Last updated : 01 January 2006 By Ed


As far as Manchester United supporters are concerned, you can stick 2005. An "annus horribilis" is how the fanzine United We Stand described it on Sir Matt Busby Way yesterday, and with Chelsea running away with the Premiership and no Champions' League to look forward to, the new year is hardly ripe with promise either.

Or is it? United won this match at a canter, and the encouraging thing for Sir Alex Ferguson on his 64th birthday was that the team was packed with youngsters. Will we still love him when he is 64? Well, a starting line-up that can defeat such unaccommodating opponents as Bolton Wanderers without the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes and Alan Smith will certainly earn him respect.

Two strikes from Cristiano Ronaldo, another from Louis Saha and an own goal from Bruno N'Gotty pushed United comfortably ahead of Bolton, whose only reply came from Gary Speed in a rare attack. Add the fact that Ronaldo hit the post twice and you get a better idea of the home team's superiority.

"The difference is that we're taking our chances," the United manager said, referring to home games against Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers when they did not. "We're playing well, with great determination, skill and team spirit," he added.

Sam Allardyce, Ferguson's counterpart for the visitors, was less upbeat: "We got what we deserved," he said. "We looked uncomfortable defensively from the first whistle."

They did, although you would have been hard put to find a wholly optimistic United fan when the teams were announced. A central midfield of John O'Shea and Darren Fletcher did not imply creativity, but appearances proved deceptive and the home team played with such drive and verve you would have sworn Roy Keane and Bryan Robson were still at their core.


"The best match I've seen here for a long while," was one United fan's verdict when Cristiano Ronaldo scored his second right at the death. That goal gave Sir Alex Ferguson's side a convincing win that for periods had appeared beyond them, despite a stellar offering from Wayne Rooney who again indicated that his awesome game continues to improve.

"Rooney was marvellous," said Ferguson. "It's different from my last birthday against QPR," beamed the Scot, who turned 64 yesterday. That 4-1 defeat actually came 14 years ago today but, positively teeming with bonhomie at the result, Ferguson can be forgiven the slight miscalculation over his own birthday.

There were also questionable calculations elsewhere. According to results of a questionnaire published in the United programme, schoolchildren in Britain rate Rooney more famous than Jesus, the Queen and - surely not - David Beckham. Apparently only God beats the 20-year-old from Croxteth for fame.

Until his late substitution, Rooney dominated proceedings with a riveting display of hunger, skill and, most important, end product. Yet it was not until midway through the second half that his side and their supporters could relax. Then, yet another determined burst from the England forward - he looked to have lost possession three times - allowed him to set up Ronaldo for United's third goal.

Their fragility was caused by their inability to capitalise on the numerous chances they, or rather Rooney, created. The opinion from seasoned Old Trafford watchers was that this was exactly the type of entertaining contest their team blueprinted during the halcyon 1990s - a result of Ferguson deciding on the 4-4-2 so loved in these parts, with Kieran Richardson and Ryan Giggs providing the width and pace.

United's opener featured a telling combination from the two. Giggs broke convincingly down the left before he fed Richardson. The left-back's delivery was of equal quality and Louis Saha's presence was too much for Bruno N'Gotty, who put the ball beyond his goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen.

United remained ahead at the interval, but only through Saha's opening League strike this season just before the whistle. Bolton had earlier punished United's rather naive defensive slackness by equalising when the 36-year-old Gary Speed scored his first senior goal at Old Trafford - he netted 19 years ago as a reserve. "It was a typical Bolton goal," Ferguson said but the Bolton manager, Sam Allardyce, was defiant. "It [a throw-in] has brought us a few goals. I'm not concerned if people like it."


The answer is 98. Raising a quizzical eyebrow at Bolton’s undersoil heating failing on Wednesday and the subsequent rest accorded to Sam Allardyce’s players as Manchester United toiled in Birmingham, Sir Alex Ferguson had cheekily enquired as to how many electricians there were in Bolton.

Alas, none of the 98 electricians listed in the Bolton Yellow Pages could be reached and Wanderers were recuperating as United were held to a draw.

In the event, United, rather than their strangely sluggish opposition, looked the more refreshed yesterday. Inspired by a bravura display from a radiant Wayne Rooney and a sterling contribution from a newly minted midfield, United brushed Bolton aside with contempt but never complacency.

"Rooney was wonderful today," Ferguson said. "His balance and poise were marvellous."

"He was the catalyst for them," concurred Allardyce. "He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen. He terrified us today."

United, in second place, may remain in a period of transition and out of Europe, but they are undefeated in the Premiership since October and this was a performance to suggest that reports of their demise are somewhat exaggerated.

Alan Smith and Paul Scholes fell victim to colds, but Ferguson still tinkered, exiling the Premiership’s leading scorer, Ruud van Nistelrooy, to the bench, according Louis Saha his second league start this season.

More intriguingly, to fill the role vacated by Roy Keane’s departure, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher were enrolled as midfield enforcers. The selection proved inspired as the pair out-Boltoned a Bolton sorely missing the suspended Ivan Campo and El-Hadji Diouf.

United began like a fevered express train and scarcely paused all afternoon. The opener was Bruno N’Gotty’s birthday gift to Ferguson, who was 64 yesterday. Ryan Giggs unleashed Kieran Richardson on the left. The full-back’s cross was workmanlike, but, under no real pressure, N’Gotty stooped and was conquered, the ball cannoning off his thigh past Jussi Jaaskelainen.

Admirably, United continued as if nothing had happened. The gloved Rooney, lower jaw jutting with a commitment every bit the equal of Ferguson’s, spun through Abdoulaye Faye and Tal Ben Haim with sheer brute force, but moments later he applied the most delicate touch to Cristiano Ronaldo’s cute cross, which missed by inches. But in the 33rd minute, as United began to fret over the non-arrival of their second goal, Bolton equalised with their first and last attack.


Paul Scholes had the day off and Ruud van Nistelrooy watched from the bench for 72 minutes, preserving their energies for Tuesday's trip to Highbury, but no such risks were taken with Wayne Rooney. Manchester United cannot do without the 22-year-old, as he demonstrated with this wondrous performance.

Rooney's brilliance suppressed the feared resilience of Bolton and ensured United conceded no further ground to the champions-elect, Chelsea.

Rooney had worthy accomplices in Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Louis Saha, and Sir Alex Ferguson's suspicions that Bolton might have come better prepared after their midweek postponement proved unfounded.

Sam Allardyce's side were no match for the Rooney-inspired movement and penetration of United's football, and they merely compounded their plight with defensive mistakes.

The concern for United is that they will become too dependent on their England star as they seek to counter Chelsea's domination. They need reinforcements of the highest calibre to give Rooney support.

But if United sustain this form, automatic Champions League qualification should be within their range. Rooney was unplayable here, Giggs revitalised, Ronaldo at his coruscating best. The Portuguese winger added purpose to his impudence, twice hitting the goal-frame before adding a second-half brace.

Still, Ferguson confirmed that he would make changes for the Arsenal game. "The difference now is we're taking our chances. Rooney promised me a goal for my birthday but he didn't manage it so I fined him a week's wages," the manager joked.