The announcement that there would be three minutes of added time at Old Trafford was met with a low groan from the away end, while simultaneously the real bad news for Sunderland was unfolding on the pitch. They had managed 90 minutes of resistance, and it took Paul Scholes just 10 seconds of injury-time to complete another remarkable Manchester United victory - another lost cause dragged back from the brink.
This was Sir Alex Ferguson's team at full stretch. He had all of his midfield and most of his defence waiting in Sunderland's area for the cross, but it only took one perfectly timed run from Scholes to settle the contest. United roaring back in pursuit of an equaliser, and then a winner, is an impressive sight, but also a spectacle of extreme tension. For a side who had strutted through the Champions League with only two piffling away defeats against their famous name, the goal that they gifted Sunderland was pure farce.
There were two international footballers on the goal line - one worth £33 million, the other £27.1 million - and neither could keep out the tamest of deflected chips.
And so the onslaught began. Even despite the 33 shots on Sunderland's goal, Ferguson admitted that there were moments in the following 85 minutes when he doubted that his team could overcome the fates that appeared to be conspiring to keep them out.
That was the 17th win at Old Trafford in 19 matches this season, though along the way United lost Barthez with a thigh strain and Ferdinand was booked for the first time in 96 Premiership matches.But the class act in the home defence was Brown, whose inspiring interception of Marcus Stewart's through ball to Kevin Phillips on 71 minutes was a crucial moment in United's recovery.
Five points behind Arsenal, Ferguson's greatest challenge for now is presented by an uninspiring transfer market that will not catch the imagination of his club's plc board.
His transfer business, Ferguson has pointed out this week, is nobody's business but his own. This comeback might be all the evidence United's manager needs to convince himself that this January no business will be necessary.
Doubts may persist over their powers of endurance in the longer term, but there is still no team quite like Manchester United for pursuing causes that appear to be lost. Yesterday, their persistence came at the expense of Sunderland, their stubborn resistance crushed by late goals from David Beckham and Paul Scholes, but the manner of this win, secured in stoppage time, will have confirmed to Arsenal that United have no intention of giving up the chase in the Barclaycard Premiership title race.
The scene at the final whistle was a familiar one as a sense of joyous relief swept around Old Trafford, tempered only by the news from Highbury that Arsenal were leading against Chelsea. By the end of the afternoon, Arsenal had restored their advantage at the top of the table to five points, but United's challenge, undermined by successive away defeats, is still alive.
Ferguson smiled as he welcomed another three points, United needed the less glamorous quality in abundance against a Sunderland team who clung on admirably after Juan Sebastián Verón's bizarre own goal. Until Beckham equalised with nine minutes remaining, Howard Wilkinson's team had kept United's threat at arm's length. Thereafter, it was always likely to overwhelm them.
Beckham, performing with a vigour that evoked memories of his one-man show for England against Greece on the same ground 13 months ago, was the architect behind United's comeback.
There was an air of inevitability about the outcome after Beckham's equaliser, with United roared on by an expectant crowd and indeed by Gary Neville, who, having been left out of the starting line-up, revelled in the unlikely role of cheerleader on the touchline Where there was Beckham there was hope. The England captain, whose contribution far outweighed that of a strangely subdued Keane, was United's only source of inspiration during the second half, but it was enough.
Macho kept out a volley from Diego Forlán in the final minute of stoppage time, but it was only a temporary reprieve. Just as the fourth official was signalling for three minutes of stoppage time, Wes Brown, who had been waved forward by Neville, sent in a cross that was missed at the near post by Forlán, but Mikael Silvestre sent the ball back into the danger area, where Scholes, popping up with characteristic menace, headed the ball past Macho
No side in the world, Sir Alex Ferguson proclaimed yesterday, scores more late goals than Manchester United. The dramatic final act has been their speciality ever since two headers from Steve Bruce against Sheffield Wednesday propelled them towards their first championship under Ferguson a decade ago, and their feats of escapology are once again threatening to influence a compelling title race.
It would be hard to quibble with the merits of United's 10th successive home victory, yet equally difficult not to pity the Sunderland players who dropped to the turf at the final whistle. They had led from the fifth minute, courtesy of a bewildering own goal from Juan Sebastian Veron, and clung on until nine minutes from time only to leave Old Trafford with their toes seemingly tagged for the relegation morgue.
Ultimately, however, this was a match in which the gulf between the Premiership's top and bottom was brutally exposed. United had 32 attempts at goal, compared to three for their opponents, and the drama that accompanied scoring twice in the final exchanges, with Paul Scholes's winner coming in the first minute of stoppage-time, was only postponed by Jürgen Macho's inspired goalkeeping.
David Beckham will rarely exert more influence on Manchester United. Here was the fantasy of perhaps the most celebrated player in the history of English football doing rather more than brush against reality. Yesterday he embraced the full measure of it in terms of his talent and the needs of the club who pay him around £100,000 a week.
Some likened Beckham's performance to the one which rescued England's World Cup qualification drive against Greece on the same ground 15 months ago. But there was a vital difference - and it was one which surely carried United away from a potentially devastating, if undeserved, defeat.Against Greece, Beckham ran himself into so many circles he threatened to strike oil - and eventually he did with the last-second free-kick which took his desperately under-performing team to the Far East.
Here he shaped victory - which his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, said could prove utterly decisive at the climax of the Premiership race - in a moment of one-on-one cold steel with Sunderland's heroic goalkeeper, Jürgen Macho.
Several times Beckham produced moments of superb penetration, notably when his through-pass put Diego Forlan clear in the first moments. The South American missed the chance, but it seemed like the merest slip between a well-filled cup and the lip.
Fabien Barthez, the United goalkeeper, was replaced by Roy Carroll in the 29th minute after suffering a thigh strain. It was, though, a change of personnel which might have happened in the stands as far as the flow of the game was concerned.