Last updated : 21 September 2004 By editor

From Torygraph:

'It is under the first tier on the stand formerly known as the Stretford End at Old Trafford that Manchester United's fans are allowed to have their say. Where the homemade banners proclaim "MUFC The Religion", the "Republic of Mancunia" and remember the team lost in the Munich air crash. The only corner of the famous old stadium that does not pay tribute to the club's corporate sponsors.

It is also the part of the ground that, until very recently, paid homage to Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and David Beckham for their own private battles with the authorities and opinion of the football world that exists outside Old Trafford.

It does not look like the inheritors of the soul of the Stretford End – it has been gone for more than a decade now – will be making space quite yet for a message that breathes defiance for the eight-month ban from which Rio Ferdinand has just returned. There is a new banner up there now, but it proclaims Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, whose knee injury has brought an absence far more devastating than a Football Association ban.

When Cantona returned in 1995, two supporters spent £2,000 on hiring a billboard on the route the Frenchman took on his drive to the ground for a message of support. For Ferdinand's return home last night, he got a quick blast of Duran Duran's song Rio over the Tannoy while he warmed up.

It would be wrong to assume that Ferdinand, 25, has not been missed, but his ban, and the dispute that accompanied it, has seemed distant, by comparison, from the jury of United's support. It has been played out in secret between independent FA committees and expensive sports lawyers and its hazy allocation of guilt does not have the simple hackle-raising effect of a man in a rage jumping feet-first into a crowd.

Of much more pressing concern for United was the difference Ferdinand would make to a team whose defence has been shuffled back and forth by Sir Alex Ferguson over the past eight months until he arrived at the latest configuration last night.

If Ferguson's empire is about to be ransacked then it will be through its shaky, inconsistent back-line that the vandals look most likely to enter. The surrenders against Bolton and Lyon over the past week have made Ferdinand's return an imperative.

He has will never be the enforcer that United may have lacked after Jaap Stam's departure but Ferdinand did bring a different kind of stability to United last night. He did not have the impact of Cantona's return, but for now Ferdinand would surely settle gladly for just being back on the pitch, but out of the limelight.'