So there it was – a result at Anfield at last. Nearly five long years of struggles, ending not with a domineering performance so many travelling Manchester United fans sought, but a huge slice of fortune. It favours the brave, doesn’t it? At least those ‘brave’ enough to deploy a midfield axis of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs.
United’s 2-1 victory on Sunday, after four defeats in the past five visits to Anfield, came not on the back of a great team performance. Not even near it. Nor indeed, any real moments of individual genius – although Rafael’s fine goal came close – but two refereeing decisions that swang the match United’s way. First robbing Liverpool of all midfield momentum, and then handing United the match 10 minutes from time.
Referee Mark Halsey got both of those key moments right though – JonJo Shelvey’s 39th minute dismissal for a high tackle on Jonny Evans, and the 81st minute penalty that enabled Robin van Persie to seal United’s first win at Anfield since December 2007. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men deserved very little of the luck though, with the Scot’s midfield completely – and predictably – overrun until Shelvey’s red card changed the game, and the canny Paul Scholes was brought on to ruthlessly exploit the additional space.
In truth, while United defended far better than in many recent matches – Rio Ferdinand on the day of John Terry’s international retirement was immense at the heart of the Reds’ back-four – Ferguson’s men created very little. This was a match in which United’s 70-year-old manager got his tactics all wrong, but came up trumps anyway.
Relief, then, for Ferguson whose team stole the points from a Liverpool side raising its game, once again, for United’s visit.
“In the last four years here we haven’t played well,” Ferguson told MUTV.
“Today at least we’ve got a result. Hopefully that’s a turning point for us because if you look back over the years we always did really well here. I think it was about five, six, seven years in a row we did exceptionally well, but it goes in cycles anyway. Before we had that run they had a period in the late ’80s of getting results against us, so it’s maybe our turn to start.
“I thought we were poor, to be honest with you. I think the last four years we’ve allowed the crowd to get to us a little bit – they give fantastic support to their team and they really dominated the first half. Second half they got a great start.
“With ten men I thought that was a great boost to them because it was something to hold on to, but credit to the players in that respect; the second half we played much, much better, but we were against ten men. I think Scholes, Carrick and Giggs’ experience got us through.”
Predictably, Liverpool’s players and manager complained about the refereeing, although it was almost impossible for Halsey not to have shown Shelvey red for a tackle that crossed the line from reckless to excessive. Meanwhile, other marginal calls fell United’s way, with little evidence for Liverpool’s complaint. Evans cleanly tackled Luis Suarez, with the Kop baying for a penalty, while Glenn Johnson felled Antonio Valencia ;under the official’s nose for the winning spot kick.
The pre-match ceremonies had brought a measure of détente between the camps, but it was shattered five minutes before half time when Shelvey refused to take his punishment with any grace. The former-Charlton midfielder, having already hit Ferdinand with a barrage of four-letter expletives on the pitch, aimed further ire at Ferguson before departing for the dressing rooms.
“I think it’s a clear sending off, I’ve absolutely no doubts about it,” added Sir Alex.
“I’ve seen the replay. It was reckless. Jonny Evans, who has dived in, went for the ball and got the ball, no question about that, but Shelvey was nowhere near getting the ball and could have given Jonny Evans a real bad injury. He was very lucky, actually.
“Shelvey came and blamed me. Why not? Why look at himself in the mirror? Just blame someone else. I think the boy’s young and when he looks at it again he’ll realise the stupidity of it. He may apologise, he may not.”
The midfielder later claimed on Twitter that he had apologised to United’s septuagenarian coach, before deleting the statement. It takes not a soothsayer to predict why, not least after the 20-year-old later accused Ferguson of being “a grass” for the manager’s perceived role in the decision.
Meanwhile, in a week when United supporters came under fire for singing “Always the victim” at Old Trafford last Saturday, Ferguson came perilously close to echoing the sentiment if not the dark spirit of that particularly divisive chant.
But there were positives for United, not least Ferdinand’s outstanding defensive display, and another buccaneering performance from Brazilian right-back Rafael da Silva. The youngster retains many critics, especially with loose defensive work too often complementing fine attacking skills. But with United on the rack for much of the fixture, Rafael demonstrated maturity in defence and an outstanding goal, curled in with his left foot.
“Rafael’s goal got us out of the mire,” added Ferguson of the 51st minute equaliser.
“It was a fantastic goal, a good bit of football and it put us in the position where we didn’t need to panic and worked our way through the rest of the game. [The penalty] wasn’t easy for him [van Persie], but he’s taken it well, just the way I envisaged he would take these penalties. When he was at Arsenal, either side he would thunder them home. Reina’s had a good attempt, he got a hand to it, but the power of the shot has made it safe.”
Off the pitch United played a full part in commemorating those lost at Hillsborough 23 years ago, with Sir Bobby Charlton handing 96 roses to former Liverpool striker Ian Rush. The flowers formed part of an extensive pre-match ceremony, which Ferguson had ensured United did not shirk.
Meanwhile, Steven Gerrard released red balloons over Anfield, followed by the usual pre-match rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Visiting supporters, warned to behave by Ferguson pre-match, sang through the anthem as is always the way at Anfield. “U N I T E D,” sang almost 3,000 travelling Mancunians in support of their team. ‘Foul’ cried a select few – ill-informed – journalists on social media.
While, Sky Sports deliberately sought to stoke the controversy, and the Mirror’s Martin Lipton claimed disrespect, there were no complaints from more sensible observers. After all, nobody claims “United Calypso” and dozens of other club anthems across the land are sacrosanct.
Indeed, this was a match when – save for a few muted cries of “Murderers” and one unfortunate burst of “Where’s your famous Munich song?” after 13 minutes – the majority came to pay respect and enjoy a fine, if fortunate United victory. By the end two Liverpool supporters ran across the Anfield turf wheeling their arms in an all-too-familiar aeroplane motion to provoke another round of anti-Liverpool songs in an empty stadium. There’s always a few to break the mould.
On the pitch United is yet to reach anywhere near top gear this season, having only ever played well in short bursts. There were rarely any moments at all on Sunday, save for the goals. In that there is at least hope; United can only get better in the season to come. Unless, the pessimists among us might add, Ferguson’s luck simply runs out. It certainly didn’t on Sunday.
But after a week in which the 70-year-old has forcefully built a bridge between the two clubs, perhaps he deserved it.