Old Trafford enjoys doing it the hard way

Wednesday 25 October 2023 12:31

There has long been a suggestion that Manchester United do it the hard way, even during the glory days under Sir Alex Ferguson.

We know this was certainly the case during the Treble season, with all that late 'Fergie-time' drama, coming back against Liverpool in the FA Cup, Peter Schmeichel's penalty save against Arsenal at Villa Park in the semi-final, climbing the mountain of being 2-0 down to Juventus in Turin on the night in the last four of the Champions League and then snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in the Nou Camp against Bayern Munich.

Of course, we even had to come from behind on the final day of the Premier League season, against Tottenham, to lift the title. As Erik ten Hag noted after the 1-0 win over FC Copenhagen, there is something in the club's DNA about things always needing to be "complicated".

Maybe we wouldn't have it any other way - it is true that the most comfortable title triumphs didn't have quite the same feel to them.

A third successive crown in 2000/01 was achieved but we lost the last three games. It felt unusual for a United team to win that way.

Onana: I was doing my job! Video

Onana: I was doing my job!

Stewart Gardner caught up with Andre Onana moments after his penalty save…

The mood was understandably sombre before kick-off against FC Copenhagen as tributes were paid to one of the giants of the game in Sir Bobby Charlton.

As the game unfolded, United were not our best and Copenhagen started brightly and confidently. Gradually, Ten Hag's men took control and it was no real surprise when the deadlock was broken by Harry Maguire's header.

There was that roar we all love, some adulation for the centre-back and probably the expectation that the job could be finished off at this point. Chances came and went, though, the decisive second goal never arrived and there was a familiar feeling of stress and tension as the clock ticked into stoppage time. Unfortunately, there was no whistling ahead of time, like there had been in the first half.

These last few moments take on an almost unreal edge. Every ball seems fraught with paralysing dread and only a sigh of relief can be enjoyed when play pauses or moves up to the opposing end of the pitch.

It seemed like 1-0 would be enough but it never is, in the back of your mind. And then a clear offside isn't flagged, presumably because the assistant referee is waiting just in case he's got it wrong. The ball is thudded into Maguire from close range, he cannot get out of the way but maybe it hits his hand, maybe it doesn't.

The replay shows the offside is clear, there isn't going to be some VAR-induced drama at the end. Harry is down on his haunches. The injury time is pretty much up, we can take the three points from a tough night and move on to Sunday's derby.

However, we then surrendered possession, Copenhagen came again and managed to work an opening down their left, only nullified by Christian Eriksen clearing for a corner. The clock was ticking over the allocated period but there was always going to be time for this last action. And keeper Kamil Grabara is coming forward. A former Liverpool player!

How Schmeichel reacted to Onana's heroics


TNT Sports have shared some incredible footage of Peter on social media - watch it here.

The thoughts race through your head. Is Grabara going to do an Alisson, at West Brom that time? He doesn't seem to be getting picked up. Yet the corner is pretty flat, we should clear it, but Bruno Fernandes goes to ground, is he shoved?

Seemingly not, no whistle. The ball eventually comes towards Mohamed Elyounoussi and he throws himself to the ground, as Scott McTominay attempts to hook clear. They're appealing for a penalty and, swiftly, it's given. The customary long VAR check to see what is going to happen but the decision is upheld, eventually, and United are looking at dropping more points and, potentially, ruining our chances of progressing to the knockout stages of the Champions League.

In this moment, you're so wrapped up in what is unfolding. We've gone from moving on to three points to being marooned at the bottom of the group here. This is pivotal.

Yet, unusually, I had a feeling Onana would save it and become the hero. I don't know why, I think the only time I've felt a surge of positivity in these situations was when John Terry stepped up and then missed in Moscow in 2008. Almost like you're willing it to happen. 

This was a night for Sir Bobby, come on we can't let it end this way.

Watch Ten Hag's post-match press conference Video

Watch Ten Hag's post-match press conference

Erik ten Hag speaks to reporters at Old Trafford after the win over FC Copenhagen...

Andre needs this to really have lift off in his United career. He can do it! Jordan Larsson takes it and our keeper does not buy the stutter. He waits and dives to reach the shot. Is it still going in? No, it's wide. Pandemonium. The players engulf the hero in green. The final whistle sounds making his calls on them to focus on the corner instead irrelevant. And he can celebrate too.

He does, wildly gesturing to the fans behind the goal. Three points secured, there is an outpouring of emotion. As I allow myself to do these days, my eyes switch to the crowd. I just love seeing United fans celebrate and losing themselves in the mad moments like this.

It wouldn't have felt like this if the game had ended seconds earlier and it had been 1-0. We had Brentford and that manic, brilliant finale. The next game at Old Trafford produces this and the same rush of adrenaline when leaving the stadium.

Is this the key to Onana becoming a key figure? Is this the key to United starting to find momentum and playing like we know we can?

We don't have the answers to those questions but what we can appreciate is the Theatre of Dreams, as Sir Bobby named it, was built for shows of emotion like this. Even when it can appear subdued, and understandably so for periods during the night we remembered one of our greatest-ever players and were kept at bay by determined opponents, an explosion of ecstasy can happen even when it is least expected.

It is what keeps us going and will never leave us.

The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.