Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul Scholes had appeared to be denied the victorious Old Trafford send-off they craved in their final home game before retirement due to a Swansea City side who came to the party and proved awkward guests.
That was until the 87th minute when a Robin van Persie corner from the right bounced once in the area and the lurking Rio Ferdinand smashed home a volley that electrified the defender, his team-mates and all United fans.
This was the grandstand finish of the stereotypical Ferguson United, and one that Scholes, watching from the bench, would have recognised as all too familiar during his 19 years of service. Scholes had departed a pitch that has been his Palladium on 66 minutes: there was a quick turn and applause for the adoring crowd, a half-grin to his incoming replacement, Anderson, and he was gone.
Scholes had produced a vignette of probing balls, sprayed passes and occasional sprints into the area that provided a snapshot of the 38-year-old's qualities.
This had been Scholes's 498th Premier League appearance, during which time he has helped win 11 titles in a glittering career that began for the Salford-born boy in a League Cup tie against Port Vale in 1994. He – and Ferguson – would have wanted a more comfortable win but there was no denying that, after the break at least, United lost their mojo and until Ferdinand's intervention would probably have felt relieved not to have lost on a memorable afternoon for all concerned.
This day was never about Wayne Rooney so the news that the forward, whose future remains unclear, was not even in the match-day 18 caused a brief ripple of interest before the decision's implications were filed away for another day.
For his last home XI Ferguson had selected a blend of the old guard – Ferdinand, Scholes and company – with the younger blood of Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones and Javier Hernández.
In a festive atmosphere that featured the home congregation gleefully singing: "We won our trophy back now Mancini's got the sack," as the news came that Manchester City's manager appears certain to lose his job, it was Hernández and Van Persie who combined first. The Mexican, rated the club's finest finisher by Ferguson, was played in to the right of Gerhard Tremmel's goal and after pausing cleverly he scooped a left foot through the ball but saw it come back off the crossbar.
Before this chance Scholes had dinked over a crafty ball that Patrice Evra just failed to connect with. A further contribution from the maestro came after a combination with Welbeck and Hernández that found Scholes ghosting into the penalty area but the finish was weak.
The 39th-minute opener was scrappy but no one connected to United will care. After a stoppage to treat Welbeck and Neil Taylor after a clash over a 50-50 ball, Ferguson's side were awarded the free-kick. Van Persie connected clumsily with this, which may have drawn the error from Ashley Williams who, perhaps expecting a colleague to clear, pushed the ball straight into Hernández's path. From close range, El Chicharito buried the chance.
In a half that featured barely any attacking threat from Michael Laudrup's side, Van Persie created an earlier chance for his strike partner but though Hernández pivoted well, the volley was overcooked and sailed over Tremmel's goal.
After the break, Pablo Hernández, who has the scurrying style of Real Madrid's Angel di María, started the move from which Swansea equalised. The Spaniard delivered a cross that United were forced to clear for a corner. From this, Williams climbed highest to head the ball across goal and possession arrived at Nathan Dyer's feet. The winger's ball was swung in and though Jones dived in to attempt to head clear, Michu wanted it more and his clean volley beat David de Gea.
If this caused disquiet in the United ranks, worse nearly occurred soon. Wayne Routledge got in behind – precisely where Ferdinand did not want him – but as the forward pulled the trigger Ferdinand got back close enough to make him miss to De Gea's left.
Since claiming a 20th championship here by beating Aston Villa, United had drawn at Arsenal and lost at Old Trafford to Chelsea. When first De Gea beat out Hernández's attempt then José Flores saw his shot scrambled away, the sense deepened that United might have to wait until the final day at West Bromwich Albion to win again. But Ferdinand, with a first goal since 2008, and the renowned late United surge put paid to that.
Man of the match Rio Ferdinand