It took 15 minutes and a majestic swing of Edinson Cavani’s boot for all talk of demonstrations, protests and postponements to be consigned firmly to Manchester United’s past. Supporters were back at Old Trafford and a new cult idol is in town.
The Uruguay veteran, who was talked into signing a one-year contract extension by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer recently largely on the promise of what it would be like to play in front of a packed Old Trafford, was offered a glimpse of that prospect.
There were 10,000 fans in attendance for the first time in 436 days, after a run of 35 home games behind closed doors for Solskjaer’s team, and they were treated to a goal to wash away the frustrations of those 14 months.
David de Gea kicked the ball out of his area, Bruno Fernandes appeared to - but may not have - add a touch inside his own half and Cavani sprinted away before spotting Alphonse Areola off his line and lobbing the Fulham goalkeeper from slightly over 35 yards.
Television technicians have become increasingly adept over the 14 months of lockdown in the use of artificial crowd noise, and marrying it to live action. Here was a real world reminder that there is no substitute for the real thing.
United’s final home game of the season would not end in victory, however, as Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s 75th minute cross was headed home by Joe Bryan but not even that could spoil this reuniuon.
This was an end-of-season carnival at Old Trafford. Much talk pre-match had centred on the demonstrations against the club’s owners but, when the prospect of seeing their beloved team in the flesh for the first time in so long was presented to them, those in attendance were interested only in one thing.
There was still a strong showing of “green and gold” colours inside and outside the ground, cardboard posters brandishing anti-Glazer sentiment waved by fans and sporadic chants demanding the Americans’ ousting.
In fact, the closest thing to a controversial protest came at the end of the game when Paul Pogba and Amad Diallo accepted a Palestine flag from a small group of supporters and brandished it as they left the field.
But, compared to the tempestuous scenes and intense security measures that had accompanied the last three home games, and caused the postponement of the match with Liverpool, this was hardly an occasion that will have sent shockwaves through to the Glazers’ Florida base.
In the 51st minute, a numeral chosen as a nod to the “50+1” model of fan ownership in German football, there was a round of chanting that trumpeted “we want Glazers” out - although the issue was quickly forgotten when Bruno Fernandes chose that moment to curl an excellent free-kick just wide.
Aside from the issues around security and protests, the fixture also offered some perspective on the only remaining football issue that matters for United this season - Solskjaer’s line-up for the Europa League final next Wednesday.
Intriguingly, the United manager recalled David de Gea into goal - whether because he has regained his number one position ahead of Dean Henderson or because Solskjaer wants to save the Englishman for the Final was a matter of conjecture.
Similarly, the sight of injured Harry Maguire still on crutches eight days before the game in Gdansk was not what United fans would have wished to see with the manager admitting his chances of playing om Wednesday are “not great.” But those two issues aside, this was arguably Solskjaer’s starting line-up for the Europa League final and the way in which they failed to kill off their relegated visitors will have been of some concern.
“I think it might be a wake-up call because we started to do fancy stuff,” admitted Solskjaer. “The flicks, the extra extraordinary things that please the fans.
“That’s not what we should be about. We should be more efficient, if you have a look at Cavani, how he plays the game, that’s what we should be like.
“But the buzz, the energy, the atmosphere was magical. It was really fantastic to have them back.”
De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 5, Lindelof 5, Tuanzebe 6, Shaw 6; McTominay 6 (Rashford 62, 7), Fred 6; Greenwood 7 (Amad 82), Fernandes 7, Pogba 7; Cavani 8 (van de Beek 87).
Areola 6; Ream 7, Tosin 5, Bryan 7; Carvalho 5 (Loftus-Cheek 63, 7), Reed 5 (Andersen 31, 7), Lemina 6 (Tete 88), De Cordova-Reid 6; Lookman 6, Zambo Anguissa 7; Cavaleiro 6.
Lee Mason 6