ALEX FERGUSON pulled a face when one of the few members of the media permitted an audience with the Manchester United manager enquired tentatively about the state of the club’s treatment room.
“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel there, I’m afraid,’’ came the slightly weary answer.
That said, the way things are going for Ferguson just now, even if there did happen to be a bright speck for the Scot and his overworked medical staff, the chances are it would simply belong to an oncoming train.
Ferguson’s back-line – or, to be more precise, the lack of one – was the sole topic of conversation for seasoned United watchers as they attempted to digest the kind of defeat which is not supposed to be inflicted on Manchester United, and certainly not by the likes of Fulham.
Doubtless some of the 4,000-strong travelling throng shoe-horned into the Putney End never thought they would live to see the day when their side would be chewed up and spat out by the Cottagers, but – then again – few probably expected ever to arrive at a Premier League stadium and be greeted by the sight of a United back three consisting of Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Ritchie de Laet.
But these are desperate times at Old Trafford. United’s pockets may be deeper than most but even a club of their means is going to labour when they have been stripped of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Wes Brown, Jonny Evans, Gary Neville and Edwin van der Sar simultaneously.
Such deficiencies can be shrugged off when the opponents are Wolves reserves at Old Trafford, but when pitted against an in-form Fulham side at one of the Premier League’s most daunting fortresses it becomes an insurmountable obstacle.
“We were put under pressure and we just didn’t cope with it,’’ admitted United’s assistant manager, Mike Phelan.
The question for Ferguson is what he can do to avoid more embarrassments such as this in the weeks before his injury list clears. None of United’s impending fixtures – Hull, Wigan and, in the FA Cup, Leeds United – has a daunting look to it but this trip to Craven Cottage would ordinarily be viewed by Ferguson and his backroom staff as a very winnable game.
Even Leeds’ League One strikeforce would fancy their chances of unsettling the likes of Carrick, De Laet and Fletcher, and particularly if they were deployed in the bizarre 3-5-2 system employed by Ferguson on Saturday.
Ferguson’s blunder was infathomable, but at least he was in good company.
This was a day when United’s A-listers had clearly left their minds in Lancashire: Wayne Rooney huffed and puffed pointlessly, Anderson again performed like someone who believes himself to be Brazilian only because he happens to have glanced at his passport that morning, while the first time anybody knew Michael Owen was on the pitch was when his name was read out for his substitution.
Then there was Paul Scholes. The 35-year-old has been a superb servant to Manchester United but there can be no mistaking the sense that we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of his top flight career.
Scholes knows it, too, which made his performance on Saturday all the more distressing. His shooting was hapless, passes were regularly pinged haplessly towards Fulham’s hulking centre-halves and the speed of thought which once left opponents gasping in his slipstream slowed to a stand-still – literally so, in the 22nd minute, when his dawdling over a pass allowed Danny Murphy to snaffle the ball from his toes and shoot into the corner.
The former England international has already spoken of his fear that he is not worthy of a place in the United first team and it is reaching the stage that a graceful retirement at the end of the season might be in everyone’s interests.
All of which should not detract from Fulham’s performance, which was nothing short of exceptional.
Roy Hodgson’s side have been bloodying the noses of the great and good for some time now, but this was still the sort of game which will be deemed worthy of relating to grandchildren several decades from now.
To suggest Bobby Zamora played like an England striker would do him a disservice. He was much better, scoring Fulham’s second with an emphatic close-range finish from Clint Dempsey’s nod-down and teeing up Damien Duff for a smart volleyed third with 15 minutes left.
Zoltan Gera, the Hungary striker, was a Magic Magyar for the day and a rock-solid defence never once looked like conceding.
“This rates very highly for us and it’s very valuable,’’ Mark Schwarzer, their goalkeeper, said. “At the start of the season you would put a cross by a game like this so it has to be a memorable win for us.
“You wouldn’t normally expect to have such a quiet afternoon against United but my job was relatively easy. It’s obvious that they were heavily under-strength – even more than we thought they would be. But we still had to beat them and we did that, deservedly so.’’
REFEREE: Howard Webb (Yorkshire) 7: Ferguson muttered something about Webb making a mistake in the build-up to Fulham’s third goal but even he could not be bothered to launch a full-on tirade. The officials were sound.
MATCH RATING: **** Fulham’s dominance was startling, even allowing for United’s cobbled-together back-line.
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