Wake me up, I must be dreaming. But he wasn’t. It was all for real, perhaps too real for the likes of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. Half a chance, a short back lift and then bang, the ball was in the back of the Hull City net and James Wilson was on the Old Trafford honours board at just 18-years-old.
An attachment to youth forms a central plank of Manchester United’s identity and in the selection of Wilson and Tom Lawrence, 20, interim manager Ryan Giggs was keeping a flame alive.
Wilson, who has scored at every level this season from Under-18 upwards, was included by David Moyes in the squad that put four past Newcastle last month, but walking out before 70-odd thousand people with a live number on your back constitutes a different order of challenge.
Across the public address a eulogy to Nemanja Vidic rang out. Sir Bobby Charlton presented the departing Serbian with his very own leaving gift and the Stretford End sang his name. Out on the pitch Wilson was one of two young lads at the opposite end of their careers shuffling nervously.
On the last day of term at Old Trafford the temporary management team, otherwise known as the class of ’92, were making a statement of sorts, placing renewal from within at the centre of the piece. In that the Giggs/Butt/Scholes/Neville axis has considerable expertise.
Giggs argued in his programme address against the need for wholesale change to the squad, suggesting a few key additions would be sufficient to regenerate the whole. While this is not a view universally held, he backed his thesis with the inclusion of a winger in his own image – Lawrence is Wrexham-born – and hot-shot Wilson.
Marouane Fellaini, a man you might think in need of some encouragement of his own, led the pats on the back before kick-off. And finally the referee’s whistle ushered them into this world. Lawrence in particular started well, coming deep to take a touch and when facing goal taking on his man. There have been too many holes in this desperate season, none greater than the absence, Adnan Januzaj apart, of a turn of foot to quicken the pulse.
Lawrence showed early a propensity to drop the shoulder and might have opened the scoring had his shot not deflected off an outstretched leg over the bar. Wilson was initially more circumspect, but then he had two out-house doors closing around him whenever the ball came close.
Half an hour passed without a sniff, and then a floated free-kick from Januzaj, the third prong of United’s youthful attack, was knocked down by Fellaini. Before the Hull defence could react, the kid was peeling away to his left with his hands in the air, his first goal for United nestling in the back of the net.
This season of new beginnings under Moyes was never that. As the personal choice of Sir Alex Ferguson, Moyes could never quite put the necessary distance between the old regime and his, and as a result the season has turned into a long goodbye with the last vestiges of the Fergie era minding the house until the new man arrives.
The post-Ferguson culture shock at Old Trafford ultimately proved too great for Moyes to manage. It required a figure of equal stature, a manager or coach with a hinterland as substantial as Fergie’s for whom the players would jump. And there are not too many of those.
Idiosyncratic as he might be, the seemingly incoming Louis van Gaal is one, a man with the requisite experience at two of Europe’s great clubs and in the international arena with the Netherlands. And importantly he has no connections, personal or private, with the hierarchy that ran United so successfully for a quarter of a century.
The outgoing season has at least made plain the need to pullulate properly and ought to purge those who survive the expected cull of complacency. Vidic said farewell to Old Trafford last night from the bench ahead of his move to Internazionale in the summer. Giggs followed suit with 19 minutes to go in what might be his last appearance at Old Trafford.
The likes of Luis Nani, Ashley Young, Hernandez, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Rio Ferdidand, to name a few, demonstrated in the home defeat to Sunderland how they might follow Vidic out the door without hurting the prospects of this team. Only Carrick survived last night.
This is not how United envisaged seeing out the season. Dead rubbers in May are not what this club is about. Tonight Manchester is witness to a match of real significance that ought to see the title inch further across town.
United, meanwhile, hang on to the vague hope of a Europa League spot via sixth position in the table, and even for that they require Tottenham to fall asleep one more time. At least Wilson gave them a lift, adding a second on the hour, clearing up after another exquisite burst down the right by Januzaj.
“James Wilson for England” pealed around the ground. That’s for another day. He won’t sleep for a week as it is.
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