Dose of their own medicine leaves bitter aftertaste
It was a night of calamitous injustice, profound suffering and savage indignation at Old Trafford.
So, one really didn't wish to intrude upon the grief that was pouring out of the theatre of dreams. Rather it was time for a tender hand on the shoulder, a whispered word of condolence, perhaps a discreet bouquet at the door.
But then Mike Phelan shuffled into the post-match press conference with the world's media. Alex Ferguson's assistant was so ashen-faced that even his bald pate had turned a shade of grey – maybe all 50 of them.
He informed us that the manager was too upset to face the cameras. Sir Alex was "distraught", not "in any fit state", and "extremely disappointed". At which point, and despite the grave sensitivity of the moment, one found it impossible to keep an entirely straight face. In fact, any non-worshipper might have needed a heart of stone not to laugh. Or at least giggle, at the thought of dear old Alex inside in the dressing room, aghast after this harrowing turn of events.
His team had been a goal up; Real Madrid had been struggling all night. If Manchester United weren't quite in control of the game, they were certainly managing it well. In dropping Rooney, Ferguson had once again shown his bottle for the big-game call. Few if any outsiders saw the team selection and formation that was coming. But it was working beautifully. He had pulled off another legendary tactical coup. Then the referee entered the drama with all the force of a deus ex machina. In sending off Nani after 56 minutes, Cuneyt Cakir changed irrevocably the course of the game. He changed the course of the European Cup, arguably, with that one decision. But the cause and effect on the night was explicit, transparent. The red card jackknifed the match.
Jose Mourinho pounced instantly. It was a predatory strategic manoeuvre. He removed the full-back Arbeloa and put Modric into midfield. Modric exploited brilliantly the space now available with the extra man. He ran the show thereafter.
It was as if both managers, with all the subtext of their rivalry and friendship, were locked in a high-stakes poker game. Ferguson had been ahead on chips after the 1-1 at the Bernabeu three weeks earlier. At Old Trafford he was piling up more of them. He'd sussed Mourinho's hand and had dropped the Rooney ace from his. Then Jose produced his trump card: 'I'll see your Rooney and raise you Modric.'
Afterwards Mourinho was dubiously humble, politically magnanimous. But while Ferguson, after Nani's expulsion, ranted on the sideline and played to the gallery, the Portuguese genius-cum-blackguard kept a clear head. He'd been lining up Karim Benzema to come in off the bench; once Nani walked, he turned to Modric instead. Seven minutes later, Modric had the ball in the net. Three minutes after that, Ronaldo scored the match-winner.
Between the result, the red card and the knowledge that Mourinho had ultimately outflanked him, it's no wonder Ferguson was feeling bruised and battered afterwards. One had visions of Phelan, his faithful batman, his loyal Baldrick, taking him home later that night and tucking him up in bed with his favourite teddy bear. Perhaps leaving a family-sized bottle of Gaviscon on Alex's bedside locker too, with a ladle beside it.
Mind you, by Friday morning the great man was much improved. He had barely sat down for his weekly press conference before he was growling at the assembled hacks. "You wanna get rid of the nonsense first," was his opening gambit, "or do you wanna talk sense?"
The Thursday morning newspapers had been rampant with speculation that Rooney's demotion to the bench was the beginning of his end at Old Trafford. United would be selling him in the summer. "Absolute rubbish . . . absolute nonsense," declared Ferguson on Friday. It was almost a relief to see that the fire was back in his belly. And, as if to prove the point, he announced that two of the offending newspapers had been banned from the press conference. "They won't get back in here," he vowed, "until they apologise."
Without stopping to take a question he went straight into the notorious Nani decision. "Quite simply," he said, "it's hard to keep
your faith in the game when we see what's happened . . ."
The laptop jockeys were too cowed, perhaps, to ask him if his faith always remained strong when referees routinely stiffed the visiting team at Old Trafford and Fergie walked away with another, eh, controversial victory, happy to face the media afterwards. But it would have been an inappropriate question anyway, disrespectful and misguided.
As he ruminated further, he had a wistful expression, a faraway look in his eyes – the hurt was still raw. And one could understand it: for a referee to make a decision like that was an affront to the values that Alex holds dear. It was heresy, nothing less. Surely Mr Cakir hadn't forgotten where he was? Alas, it appears that he had.
It's an injustice that cries out to the heavens. There is no room for partisan opinions anymore, no time for namby-pamby equivocations. We should all be appalled; one sincerely hopes that we all are. Because we are at one with them in their pain; we are all United; we are all shoppers at the superstore now.