In Scotland, the feed from Manchester went to the Sportscene studio, and at full time the viewer was duly delivered to an operating theatre emptied of everything but two chairs. Sitting on these were our host, with his comic horror-film expression and Vietnam War eyes, and John Hartson. Hartson was about twice his size, which gave the ensemble the air of a New Yorker cartoon about shrinks and dogs.
Our host had seen enough before the game, and ninety minutes of action had only made things worse for him. He read the other results, including that astonishing Arsenal away win, as though, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning, he would remember them.
Walcott and co certainly will, but we hadn’t watched that game: we’d seen Celtic, and their incidental opponents from the Dirty Old Town. With every United goal, our host might feel, another paper mill closed, another factory chained its gates, another hundred bankers spilled onto Edinburgh pavements clutching pot plants and redundancy notices.
Which is to say that, as is also true of Scottish news broadcasting, negative hyperbole ruled. It wasn’t fair on Celtic.
For one thing, you really can’t judge the quality of Strachan’s side by this game, because a good third of the starting line-up, including the entire first-choice strike force, is on the treatment table. All you can judge is the depth of the squad, and, the finances of Scottish clubs being what they are, Celtic’s manager can be the best in the world without getting near to the positional coverage United now enjoy. Surely Samaras, or the poor Dutchman Ferguson referred to as “whatever you call him..” would have taken at least one or two of the Celtic chances.
On another day, too, both of Dimitar Berbatov’s goals would have been struck out by the touchline official. On an aesthetic level, though, you can understand why they weren’t: United’s attack is going through a phase of supernatural beauty reminiscent of Law, Charlton and Best, and even linesmen must find themselves just standing back to watch from time to time, professionalism be damned. And in both cases, the defending and keeping deserved some sort of comeuppance – Celtic are and should be better than that.
Celtic now need Villareal to slip up at Aalborg. They can probably rely on Manchester United to beat the Spaniards on their own turf, and if Celtic can pull off their revenge against the Reds in Paradise on Guy Fawkes’ Night, then they are left looking for that away win in Norway, which has to arrive sooner or later. All far from impossible, especially with better refereeing than they have enjoyed up until now.
But they’ll have to hope that something hobbles Rooney. He hasn’t looked so happy on a football pitch since 2004 – gone are the frustrated niggles at opponents, the furious outbursts at referees, the frenzied attempts to win games on his own. How long can his golden run last – long enough to get England to the World Cup? Or just until the end of the month, until the next injury, the next violent provocation?
And – really, chaps – do yourselves a favour and get out of that Norwich City strip. How about the 7-1 colours instead?