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 hostÂ had seen enough before the game, and ninety minutesÂ of actionÂ had only made things worse for him. He read the otherÂ results, including that astonishing Arsenal away win, as though, at the going down of the sun, andÂ in the morning,Â 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 chainedÂ its gates, another hundred bankers spilledÂ onto EdinburghÂ pavements clutching pot plants and redundancy notices.
Which is to say that, as is also trueÂ of ScottishÂ news broadcasting, negative hyperbole ruled. It wasn’t fairÂ on Celtic.
ForÂ one thing, you really can’t judge the qualityÂ of Strachan’s side by this game, because a good thirdÂ of the starting line-up,Â including the entire first-choice strike force, isÂ onÂ the treatment table. All you can judge is the depth ofÂ the squad, and, the finances of Scottish clubs being what they are, Celtic’sÂ manager can be the best in the world without getting near to the positional coverage United now enjoy. Surely Samaras, orÂ the poor Dutchman Ferguson referred to as “whatever you call him..”Â wouldÂ have taken atÂ leastÂ one or twoÂ of the Celtic chances.
On another day, too, both of Dimitar Berbatov’s goals wouldÂ have been struckÂ out byÂ the touchline official. On an aesthetic level,Â though, you can understand why they weren’t: United’s attack isÂ going through a phase of supernatural beauty reminiscent of Law, Charlton and Best, and even linesmen must findÂ themselves just standing back to watch from time to time, professionalism be damned. AndÂ in both cases, the defending andÂ keeping deservedÂ some sortÂ of comeuppance – Celtic are and should be better than that.
Celtic now need Villareal to slip up at Aalborg. They can probably relyÂ on Manchester United to beat the SpaniardsÂ on their own turf, and if Celtic can pull off their revenge against the Reds in ParadiseÂ on Guy Fawkes’ Night, thenÂ they are left looking for that away winÂ in Norway, which has to arrive sooner or later. All far fromÂ impossible, especiallyÂ with better refereeing than they have enjoyed up until now.
But they’llÂ have to hope that something hobbles Rooney. HeÂ hasn’t looked soÂ happyÂ on a football pitch since 2004 – gone are the frustrated niggles at opponents,Â the furiousÂ outbursts at referees, the frenzied attempts to win gamesÂ 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 getÂ out of that Norwich City strip. How about the 7-1 coloursÂ instead?