Hernandez sparkle puts a smile back on United faces
Stoke City 1 Manchester United 2
Of all the manoeuvres employed by Wayne Rooney's "people" to double their client's money the statement implying that Manchester United no longer have the resources or players to seriously challenge for trophies caused the most anger at Old Trafford.
The riposte came from Javier Hernandez, who arrived to no particular fanfare from a little-known club, Chivas Guadalajara, for a fee of £6m – or roughly seven months of what United have agreed to pay Rooney.
First, there was the leaping, twisting backward header, of astonishing power and technique, that opened the scoring for United. Then, the instinctive stabbing home of a loose ball that rescued another game that appeared torn from their grasp.
It was his fifth goal of the season. Rooney has one and that from the penalty spot. He is no more indispensable than Eric Cantona or Roy Keane; certainly not in his current, stuttering form.
Paul Stretford, the agent who drafted Rooney's statement, used to sell Hoovers for a living but his tactics have ensured his client now inhabits a vacuum – his name was not mentioned by the raucous travelling support either in chants or on banners.
Rooney, nursing an ankle injury sustained in a training ground tackle with Paul Scholes, spent his 25th birthday in Dubai, a land of seven-star hotels and man-made pleasure islands. His colleagues were involved in something altogether earthier.
Before kick-off, Ferguson described United's away form, yet to produce a victory, as "frivolous". There is nothing frivolous about Stoke. Until Hernandez scored, United rode out a bombardment before gradually imposing their authority on an afternoon that produced their first league victory of the season outside Old Trafford.
Seen through Stoke eyes, the decisive moment was when Gary Neville, becoming the fifth footballer to make 600 appearances for United and who had already been booked, scythed down Matthew Etherington. Even Neville thought he would be dismissed and the Stoke manager, Tony Pulis, asked: "If he were a Stoke City player at Old Trafford, do you think he would have stayed on the pitch?"
It was not a game Neville would recall with any fondness. During the interval, Ferguson decided he should be withdrawn for his own good, but neglected to inform the player, letting Neville walk on for the second half then immediately march off.
Ferguson said he regarded men like Neville and Scholes as "family" and Hernandez is his kind of player.
His father and grandfather were footballers, there is a modesty about him and he has the same unalloyed joy in playing that Rooney used to display – and which he may recapture once the demons have been driven out.
United needed Hernandez not once but twice. For all the noise and the chants of "Rooney's right, your team is shite" and the dislike directed at United, Stoke's challenge faded until Tuncay was introduced.
With nine minutes remaining, Scholes surrendered possession to Kenwyne Jones and the ball was fed to Tuncay on the right flank; he cut past Patrice Evra and drove his shot spectacularly past Edwin van der Sar. It was the first goal Stoke had scored against Manchester United since 1984 and seemed worth the wait.
On the away bench, it must have seemed a throwback to Fulham, Everton and West Bromwich – all the games in which United took a lead and failed to hold on. They responded as they once used to – decisively.
Dimitar Berbatov, who earlier had almost set up Hernandez with a spectacular volley that whistled past Thomas Sorensen's post, now lobbed the ball into the Stoke area. Scholes headed it on and, when Evra attempted something between a cross and a shot, the young Mexican turned it in.
So often this season United's ability to snatch a game at the death, one of their great trademarks under Ferguson, had appeared irredeemably lost.
Now, it was business almost as usual except that, after the week they have just endured, nothing at United will ever be usual again.
Possession: Stoke 46% Man United 54%.
Shots on target Stoke 2 Man United 6.
Referee A Marriner (West Midlands). Att 27,372.
Man of the match Hernandez. Match rating 7/10.
Independent News Service