West Bromwich Albion 5-5 Manchester United
It wasn’t so much a Premier League football match as a circus. Before it began West Brom and Manchester United formed a guard of honor for the legendary Gaffer of Gaffers, Sir Alex Ferguson, as he beamed and bowed to all and sundry before kickoff. Yet by the time he tried in vain to scurry away from the pitch, close to two hours later, his face was like a traffic light. Boxed in by a scrum of journos and security personnel, there was an almost soporific expression of feigned relief on his sharp, old ruddy Celt face. How he psyched himself into giving the crowd a cheeky wink and a smile along with a final wave is beyond this witness. I doubt if he saw a white light at the end of the Hawthorns’ tunnel, but having lasted over 1500 United games, this last goofy, testimonial-style kick about must have almost blown his mind. Even for Him, the grand ringmaster, the last of his redundant kind in the neo-corporate world of professional football, this last bow must have seemed like waking up in the midst of a Fellini movie. When Ferguson took a warmly-received bow before kickoff, he exuded an aura of sublime majesty and paterfamilias. What followed was bound to be anticlimactic
Mostly disinterested at the beginning of the game, the Baggies were like a brood of wealthy kids invited to their über, hip big, brother’s birthday party. There, but only barely so, hoping for cake and watching United run around, they might as well have been in the crowd. United went ahead after six minutes as the all-action Shinji Kagawa nodded home a Hernández cross after he was the recipient of an exquisite diagonal seeing-eye pass from Alex Büttner. Three minutes on, they had a second goal as a panicked Jonas Olsson mistakenly diverted a dipping Valencia pass past United’s old mistake-prone goalkeeper, Ben Foster. What might have been going on in the head of Foster is interesting to conjecture upon because of the utter disaster which happened to United’s reserve goalie Anders Lindergaard in the second half. A custodian’s life, it seems, is a lonely one!
Excited by the first two goals, the old Scot barely reacted at all to marauding left back Alex Büttner’s 30th-minute Bangalore-style rocket of a goal from an obtuse angle after some fine setup work by Chicharito and Tom Cleverley. But then, three up, United collectively went to sleep. You can get a lot done in fifteen minutes or, conversely, not done at all. It was as if Carrick, Cleverley, Anderson, et al, decided to take a couple of conference calls to deal with their brokers and make Summer vacation plans before facing the old man in the dressing room for the last time. Consequently, the Baggies reduced the deficit before half-time after a fine shimmying run saw James Morrison ease past a casual Phil Jones before sort of accidentally/on purpose steering home a shot that looked like a cross from the right.
For the second half, however, Albion’s dour coach, Stevie Clarke, did what he should have done earlier, bring on Romelo Lukaku to play his last game in Brum as a loanee. Jonny Evans–the supposed Derry Hard Man–was true to form up against Lukaku as he is when the opponent is Kenwyne Jones, Carlton Cole, Marlon Harewood, Nile Ranger or Shola Ameobi. The Gaffer’s sentimental second-favorite after Darren Fletcher, Evans can do no wrong in Fergie’s eyes and so became, once again, completely persona non grata on the pitch. The reason Ferguson allowed Gerard Pique return to Barcelona, Evans ought to have acknowledged his own limitations, walked away and sat down next to Nemanja Vidic on the bench Instead, it only took five minutes for Evans to be reduced to a wreck, backing off on an advancing Lukaku until he was blocking off the sight-line of Lindegaard and it was child’s play for the Belgian-born Congolese striker to fire casually home.
Yet United were still totally, casually in control as both Robin van Persie and Hernández squandered sitters from six yards out. And Hernandez was set up for yet another goal by Giggs after a sweet jinking run through the Baggies’ keystone kops defense. Yet Chicharito deferred to the retiring Paul Scholes, whose timing was at least two seconds off as he stumbled and shinned the ball softly to Foster. Scholes then had a little bit of the kind of fun we expect of him when he unleashed a copyright Ginger Prince-style late tackle on Claudio Yacob. Still, there was relief on the horizon as Robin van Persie scored his 26th league goal of the campaign, after a slide-rule cross by Valencia to make it 4-2. And it to all be over in the 63rd minute when the tireless Hernandez added a fifth, cleverly steering home a Ryan Giggs cross.
It was then that United got sincerely rattled as Lukaku picked up a long ball from Malumbu and headed at speed toward Evans. While Jones and Lindegaard screamed at Evans to retreat no more, the ball was already soaring into a shuddering net. And then with a poker-faced Ferguson fuming from the bench, Mulumbu played a nice double one-two with Billy Jones. before firing home in the 81st minute to make it 5-4.
Too little too late as, for his last act as a manager ever, the dark Lord Ferg brought on Rio Ferdinand for Evans. Yet by now, Lukaku was burning hot and ratcheting up what was by now every United fan’s fear. Undeniable, Lukaku grabbed his hat-trick, his seventeenth goal of the season, completing his hat-trick after muscling his way through Jones and Ferdinand during a goal mouth scramble four minutes from time. Indeed, instead of bemoaning United’s porous defense., my instincts cried out that, if Wayne Ronny wants to leave so badly for Chelsea, that this Lukaku kid thrown into a partial swap deal along with Ramires and a healthy chunk of Abramovich cash.
At any rate, despite this crazy draw at The Hawthorns, United finished their season eleven points ahead of Premier League runners-up Manchester City. Unbelievably, it has been a total of 10,000 days since Alex Ferguson’s first match as the manager of Manchester United, a 2-0 defeat against Oxford United. Winning a championship in his final season will go a long way toward comforting him for failing to pick up a third European Champions club. Nevertheless, the Gaffer and the Ginger Prince will always be missed. I even salute Michael Owen after his much quieter last gasp and retirement at Stoke City. Adieu! Adieu! To you and you and you!