Sunderland unable to spoil party
It began with a guard of honour and the announcement that the North Stand at Old Trafford had been renamed in honour of the man clocking up 25 years' service. A dozen workmen risking vertigo on the roof whipped off the covers to reveal the huge red lettering of what shall now be known as the 'Sir Alex Ferguson Stand' and, after a start like that, it would have been almost impudent for Sunderland to ruin his day.
Steve Bruce's team did at times threaten to go in for some old-fashioned party-pooping, but this was a day of anniversary gifts for Ferguson and perhaps the most important of the lot was the own goal with which Wes Brown gave his old team this narrow victory, inadvertently heading in Nani's corner at the end of the first half. Brown may as well have wrapped the ball in pink ribbon on the afternoon it was also announced United had commissioned a statue of Ferguson, to be unveiled outside the newly named stand next August.
The statue will be created by Philip Jackson, whose previous work includes the life-size sculpture of Matt Busby outside Old Trafford. All of this had been kept a secret from Ferguson -- no mean feat given the way he controls great swathes of the Old Trafford workforce -- and the manager admitted being "really emotional" afterwards. "I didn't expect anything like that. I didn't know anything about it. My family didn't know. I really have to thank the club because it's a proud moment."
It was a gratifying way to mark a quarter of a century in the job for the man introduced to the Old Trafford crowd as "the greatest manager in the world", even if there was the suspicion at times that all the tributes, presentations and side issues had been a distraction to Ferguson's players.
United still look well short of the exhilarating form they displayed at the start of the season and, though Wayne Rooney acquitted himself ably in his new midfield role, the players who would usually be expected to illuminate games were generally subdued. This was a performance that seldom threatened to exceed six out of 10.
"It was a long day," Ferguson said. "I think the players wanted to do well for me and possibly it affected them. I remember when we commemorated the anniversary of the Munich air disaster and lost to Manchester City and it definitely affected the players that day, too."
They were still the better team in terms of chances created and possession of the ball but it was a close-run thing at times and their afternoon threatened to go horribly wrong midway through the second half when one of the linesmen, Jake Collin, flagged for a handball inside the United penalty area and the referee, Lee Mason, took the signal and pointed to the spot.
The offending hand had belonged to Ji Dong-won, the Sunderland substitute, but briefly it seemed as though the guilty verdict was directed at either Phil Jones or Nemanja Vidic.
"I couldn't believe it," Ferguson said. "I clearly saw it was the Korean boy who handled it but the fact the linesman put the flag across his chest suggested it was a penalty."
Fortunately for United, the protests were impassioned enough to persuade Mason to approach Collin and they overturned the decision. "Ultimately it was the right decision," Bruce conceded. "But he was guessing, he shouldn't have been and it leaves a bad taste."
Ji was on the pitch because Connor Wickham had suffered a serious knee injury -- "That's the big disappointment for us," Bruce said -- two minutes into an afternoon when Sunderland generally looked impressive until they reached the penalty area. Ferguson said the last 15 minutes had been "torture" but Sunderland lacked the penetration to create clear chances and, with Rio Ferdinand looking more like his old self alongside Vidic, Anders Lindegaard had a relatively quiet afternoon deputising for David de Gea.
Ireland international Keiren Westwood had the busier afternoon, making an outstanding double save to prevent Rooney and Patrice Evra making it 2-0, but he, too, must have expected a more rigorous workout.
Instead, the home side did just about enough, with Brown showing that sometimes the best parties are when an old friend turns up with an unexpected gift.
Sunday Indo Sport