Perhaps it is all a matter of perception. For clubs at one end of the spectrum, a home defeat at the hands of a local rival may be enough to start the tabloids gossiping. Supporters of Aldershot Town could be forgiven for shrugging their shoulders at such relative trivialities. They, in March of 1992, lost their club with two months of the season left to play and had to begin again the following season as a new club, in the Ryman League Division Three. It took Aldershot until 2008 to get back into the Football League and they remain in League Two, in a lower mid-table position in the table.
For Manchester United supporters lucky to have got themselves tickets for this, a trip to The Recreation Ground is a trip back in time. With a barrel-roofed terrace behind one goal, this is a ground which has changed little in the twenty years since Aldershot FC went to the wall. For all the talk of jangling nerves, however, the gulf between the top of the Premier League and the middle of League Two is so great that Manchester United strolled through this match with the casual insousiance of a wealthy dowager regarding a pauper in the streets. The gulf this evening look as great as it ever has, and this was with Ferguson choosing to play his fringe players.
Manchester United’s two first half goals came from two players that sit, ghost-like on the periphery of the first team, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen. Berbatov stroked the ball into the corner of the net with a quarter of an hour played and then almost turned his marker inside-out before crossing the ball Owen to add the second goal with four minutes of the half left to play. In the intervening twenty-five minutes or so, however, there were times when their defence did still look shaky, with a call for a penalty for a foul by Nemanja Vidic only waved away by an offside flag.
On the whole, Manchester United were back to something approaching their studied, imperious best. Football has become a more technical game in recent years, and the long, tall and short of their superiority this evening was greater technical ability. No matter what their shortcomings might be on a week-in-week-out basis in the Premier League, these fringe players are still technically superior to their lower division opponents, less likely to treat the ball like a grenade with the pin pulled out and more likely to flick a barely perceptible switch and float their way throw. Manchester United did that twice in the opening forty-five minutes this evening without even breaking sweat.
If Aldershot were find a way into this match, they needed a strong start to the second half. Three minutes in, they were three goals down, a beautiful shot from Antonio Valencia into the top left-hand corner of the goal. From here on, Aldershot did at least manage to rally and force some pressure upon the Manchester United defence, but that technical edge made all the difference again. Although they managed to hold possession well in midfield positions, when they reached the edge of the Manchester United penalty area they ran out of ideas and were patiently nudged to one side and out of danger by the visiting defence.
From here on, we witnessed a running down of the clock from Manchester United, and when they did break forward they still looked as if they could breach the Aldershot defence at will. The crowd was even treated to that rarest of sights, the lesser-spotted Morrison, young Ravel, the trouble-maker with enormous potential for as long as he doesn’t allow himself to get in the way. It was Berbatov, however, that came the closest to scoring with a free-kick from the edge of the penalty area which had to be beaten away by the Aldershot goalkeeper, Worner. At the full-time whistle, a comfortable victory for Manchester United, a clean sheet, no injuries collected and a solid performance on what could have been a tricky evening after Sunday’s fun and frolics.
Or could it? Manchester United were already playing their fringe team for this match, they still managed to cruise to a comfortable win this evening. Alex Ferguson can afford to play a team like this for a match like this because he knows that the players that he has at his disposal are still good enough to win a match like this and because his reputation as a manager will not stand or fall depending on whether Manchester United get knocked out of the League Cup on a night such as this. That is the reality of the competition in this day and age, and to that extent the football revolution that has been consuming some of us started a long time ago. Aldershot Town, meanwhile, the club that wouldn’t die and fought its way back from extinction and into the Football League, have picked up a tidy sum in tickets sales and television money, a six-figure sum which will go a small way towards helping to provide that buffer against a repeat of the events of 1992 – a small consolation on a night for which the odds were always stacked against them.
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