West Bromwich Albion and Manchester United players formed a guard of honour as Sir Alex Ferguson took a warmly-received bow before kick-off. He has spent plenty of time on the grass this past week because he thinks it's all over. After 1,500 United games, it seems safe to say: it is now.
West Brom's match programme included a generous 40-page tribute to the Scot's quarter century of service, which included an observation by Roy Hodgson to the effect that once Arsène Wenger steps down as well an era really will have ended, since it is difficult to imagine 20-year managerial reigns in the future. "You won't see the likes of that again," the England manager predicted.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Ryan Giggs came on for the last half hour. Probably won't see the likes of him again either. Or Paul Scholes, that other one-club veteran, who was inevitably introduced for the final quarter of the game so that he could officially take his leave in the company of the only manager he has ever known. Cue "Paul Scholes he scores goals," from the United end, in addition to "Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, flying down the wing." Cue Giggs doing just that three minutes after taking the field to lay on United's fifth goal for Javier Hernández. The United fans just lapped it up. They have never had it so good, and they know it.
The final scoreline resembled a testimonial game and there was an end of term atmosphere on the pitch — United were ahead after six minutes when Shinji Kagawa nodded in Hernández's cross following a terrific crossfield pass by Alex Buttner, then doubled their lead three minutes later as Jonas Olsson diverted Antonio Valencia's cross past his own goalkeeper — though for a fixture in which nothing was at stake the stewards behind Anders Lindegaard's goal were kept busy. Not entirely unexpectedly, some United supporters had managed to get their hands on tickets for the home section, and the early goals seemed to blow their cover. Isolated fights began to break out and several ejections had to be made, with one fan cheekily attempting to take a short cut across the pitch to reach the sanctuary of the United support but being apprehended in the process.
By midway through the first half the travelling fans had relaxed to the extent of asking Ferguson for a wave (he obliged) and updating their repertoire of anti-City choruses to take in the developments of the past week at the Etihad. When Buttner added a third goal on the half hour, drilling a low shot across Ben Foster after Tom Cleverley's easy square pass had exposed Albion's lack of cover on the right, several home fans could be seen heading for some respite on the concourses. Most of them had reappeared in time to see James Morrison pull a goal back just before the interval, turning in a Graham Dorrans cross after Buttner had given the ball away to Youssouf Mulumbu.
Romelu Lukaku was introduced for the second half and immediately brought West Brom back into contention with a well-taken goal after Jonny Evans had stood off for a fraction too long, only for United to almost effortlessly push further in front with six-yard line strikes by Robin van Persie and Hernández. Scholes was unable to get onto the scoresheet, despite every encouragement from Giggs and the away support, though he did pick up a trademark booking for a typically wild challenge on Claudio Yacob. United were a little rattled at that point, for Lukaku had again got himself in front of Evans to score his second of the afternoon and Mulumbu brought the Baggies to within a goal of parity after a neat interchange with Billy Jones.
A stern-faced Ferguson's response was to send on Rio Ferdinand for Evans, and this time not for sentimental reasons. Lukaku was not to be denied, however, and completed his hat-trick with a scrambled effort four minutes from time. With 17 goals for the season, perhaps David Moyes should sign him up.