As scores in football matches go, this is one that would have been common enough in games involving my under-11 team or games of Subbuteo table football I might have played with my mates as a 12 or 13-year old. But hang on, this is the deadly serious, all-grown-up world of the Barclays Premier League – and, not only that, but this was the 1500th and final game overseen by United’s retiring Svengali of a manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.
For the record, it’s United’s first 5-5 since 1895 and the first ever 5-5 in the Premiership since it began in 1992. And I was there…..and it was fairly insane…and people will still be talking about it in 20 years’ time.
12 months ago, I also attended West Bromwich Albion’s final league game of the season against Arsenal. I did so partly because my good friend and long-time Albion fan Serge offered me a spare ticket and partly because I simply could not contemplate the tension of staying home and watching United’s final game at Sunderland whilst hanging on the result of the City-QPR game from the Council House.
Like yesterday, it was a beautifully sunny day, but my mood was very different. I am now fairly sure that I cracked a bone in my foot getting off a bus in Birmingham City Centre and having limped my way to The Hawthorns to meet Serge, we went in to watch what I didn’t realise at the time was Robin van Persie’s final game as a Gooner before joining United. Behind us an Albion-supporting but United-hating young lady kept us informed of affairs in the United and City games and after she gleefully announced news of Aguero’s 94th-minute winner for City, I left The Hawthorns in a fairly bleak mood, to the extent that I cannot even remember the score in the Albion-Arsenal game.
Things were rather different yesterday. Though I now have two dodgy knees to replace my foot injury, I was feeling relatively sprightly as I walked up Halfords Lane past the occasional Mancunian chancer wanting match tickets – there were rumours of them changing hands for £2000.
Anyway, since that rather grim day of the Arsenal game, RvP has become a United hero and the Premier League trophy has returned to rather more familiar pastures in the United trophy room. Even so, this was Fergie’s last game after a 39-year management career going back to East Stirling in 1974 , where upon his arrival, as he recalled, the chairman informed him that he had 8 players and no goalkeeper. Things have improved a little for him since then.
Inside the ground, the atmosphere was febrile even among the Albion fans. The e-Bay mentality ensured that the match programme sold out in record time as people bought 3 and 4 copies; after all, this was history in the making. Out on the sun-drenched pitch, the United players were warming up and I was delighted to see Paul Scholes among them. Scholes has now retired for a second time after a career of great distinction, making 717 appearances for United in all competitions. He has been my favourite United player of the modern era and has been one of the game’s truly great players, though his tackling remained awful to the end. I knew Scholesy would not have made the journey down to the Black Country unless Fergie intended to bring him on at some point – and so it was to prove.
There was a double ‘Guard of Honour’ before this game – all these pre-match ceremonials make me long for the days when players just used to run out of the tunnel on to the pitch and simply start the game after a cursory warm-up. Not these days; I suppose that we should be grateful that the Albion mascots didn’t form a mini-Guard for the United mascots. What we did get was a G.o.H. for the United players by the Albion players, followed by a joint extended G.o.H. for Fergie by both sets of players. Albion have had a good season themselves, achieving their best position (8th) since 1980-1 under Steve Clarke’s thoughtful guidance and their fans were in largely benevolent mood in the late Spring sunshine. The United players got a mixed reception, but the applause for Fergie was generous and general. He emerged from the ruck of players and apparatchiks to wave to the United fans who had occupied half of the Smethwick End away to my immediate left.
After all this ceremonial nonsense, there was a surreal atmosphere once the game started. Fergie’s final starting XI left most of his experienced players on the bench, with only Michael Carrick holding things together and wearing the captain’s armband. And of course, as a footnote, it should be observed that there was no Wayne Rooney at all. He had allegedly been given the day off as his wife is due to produce Rooney Junior # 2. I think most United fans are of the view that – barring another ludicrous volte-face – he has probably played his last game for Manchester United and that this is perhaps the best solution to his problems. For someone who was until quite recently perceived as United’s lynchpin, it’s surprising how little he has been missed of late.
Certainly United set off at a fair clip and eased into a 3-goal lead within the first half-hour. Goals from Kagawa and Alex Büttner were split by a Jonas Olsson own goal and the atmosphere was more akin to a testimonial match or pre-season friendly. However, James Morrison prodded home from six yards out on the stroke of half-time and you sensed that Albion had finally decided that they were simply not prepared to accept a role as cannon fodder for the Champions.
Crucially, Steve Clarke brought on Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku for the second half and he scored a great goal on 50 minutes and generally looked to be giving Jonny Evans and Phil Jones a far harder afternoon than they had bargained for. The truth is that having wrapped up the Premiership a couple of weeks back, the United players have been in party mode ever since and for all the blithe talk of beating Chelsea’s points total and seeing off the departing manager in the right fashion, they have – mentally – been on the beach for a while now.
So, even though sharp finishes from RvP and Javier Hernandez took the score to 5-2, there was still plenty of time left and in an extraordinary last ten minutes, Albion scored three times with Lukaku running at will through our increasingly porous defence. Not even the introduction of Scholes (who inevitably picked up a final yellow card for a woefully poor challenge on Mulumbu) , Giggs and Ferdinand could stem the flow and in the end, it would be churlish in the extreme to deny Albion a hard-fought point in a generally crazy game that will live long in the memories of all who witnessed it.
The departing, conquering hero emerged with a slightly rueful smile from the ruck near the tunnel to acknowledge the noisy United away support and then he was gone – for (presumably) the last time as the United manager. Interestingly, the United fans were already airing a new song about David Moyes, encouraging the incoming manager to adopt the style of the Fergie era.
Hopefully he will do so – and let’s hope he adds the substance of those years as well.