The Couch: Life in the shadow takes its toll on man of substance
For fans of United and Sunderland, it was a cup semi-final, for everyone else it had a certain kind of drive-by appeal.
In other words it was a chance for some gratuitous rubber-necking should Manchester United happen to crash the car again. A spiral of decline that'd been unwinding all season had accelerated into a tailspin against Chelsea on Sunday.
The emphatic 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge was their fourth in five games. They would have a handy opportunity to stop the rot three days later, against a team second from bottom in the Premier League table. United, despite their troubles, were still strong favourites to turn around the 2-1 deficit from the first leg, especially at Old Trafford.
But rust never sleeps and a losing streak often has its own unnerving momentum. And maybe just maybe this was a game when things were about to go from bad to worse. The second leg last Wednesday night was attended by this voyeuristic frisson hanging in the atmosphere, lingering in the communal thought process.
The wheels coming off at an outfit like West Ham is one thing. The wheels coming off at a superpower is a sight too rare and wondrous to miss. No one was going to look discreetly the other way if it did come to pass.
It shouldn't have come to pass. Sunderland's enormous mental and physical effort on the night was no small achievement. But they were painfully limited in attack; the crucial away goal seldom looked like materialising.
But then the United goalkeeper threw one into the net. The look on David Moyes' face was priceless as he watched it unfold: Phil Bardsley's hopeful shot, David de Gea's implausible fumble. The manager closed his eyes and reflexed his hand to his face. It was a look of pristine shock, like a man who'd just been punched in the stomach. The match was in its 119th minute.
In stoppage time, fuelled by the adrenaline of desperation, they conjured an equaliser. It was the first time in a long time they'd behaved like an Alex Ferguson team. But it was a short-lived impersonation. The penalty shoot-out was straight out of Blazing Saddles.
Ferguson himself was watching from the stand. It's become obvious that he has found it hard to let go. But out of deference to the new regime, he should have disappeared for the season. He hasn't shown much class in this regard. Most politicians vanish from public life once their race is run. It's the done thing. It's largely a symbolic gesture, for they can no longer affect matters of state anyway.
But Ferguson's hold over United is so fresh in the memory that he remains more than just a symbol of past glories. He is not yet safely ensconced in history's trophy cabinet. He is still live and dangerous, looming large in the here and now. Which is why he should have made a clean break. It would have granted space to the new management. It would have drawn a clear and definitive line in the sand.
And even at that, the Moyes succession would still have been overshadowed. Ferguson could've taken himself off to a Carthusian monastery last summer – but the new man still had to walk into the changing room on his first day and start talking. And looking back at him would've been a formidable array of stars who'd won everything and done everything in the club game. They had the medals, they had the money and fame; they had the pre-eminence.
It is quite conceivable that in that moment there was a shift in the balance of power. Did he shrink in their presence, even subconsciously, by simply not being Ferguson? It was Sir Alex who many years ago famously declared that he wasn't there to please the players – they were there to please him. No matter how big they were, he was bigger; and man did they know it.
Moyes was walking into a void that Ferguson had filled to the brim with his almighty cocktail of charisma, knowledge and menace. Moyes should not be underestimated: he is patently a serious man and a manager of substance. His judgement, his mental toughness and intelligence were proven over 11 seasons at Everton.
But maybe this was the minimum that United needed in the wake of Ferguson. A manager of substance, certainly, to take charge of the team; but a manager with a large-scale personality also, to take charge of the institution. There had been a notable diffidence about Moyes in his early weeks in the job, maybe even an excess of deference in the face of this hallowed responsibility. Obviously he failed to augment the squad with a few elite signings when he took over. But there has been a telling slippage in attitude anyway among many of those who won the title last season.
Given sufficient time, Moyes could yet turn it around. Whatever his problems, there is an authenticity about him that has remained steadfast under the pressure. He hasn't resorted to silly excuses or bogus soundbites to spin his way out of the blame. He seems to be the type who will face the music and take his punishment.
But already the job is deepening the lines on his face. Sunderland on Wednesday added a few more wrinkles while everyone else craned their necks to examine the latest wreckage.