“Fred Karno’s? It was a circus that came around. A working class circus in the Twenties. Any situation that’s vaguely out of control, innit? Any situation which is daft in Manchester.”——–Joan Louiza
Manchester United 3-2 Newcastle United
Yet another comedy of errors at Old Trafford. Having been unable to score against a dogged Swansea city defense last week, fans clearly went into this one worried that United’s defensive back line, who have been playing in an inexplicably bizarre manner that brings together both a nonchalant meekness and a stultifying arrogance, would once again be rescued by its fantastic forward line, which surely couldn’t hiccup in front of goal for more than one game in a row. Over an angina-inducing afternoon of thrills and reverses, during a dog-eat-dog match played in the torrential rain on a soggy pitch, the whole thing came down to a last minute flash of 90th minute brilliance, as Javíer ‘Chicharito’ Hernández, who had squandered at least eight good opportunities from setups of varying degrees of quality, slid in brilliantly to connect with a perfect Michael Carrick pass and fire it past a flailing Tim Krul into the Newcastle net. An emotional moment for fans indeed, but one that had United’s usually reserved and semidetached manager Sir Alex Ferguson so pumped up that he jumped into the open arms of his joyful assistant Mike Phelan to celebrate.
Another goofy aspect of this comedy of errors was the eccentric behavior of the game’s referee Mike Dean. The whistle-happy Dean seemed to be in his element. Inconsistent throughout, turning a blind eye to a number of blatant tackles while penalizing far more ticky-tacky bits of gamesmanship, Dean may have been petty, but he was also absolutely unbiased. His worse bit of meddlesome interference, however, involved his wishy-washy reaction to Newcastle’s second goal when an arguably offside Demba Ba tussled with Jonny Evans, who accidentally pushed the ball into his own goal with the Senegalese striker bearing down on him. Having called the goal offside initially, Dean discussed the matter with two assistants before overruling himself. Additionally, there was a long drawn out unnecessary piece of drama late in the game involving Rio Ferdinand, Fabio Coloccini and Newcastle’s assistant John Carver, which United’s captain Patrice Evra seemed to need to solve while Dean stood explaining himself ad infinitum to the four as if he were a celebrity judge in a talent contest.
With Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck all incapacitated for United and the Magpies’ star midfield of Yohan Cabaye, Jason Guttíerez and Cheik Tioté all out, too, both sides’ benches were bound to be tested.
Just four minute in, a long clumsy attempt at a crossfield pass by Hernández went in the direction of Michael Carrick, who overran the ball, allowing Demba Ba to pick it up. Ba’s shot was easily saved by David De Gea, although for some reason the young Spanish goalkeeper forgot his fundamentals, palming it forward instead of gathering it up or punching the ball sideways. The ball then bounced straight back into the path of a marauding James Perch, who proceeded to hammer home his first ever Premier League goal.
In the 26th minute United equalized as a Robin van Persie free-kick swung in from the right. It was then headed on softly by Ryan Giggs. A panicked Newcastle defense then failed to clear the bobbling ball, before Tim Krul made a hash of gathering up Hernández’s close range shot and Evans threw his body into the six yard boss to force the loose ball in.
Two minutes later, the slapstick was ratcheted up as a Danny Simpson cross was turned in by a panicked Evans as a big Papiss Cisse bore down on him. While the Belfast boy clasped his head in despair, clearly not thinking anything about an offside call, across the field, the referee’s assistant James Collin had raised his flag, doubtless thinking that the last touch of the ball was from an offside Papiss Cissé. Then Dean, surrounded while being verbally harangued by Newcastle players, consulted his assistants and changed his mind to allow the goal after all.
When it was time for the second half, United were first out, playing grinning keepy-uppies as the rain still fell and a furious, ruddy-jowled Sir Alex Ferguson argued animatedly with Dean, Collin, and the fourth official, Neil Swarbrick, still obsessing over Evans’ own goal. When the game finally did begin again, Newcastle seemed slightly deflated when, in the 58th minute, a Van Persie volley was only lightly blocked by Mike Williamson. The ball bounced to Evra–who has a history of blasting the ball wide in such situations–but the Frenchman, possibly having his worst single defensive performance ever in a United kit–fired a perfect left-footed daisy-cutter home to beat Krul and make the score 2-2.
Ten minutes later, as United abandoned all joke attempts at defending null and void for good, they were sucker-punched royally yet again. This time, Gabriel Obertan–formerly hip-hop partner in anarchy with Ravel Morrison and Bebe in United’s bench riding squad–on as a second-half replacement for the Magpies, sprinted down the left wing completely unopposed before gently passing into United’s box for no one in particular. Unattended by Carrick, Evans or Ferdinand–who may well have been discussing their Christmas presents or the new Tarantino movie–Papiss Cissé, free as a bird, took three quick steps before hammering home a left-footed thunderbolt past David De Gea. At that moment, with the Geordie team leading 3-2, the rain temporarily slacked off and the Stretford End faithful sang “You don’t know what you’re doing!” although I’m genuinely not sure who their singing was directed at.
But all that Geordie passion and bravery only remained in ascendence for three thin minutes as an Antonio Valencia pass from the right was dead on the money to Robin Van Persie. Van Persie–who had been United’s Mr. Everything on a night on which everyone was convinced Wayne Rooney would surely be missed, was brilliant, making scores of superb slide rule-passes and repeatedly firing in dangerous, accurate free kicks and corners–had a thumping shot saved by Krul, before collecting the rebound and this time converting to force the score to 3-3.
Seconds later, a Sammy Amoebi shot rebounded off the post into De Gea’s arms. Yet, with ten minutes to go, there were Rio Ferdinand, substitute Nemanja Vidic and temporary right back Chris Smalling all marauding upfield. With baited breath, sensing the kill was coming from one side or the other, United fans breathed a sigh of relief as both Ameobi brothers made a successive hash out of runs down the wing.
The final coup-de-grace, however, came out of an inocuous throw in from Evra to Carrick. when Anita missed making a connection to James Perch, Carrick was in there. Striding forward, the Newcastle-born midfielder let fly with as good a quality slide-rule pass as he’ll ever make. Right into the path of a sprinting Chicharito, who slid into the ball exquisitely, forcing it into the net for the winner.
With Ferguson going nuts on the sidelines, the crowd singing and the clock ticking down, the whistle blew accompanied by a last bit of drama as Vernon Anita made a meal out of a hard. late tackle bestowed upon on him by an unbelievably amped-up Antonio Valencia. Yet, as Anita was being taken off on a stretcher, he rose miraculously and, set down by the bewildered emergency workers, was energetic enough to run and confront a deliriously happy Patrice Evra in mid celebration. It was as crazy a professional football match aas I have ever witnessed and surely, somewhere out there, the ghost of Fred Karno was grinning.
Thanks to the miracle of my trusty Blackberry–the Hummer of cell phones–I was connected to my beloved Aunty Joan as she was attempting to make her exit from the stadium. It had, she informed me, finally quit raining simultaneous to the blowing of the final whistle.
“Craziest game ever,” I said.
“Fred Karno’s got nothing on this!” she said. “I am an elderly woman and I believe they are out to kill me.”