoe and Nigel Pearson went close.
They were mainly denied by good finishing but there was also a bad miss, by Barmby. Set up by a thrilling Juninho run at the heart of the United defence, he blazed his shot well wide.
It was Giggs, now with three championship medals at 22, who lifted the side, shooting into the side netting after a penetrating run just before the break, then playing the key pass in the lead-up to the crucial second goal.
Breaking on the left he looked to feed Eric Cantona, who had ghosted into space on the other flank. Derek Whyte managed to intercept, but at the cost of almost chipping his own goalkeeper who scrambled the ball past for a corner.
While Giggs waited to take it Ferguson brought on Cole for Scholes. Scholes had a slight knock but it was mainly tactical, hoping Cole's pace would stretch Boro's defence. The United fans chorused the "Andy Cole scores a goal" song; the Boro ones chanted "Geordie reject".
Over came the corner, taken by Giggs. It was flicked on by Pallister and there was Cole, with his back to goal, hooking the ball over his shoulder. An instinctive goal, one that we all know he can score. Perhaps the difference is that, too often, he has had a chance to think before shooting. It was his 11th League goal of a frustrating season but he had clearly not forgotten how to celebrate.
Cole missed two difficult chances for a second, both from Giggs crosses, but by then the sting was out of the game. United's players were able to knock the ball about with abandon while their supporters exulted. With 10 minutes to go their chants went up a decibel as Giggs, given time and space 20 yards from goal, drilled the ball past Walsh. Now, and only now, they unfurled a banner which had been kept hidden in their midst. It read simply: "Champions".
Goals: May (14) 0-1; Cole (54) 0-2; Giggs (80) 0-3.
Middlesbrough (3-4-2-1): Walsh; Pearson, Vickers, Whyte; Cox, Mustoe, Pollock (Stamp, 56), Branco (Moore, 73); Juninho, Barmby; Fjortoft. Substitute not used: Whelan.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, May, Pallister, P Neville; Beckham, Butt, Keane, Giggs; Scholes (Cole, 53), Cantona. Substitutes not used: Bruce, G Neville.
Referee: P Durkin (Portland).
Bookings: Manchester United: Irwin, Pallister.
Man of the match: May. Attendance: 29,921.Reuse content