The final whistle turned Goodison Park on Saturday afternoon into Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night. One furious Glaswegian stormed across the pitch to confront the referee for blowing with Everton on the attack, while another disappeared down the tunnel with a look that could silence thunder. A possible Football Association charge awaits the former, David Moyes, but the severest sanctions were reserved for Sir Alex Ferguson.
An astonishing end to a breathtaking game cost Manchester United two points and Ferguson any hope of back‑heeling Wayne Rooney's omission into the subtext. A hostile environment had dictated the team selection of a man who would forge a siege mentality in a convent, or so the United manager claimed. Punishment for a series of negative headlines or compassion for a young man with serious problems at home?
Moyes thought the former. "Maybe the manager just felt it was the right decision not to play him here. I don't think you should put it all on the crowd. Maybe he was just making sure everybody realises that if you play for Manchester United you have to conduct yourself in a manner and our football club doesn't really care who you are. I'm sure the manager did what he thought was right."
As Ferguson and Moyes had hinted in the build-up, this is not The Jeremy Kyle Show. In the event it was a glorious opportunity for United to demonstrate that without Rooney they still possess a pace, precision and ingenuity that has few equals in the Premier League. Until the 91st minute they did so. Even until the 92nd this amounted to a statement of intent to Chelsea.
Dimitar Berbatov filled the vacuum with the swagger and influence demanded of a United centre-forward. "Absolutely brilliant at times," said Ferguson. Paul Scholes made it a privilege to share the same stadium and Nani produced two of the most exquisite crosses from the United right since David Beckham left, one turned home by Darren Fletcher to equalise Steven Pienaar's opener and the second headed into the roof of the net by Nemanja Vidic.
Berbatov nonchalantly swept United 3-1 ahead but over-elaboration spared Everton further torment and just when it appeared they had repaid Moyes's side for the reverse scoreline in February, the visitors folded. Delivering at the death was once United's preserve but as Tim Cahill and then Mikel Arteta profited from Leighton Baines crosses inside two added minutes, all they lacked was a Samuel Kuffour figure to pound the ground in despair, à la Barcelona 1999. "Unthinkable," was Ferguson's take on stoppage time. "We have thrown the points away and hopefully at the end of the season we don't sit back and regret it."
There are some sizable stewards in the players' tunnel at Goodison but they knew to stand aside as Ferguson paced to and from his few media engagements afterwards. A defensive collapse was inexplicable from a side who had repelled waves of Everton pressure and, in Vidic, had an equal to the relentless Cahill. Their personal dual descended into Greco-Roman wrestling on occasion yet that added to a spectacle in which both teams thought only of victory.
"The beautiful thing about it is that we both took knocks," said Cahill, who had been deployed as an emergency forward and rewarded with a part in each home goals. "When you play against proper professionals like that it is all part and parcel of the game," he said. "The game needs to keep that element, it needs to make sure players are not always falling over trying to draw a foul. We both took a few hits but we both got up. He's a strong boy and there are not many players who like to play against him."
Cahill admitted that he "could see some of our fans leaving at 3-1 and I was thinking that we don't want to let these people down". A worst start to a season since 1994-95 beckoned for Everton as the board went up. The introduction of a genuine striker, albeit a half-fit Yakubu Ayegbeni, began to distract the United defence, allowing the Australia international to escape Vidic's shackles and work on Jonny Evans instead. Both stoppage‑time goals arrived from his success against the younger central defender.
Moyes said: "I didn't feel as if we needed a turning point. What we maybe needed was our luck to change a little bit. We have got good players. We have got a good team. Obviously we're a little bit short in some areas of maybe being right at the top, but we'll be a game for anybody who comes here and I reckon we'll be a game for anybody wherever we go."
Given the hype surrounding Rooney's anticipated return to the club he supported and played for in his youth you would have suspected the streets around Goodison to be awash with bile and venom. No, that was 2005. There were no irate natives wielding pitch-forks on Saturday. All that awaited was a blow-up doll.
Man of the match Dimitar Berbatov (Manchester United)
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