As Mark Hughes knows only too well, once 90 minutes runs out at Old Trafford the place enters a kind of twilight zone. And in that twilight zone, strange things can happen.
Yesterday, strange did not do it justice. With 95min 25sec on the clock, Michael Owen scored the seventh goal of an astonishing derby to rescue a victory for Manchester United that they thought had gone moments earlier with Craig Bellamy's equaliser. For the home fans it was an I-was-there, punch-the-air moment; a priceless victory that will be immortalised in banners and chants for years to come.
For Manchester City, it confirmed every conspiracy and every curse they had ever believed in when it comes to their hated neighbours.
Where to start with a match that Sir Alex Ferguson called "the greatest derby of all time"? Let us start at the end when, with his team leading 3-2, Ferguson aimed a string of expletives at the fourth official when his assistant Mike Phelan signalled that there would be four minutes of added time. When Bellamy scored City's third equaliser of the game, Ferguson's position had changed. He wanted the game to carry on for ever.
Putting aside the fact that United scored their winning goal 85 seconds after the minimum added time signalled by Martin Atkinson had elapsed – and there will be some City fans who will be unable to do that – United deserved to win this game. Not by the seven-goal margin that Ferguson suggested would be more appropriate, but it was United who grabbed the game by the throat in the second half.
Ryan Giggs' through ball to Owen was the last act of a masterful second half by the 35-year-old who had the assists for three of United's goals. Darren Fletcher scored twice himself and he performed like a latter-day Bryan Robson, ubiquitous in midfield, rousing the crowd with every crunching challenge.
City had a period of dominance at the end of the first half but they snatched two of their goals through the mistakes of Ben Foster and Rio Ferdinand, the latter for Bellamy's second late goal. As the second half built towards its crescendo there was only one team who raised the intensity and that was United. Ferguson gambled first and most bravely, throwing Owen on because he would not, could not, settle for a draw.
Hughes' team have come a long way and their manager was dignified enough to steer clear of baiting his opponents – apart from calling Gary Neville "a lunatic" – after the match when Ferguson sought ungraciously to rub it in. But it is not a coincidence that United win games when others would have given up. They do so because it is engrained in the culture of the place. Carlos Tevez will remember that ethos because he played his part in some last-gasp United revivals in his time at the club. This time he was booed every time he got the ball and the closest he came to a retort was when he hit the post in the last minute of the first half, City's best period of the game. Hughes later claimed that his player had been fouled by Patrice Evra as he struck the ball.
There was so much going on around the edges of the game, that it was difficult to keep track. Tevez sarcastically applauded the home fans as he came off at half-time and an object lobbed in his direction struck the City substitute Javier Garrido. A United fan who ran on the pitch after Owen's winner looked to have taken a right-hander from Bellamy. And all this was before you deconstructed a tumultuous game.
When Wayne Rooney bulldozed his way through the challenges of Nigel de Jong and Kolo Touré to force in the first goal within three minutes you thought it had to be his day. Evra made the goal brilliantly by cutting down the left and then along the goal-line. It looked like the afternoon was about to unfold in fairly traditional fashion for City but, with a bit of help, they came back into it.
Foster's mistake for the first goal was catastrophic and asked all sorts of questions about his suitability to be first choice for England; not that there was any time to stop and dwell during yesterday's game. He waited too long for a back pass to roll into his area and as a result Tevez nicked the ball away and cut it back for Gareth Barry to score.
That shock for Old Trafford preceded City's best period of the match when De Jong was excellent and you had to wonder what might have been different had Emmanuel Adebayor been available yesterday. Park Ji-sung struggled to make an impression. The mind drifted to what a difference Cristiano Ronaldo would have made. But there was no mistaking who came out for the second half minded to win the game.
Fletcher's first from Giggs' cross was headed in above Barry, a rare lack of judgement from the Englishman, who was not at his best yesterday. Then three minutes later Bellamy made something from nothing, cutting in from the left when John O'Shea failed to offer a challenge. Bellamy launched a shot from 20 yards across Foster and into the top left-hand corner of his goal.
City played a five-man midfield that required Tevez to do a lonely shift on his own up front but with Giggs attacking Stephen Ireland and Micah Richards down the United left, the away side lost their foothold in the game. Giggs' crossing was prolific. Three times he picked out Dimitar Berbatov in the area and on two of those occasions Shay Given made saves that kept his team in the game.
Only when Fletcher headed a virtually identical goal from Giggs' free-kick on 80 minutes did United think they had won it. In injury time, Ferdinand casually flicked the ball to O'Shea, substitute Martin Petrov intercepted, and played in Bellamy who ran on goal to beat Foster, again dubious, at the near post.
And thence into the twilight zone. Hughes became the manager raging against the fourth official as the game went on and on. And on. When Owen beat Given in the 96th minute, the celebrations were, Hughes said, reminiscent of Ferguson and Brian Kidd in April 1993 for the late winner against Sheffield Wednesday. Then, as now, United never give up.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Foster; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Anderson (Carrick, 90), Fletcher, Giggs, Park (Valencia, 62); Berbatov (Owen, 78), Rooney. Substitutes not used: Neville, Nani, Evans, Kuszczak (gk).
Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Given; Richards, Lescott, Touré, Bridge; De Jong (Petrov, 83); Wright-Phillips, Ireland, Barry, Bellamy; Tevez. Substitutes not used: Zabaleta, Taylor (gk), Garrido, Sylvinho, Weiss, Ball.
Booked: Manchester United Anderson, Vidic; Manchester City Tevez, Bellamy.
Referee: M Atkinson (South Yorkshire).
Man of the match: Fletcher.
That late winner: Why Hughes was wrong to question officials' timekeeping
*Fourth official Alan Wiley indicates a minimum four minutes added time.
*Under Premier League rules, the referee can play four minutes plus 59 seconds.
*City score an equaliser – the referee, Martin Atkinson, can add 60 seconds for celebration and restart (Hughes admits it took 45 seconds for play to resume).
*United's Anderson is replaced by Michael Carrick – the referee can add 30 seconds for a substitution.
*In these circumstances, Atkinson is entitled to add two minutes, 29 seconds to the original four minutes.
*Substitute Michael Owen scores for United to win the game on 95 minutes, 25 seconds – well within the allotted time.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies