Joy replaced by agony in the space of 30 seconds

The euphoria lasted just 30 seconds.

For half a minute, Manchester United believed they had defied the odds and lifted the title for the 20th time.

They celebrated with manager Alex Ferguson and were starting to head towards their 2,600 fans when the news filtered through that Manchester City had scored twice in stoppage time.

The victory march was suddenly aborted, although Ferguson continued to sleepwalk towards their supporters to applaud them.

Most of the players, though, drifted with their heads in their hands towards their dressing room where a TV would show the trophy being presented to City.

Their disbelief was understandable.

For most of this game, United were back on top of the table thanks to their 20th-minute goal from Wayne Rooney and the two scored by QPR back in Manchester.

But the most dramatic climax to a season in Premier League history effectively confirmed a shift in the balance of power in Manchester — and all the signs are that it could be a long-term change.

United may have failed by the narrowest of margins, but the best team over a season wins the title, so the inquest in the red half of Manchester will be long and intense.

And it is likely to be an uncomfortable time for the Glazer family, whose ownership of the club remains contentious.

Ferguson will not escape criticism, notably because of his support of the owners, who are currently trying to sell 30% of their shares in the Singapore stock market, which will raise £600m and wipe out their £430m debt.

How much of the remaining £170m goes to Ferguson for new players will surely shape United’s destiny in the next decade and the legacy that he leaves.

Recent history suggests the Glazers will part with little of the cash.

They are paying £42m a year in interest, equivalent to a £30m player plus his wages every season. Last summer, with that, they could have signed Samir Nasri; this summer they could land Eden Hazard, but he is another who will almost certainly end up at City.

Ferguson knows who he wants. He was at the German Cup final on Saturday watching midfielder Shinji Kagawa, Borussia Dortmund midfielder, who is his number one target now.

But he is also looking at a young midfielder on loan at Swansea from Germany, which tells you how United are now cutting their cloth.

Ferguson needs to invest wisely this summer to suppress question marks about his judgment. He failed to land Yaya Toure and David Silva saying there was no value in the market.

He used the same excuse in January when Papiss Cisse were signed by Newcastle and displayed the goalscoring instinct that would surely have sealed the title.

Instead, United are the team who have cancelled their planned victory parade through the streets of Manchester that will be sky blue this week.

It’s what doomsayers with long memories among the Manchester United supporters would have feared.

They recalled that City last won the title in 1968 when they were level on points with their local rivals going into the final day of the season.

City won at Newcastle, United lost — to Sunderland — and the trophy went to the old Maine Road ground.

Recent history generated more optimism for the Reds, who had lost just one of their 21 Premier League encounters with Sunderland, who have not even scored in their previous four meetings.

But this was never likely to be a formality for United. Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill has too much respect for the integrity of the game to send out a team designed to go through the motions before heading for the sun.

And so it proved as Sunderland proved to be stubborn opponents on either side of the goal that Rooney headed in from a cross by Phil Jones.

There should have been further United goals. Rooney hit the bar, Paul Scholes fired against a post and Simon Mignolet, a goalkeeper finishing the season in style, saved superbly from Ryan Giggs, Rooney and Ashley Young.

But, once Rooney put them ahead, the focus was on events at the Etihad and news of QPR’s second goal was the moment Ferguson thought the title was heading to Old Trafford.

The manager did not emerge from the dug-out until two-thirds of the game had elapsed and he learned that City had gone behind and needed two goals to be certain of the championship.

He was able to sustain that dream until the final whistle — and for a further 30 seconds.

But the trophy will be at the Etihad for the next year and maybe an awful lot longer.


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