Birthday boy on best behaviour

Manchester United 2 West Brom 0
Alex Ferguson, 71 today, seemed in a far more relaxed mood as he strode the touchline during his team’s relatively nervous victory over West Brom but, as 2012 drew to a close, he had every reason to be.

There was none of the snarling aggression and haranguing of officials that marred the classic St Stephen’s Day encounter with Newcastle but then, with Nemanja Vidic back at the heart of the United defence, Ferguson had far less cause for concern.

For just the second time in the last 18 league and cup games, United kept a clean sheet and it was no coincidence that the performance coincided with the return of the Serb.

Ferguson left his dugout in the closing stages, as United clung onto the early lead handed to them when Gareth McAuley deflected Ashley Young’s cross into his own goal.

He even managed a joke with the linesman after he failed to award United a decision Ferguson wanted and Robin van Persie’s 17th goal of the season, in the dying seconds, gave the scoreline a slightly flattering look.

But, with Vidic back in the fold and with United holding a seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League, it is hard to see how Ferguson will not bring a 20th league title to Old Trafford next year.

“I have met a few grumpy 70 year olds. He is a typical grumpy Scot,” joked West Brom manager Steve Clarke, admiringly.

“He likes to go chasing. He hasn’t lost his hunger or his desire. I worked with Sir Bobby [Robson] at a similar age and he was maybe not quite as aggressive but he was the same. He had that determination and will to win. It is great to see.

“I don’t know if I’d last until 71. I think it would be great to think there could be someone like that in the future, someone who has that longevity, but the way the game has gone it is more short term, and it will be really difficult, if not impossible, to match his achievements.

“That goes without saying. It will be much harder to build a dynasty and be in a job as long as he has been.”

Of course, last season’s title race served as a timely reminder that football has a habit of punishing the unaware and United’s fate may yet revolve around the fitness and availability of their commanding centre-half. Vidic himself hardly sounded full of optimism about his ability to see out the remainder of the season.

“The doctor is managing the games I am playing at the moment,” said the 31-year-old.

“Over the first two or three months I have to really look at that because sometimes I might have a reaction. This is a process I have to go through.”

First and foremost though tomorrow’s visit to Wigan, the scene of a costly defeat last season that helped turn the tide of the title contest, is a good place for the leaders to maintain their defensive improvements.

“It is good for the confidence to keep a clean sheet,” said Patrice Evra. “But I am more worried about winning games than conceding goals.

“Maybe this is going to sound a bit bizarre what I am going to say — I feel we were more awake defensively last season and we conceded less goals. But this season every time our opponents shoot they always seem to score. I know sometimes it is about our concentration and we can do much better but I’m not worried about that, I’m just worried about winning games.

“I remember last year we lost 1-0 at Wigan and we showed nothing. It was a really bad performance for Manchester United. This year there will be no excuse. We will just go there, play like Man United and make sure we get the three points because it’s really important we do that. I think we have to use the bad experiences we had last year.”

West Brom’s players could leave Old Trafford with heads held high after this performance, none more so than 19-year-old midfielder George Thorne who ensured a Christmas to remember when, having been recalled from loan at Peterborough, he followed a St Stephen’s Day Championship outing at Wolves with his second Premier League start.

“I had a phone call about 48 hours before the game, as I was preparing to face Bristol City, and they said they needed me in the squad at Old Trafford,” said Thorne. “It is a dream of every kid when they’re growing up but you can’t really get caught up in it. We’re here to do a job and unfortunately that didn’t happen.”

MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-1-1): De Gea 6; Smalling 5, Vidic 8, Evans 7, Evra 6; Valencia 7, Cleverley 5 (Scholes 82), Carrick 6, Young 7; Kagawa 7 (van Persie 65, 7); Welbeck 6.

WEST BROM (4-2-3-1): Foster 8; Jones 6, McAuley 7, Tamas 7, Ridgewell 5; Thorne 7, Brunt 7 (Morrison 75, 6); Dorrans 6 (Fortune 83), Rosenberg 5 (Lukaku 67, 6), Odemwingie 6; Long 7.

Referee: J Moss 7

Attendance: 75,595


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