Manchester United’s grip on the Premier League ended 200 miles south in West London as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side finished the season with a routine thrashing of Stoke City. By half-time resignation had already enveloped Old Trafford’s vast bowl. On 90 fans took their frustrations out on the American owners with a shrill whistle-based protest.
In truth there was little tension at Old Trafford, with Stoke fans riotously cheering every event from Stamford Bridge. Schadenfreude is a strange bedfellow, with the visiting supporters seemingly believing they have a credible rivalry with United while singing for their new hero, John Terry.
Better perhaps that Stoke supporters – whose loyalty did not stretch to selling out their ticket allocation – turn a blind eye to events on the pitch, with damage limitation the visitors’ principal aim. Little surprise with the Potters having been thrashed at United’s title rivals Chelsea a fortnight ago.
United opened in positive fashion, with Dimitar Berbatov guilty of missing two good opportunities in the opening 10 minutes. First a header that flew over from six yards and then another that clipped the top of the bar.
Within minutes Stoke fans’ cheer alerted home supporters and players alike to the score from Stamford Bridge.
But what doubt there may have been out United’s ability to brush off the disappointing news from London ended with Darren Fletcher’s close range opening strike following Stoke’s inability to deal with Ryan Giggs’ corner.
By the time Giggs himself turned in Dimitar Berbatov’s pass for United’s second shortly before half-time nobody had any doubt about either result.
It says much about United’s make-up that the player’s drive towards a positive finish to the season did not end there. Goals three and four arrived before the end.
First, former United defender Danny Higginbotham turned Wayne Rooney’s left-wing cross into his own net, before substitute Park Ji-Sung’s diving header ended proceedings with minutes left.
Before the end Rooney substituted himself – the striker’s groin injury flaring up again – although the 34-goal forward took his place with son Kai in the post match lap of honour. The groin worrying only for the little Englander element among the Stoke support who, finally supporting their own team, sang of the Potters’ “Englishness.”
Ferguson refused to start the inquest into United’s failures in the aftermath, while paying tribute to Chelsea whose 103 Premier League goals this season is a remarkable achievement.
“Next season hopefully we can bring back the title to the best place in the world,” Ferguson said afterwards.
“But now we must congratulate Carlo Ancelotti and his team. It is a terrific achievement to beat Manchester United.
“If at the start of the season someone had said the title race would have been taken to the wire we would have been happy knowing that most times we win but not this time.
“When we heard Wigan had gone down to 10 men, hope evaporated then.
“The players and supporters are always magnificent and they have been again. I thinking they can be proud of the challenge for a fourth title in a row.
“I am not going to agonise about where it went wrong. Sometimes you get the breaks, on other occasions you don’t.”
The Scot hinted at summer transfer market activity, although nothing is yet sealed bar the deals for Javier Hernandéz and Chris Smalling. With United’s £716.5 million debt no less a millstone around the manager’s neck than last summer, there is little chance of a major revamp at Old Trafford.
But with seven defeats in the Premier League and twelve in all competitions change is required if Ferguson is to return United to the pinnacle of domestic let alone European football.
“We have got ideas. We are looking at the structure of the club,” added Ferguson.
“There may be one or two things but at the moment nothing is signed. We have a good squad but we have to do one or two things.”
Fans’ frustration is focused on the Glazer family’s ownership rather than Ferguson’s side. Rightly so.
The match began with a light aircraft circling Old Trafford with a “Glazer out” message, while thousands waved green and gold “Go” placards or blew the 50,000 whistles distributed by the Manchester United supporters trust.
By the time football returns to Old Trafford in August most will hope for fresh faces in the boardroom as well as on the pitch.