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Sunday, November 27, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: November 28, 8:43 PM UK
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The Insider

WEST HAM UNITED: 1 MANCHESTER UNITED: 2

These are confused, tragic and potentially momentous times in the history of Manchester United Football Club.

This was always likely to be a day dedicated to the memory of a player who played a huge part in building the global brand this club represents and the late great George Best was suitably remembered with a moving standing ovation from a respectful sell-out crowd moments before this game kicked-off.

The modest Best would probably have been far more concerned by the conversations rattling around the press room than any remembrance of his talents. His love for Manchester United never wavered throughout his triumphant and ultimately truncated life, so the words of some of the North East's most seasoned writers would have worried him much more than any of his long running problems.

Tributes to Best shared the pages of the Sunday newspapers with a host of stories surrounding United's future on and off the pitch. Guus Hiddink and Ottmar Hitzfeld are among the names said to be in the frame to replace Sir Alex Ferguson as manager next summer, with one respected reporter going as far as to say he would 'put his mortgage on the fact that Fergie won't be at United this time next year'.

Ferguson's departure would make Roy Keane's surprise exit look like a minor blip in the Old Trafford set-up, yet the suggestion of another hack that United may be forced to sell players in January in order to finance any new signings will not go down well with the Scot whose vow to stay on indefinitely could easily begin to waver. As ever, the source for this yarn was somewhat shady as 'a pal in America' was credited by a story teller who seemed convinced by his 'insider knowledge'.

In another corner of the press room, two hacks were comparing notes over Vodafone's surprise decision to terminate their shirt sponsorship deal with United earlier this week. One claimed the mobile phone giant didn't want to be associated with a failing club, while the other suggested the search for a replacement advertising partner was not going as well as the club's hierarchy would have expected.

Throw in the fact that United are in danger of being knocked-out of the Champions League at the first hurdle, lag well behind Chelsea in the Premiership and lack the consistency to genuinely challenge for top honours and you have a gloomy picture.

When you read TV presenter and United fanatic Eamonn Holmes' writing in the matchday programme for this game, you realise the depth of the despair rippling through the club's most loyal of fans. 'I'm not overly confident that we will achieve great things this season,' wrote the often annoying Holmes. 'We have the basis of a fine squad and they will come good in time. All clubs have a period where they have to regroup and prepare for a new era and United are there now.'

So United have gone from being the world's richest club to one that needs to sell before it can buy, cannot get a shirt sponsor, has lost its inspirational captain and is about to be parted from it's most successful manager of all time. If all that was true, the supporters who suggested Malcolm Glazer's take-over last summer was the end of the club would be proved right and if even half of it were to come to fruition, their gloom would have been justified.

Best's premature passing may have diverted attention away from what is rapidly developing into a confused mess of rumours surrounding United and as Marlon Harewood fired West Ham into a first minute lead to send Upton Park into a frenzy, their crisis threatened to escalate beyond control.

It needed a host of fine saves from former United keeper Roy Carroll to keep the Hammers ahead at half-time and Ferguson was clearly unhappy with his defence as the decision to take off faltering central defender Mikael Silvestre after 36 minutes confirmed as much.

He need not have been unduly concerned as once United clicked into gear, the Hammers has no answers. On a day when the script writers were waiting for the George Best of the current generation, Wayne Rooney, to make his mark on proceedings, he duly obliged as he jinxed in the box just like the aforementioned legendary Irishman and finished under Carroll to draw the sides level two minutes into the second half.

With Rooney in their ranks, Ferguson and United may yet plot a route to glory this season and the young maestro so nearly gave his team a lead as his sparkling run so almost carved open West Ham's defences once again a few minutes after his goal. He had done enough, however, as John O'Shea powered United into a lead from the corner that was won thanks to Rooney's magical burst.

Amid all the chaos off the field over at the Theatre of Dreams the last few months, this United side are still a class apart from all but one or two Premiership sides when at their flowing best. Playing a system that ensures Rooney is given every chance to influence games, his individual class is too much for most who come up against him.

We are fortunate to be handed an unobstructed aerial view of the Boleyn Ground pitch from our seats in the press box and as the confidence began to flow through United, their off the ball movement was a sight to behold. Led by Ruud van Nistelrooy and with Paul Scholes and Park Ji-Sung impressing in the midfield, West Ham simply couldn't hold firm at the back and it seemed to be only a matter of time before the decisive third United goal arrived.

Van Nistelrooy came within an inch of sealing the win when he chipped a shot onto the underside of the crossbar 20 minutes from time, before Rooney missed a clear cut chance from close range in the closing seconds. Those missed chances mattered little as another three points were safely in the bag.

As ever, United boss Ferguson broke Premier League rules by failing to turn up for his post match press conference, but he did manage to spare a few words for the TV cameras. 'We had a terrible start, but we kept making chances and I said at half-time that the next goal would win the game,' he said.

'The second half performance was excellent. It was great to see Paul Scholes playing so well and Rooney was fantastic once again. He is only 20, but Wayne is the best young player I've seen without question. He is a breath of fresh air to the game and could have scored four or five goals today.'

So a young genius and an Irishman gave Manchester United the victory on a day when George Best was at the forefront of all minds. As for all those press room tales, time will tell whether any of them have a ring of truth around them.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Wayne Rooney

We have heard all week from those who were privileged to watch George Best in full flow and we should not underestimate the opportunity we are being afford to witness the rise and rise of Rooney. This was another virtuoso masterclass from the 20-year-old Scouser, whose display was not ruined by his yellow card for a wild lash on Danny Gabbidon seven minutes from time.

FOOD WATCH: Chips that droop when you hold them above chest height are always something of a disappointment. Five out of ten at best for the chef.

HALF TIME TREAT: The Hammerettes, a scantily clad dance troop, pranced around to Madonna's No.1 single at half time and a close inspection of their finest assets as they left the field confirmed they were more than a little cold.

THE BEST TRIBUTE: Celebrating the life of a legend such as Best with applause is a far better idea than allowing a bunch mindless losers (AKA Leeds United fans), to claim his own personal moment of glory while shouting abuse during what should be a minute's 'silence'.

UNITED VERDICT: Sir Alex Ferguson is a stubborn character, as he has proved by his determination to pick Darren Fletcher even though he looks out of his depth at this level. Fergie has also been riled by people questioning his insistence on playing a lone striker over the last couple of years, yet now that he has abandoned the plan, Ruud van Nistelrooy looks to be a different player, while Rooney and Scholes give United real potency in the attacking third. This side is showing real signs promise.


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