Man United fans riddled with angst and frustration, but the signs are positive
The Selhurst Park scoreboard to the right of the Manchester United section hit 9.40 p.m., the signal for a group of fans travelling by the last train back to Manchester to leave the ground. Thirty diehard fans who go to every game home and away needed to catch a train from nearby Norwood Junction at 9.52 p.m. in order to make a connection at London's Euston Station.
Those fans wouldn't have been anyone's priority when the most difficult to reach away game was shifted to a Monday night, yet for the second time in as many seasons, United got a late winner in a night match at Selhurst Park. And for the second time, those same fans missed the all-important moment, hearing the roar from platform 1. "We were fuming," said one, Pat Euston.
Man United had come back from 2-0 to 2-2 when the fans left the ageing Arthur Wait Stand, with its shallow rake and obstructed view of the pitch. It was a comeback in the finest traditions of the club via a last-minute wonder goal, one which rapidly and radically transformed opinions among United's support.
It's difficult to recall a United season where the mood has swung so wildly, where fans can't decide whether the team are on their way back to greatness or still trapped in a post-Ferguson slump of sub-standard football. There are cycles lasting a couple of weeks where all seems well, followed by a run when it doesn't. It used to be clear-cut when you knew United weren't all that great and had little or no chance of winning anything well in advance. For years, being knocked out of the FA Cup meant the end of the season. It's like that for fans of most clubs.
Sir Alex Ferguson eventually changed United's status quo and interest was kept alive until May year after year. United had great sides, there wasn't much doubt.
Now, it's so finely balanced, so uncertain, just as it was last season. Had United failed to win the Europa League last May, 2016-17 would have been classed a failure. The outcome of one game made it a success.
United won the only trophy the club had yet to win, a trophy which meant the team played in this season's Champions League, where they've cruised through the group stage and look well placed to advance, going into next week's second leg against Sevilla at Old Trafford with the tie goalless. Given the mishaps of previous seasons, that shouldn't be taken for granted, yet United fans continue to be riddled with angst and frustration, where doubts are expressed as soon as something doesn't go to plan.
Man City disappearing into the distance doesn't help, but on the contrary, that doesn't mean that what's right at City means everything is wrong at Old Trafford. This isn't Spain with the Barcelona-Real Madrid yin and yang, where the success of one means the failure of the other.
Against Chelsea last week, United going behind was confirmation from some that Romelu Lukaku isn't top class, Mourinho isn't the man and the football and the team that plays it are mediocre.
Two goals later and the United world had a far sunnier complexion. Lukaku was scoring against a top team, Mourinho mastering his former club.
Those good vibes persist only until the next game. At half-time at Selhurst Park, the mood among United fans reflected that of the performance of their team: dreadful. Palace fans were hardly getting carried away that their side was besting a limp United side with little width.
Speaking to several fans at the break, they were not confident of holding onto the lead. Even at 2-0, one who's watched his team home and away since the 70s said: "I'd settle for a draw now." He wasn't being overly pessimistic; he sat with his face sunk into his hands as United roared back with three second-half goals.
Palace have a dreadful record against United, who they haven't beaten in the league since 1991. They were injury hit too, with nine players missing, yet they had United on the ropes as they went two in front.
And then United came back. Players who'd been accused of lacking heart were suddenly full of emotion as they embraced with ecstatic away fans, another great moment to add to a season which hadn't been lacking them. Don't buy the line that United are usually dour -- there have been some terrific games this season, even ones that United haven't won -- like the draws against Burnley and Leicester.
United are way off being the best around, but they're not in a bad place. True, much more is expected of star players like Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba -- who has no issue with Jose Mourinho, despite what you've read elsewhere.
Too often, this United side looks less than the sum of its expensively assembled parts. Too often players have a great month and then a mediocre one. Much more cannot be expected of David De Gea, the world's finest goalkeeper and one who has helped his side's position look healthy as the campaign enters the last couple of months. The season may still hang in the balance as it did a year ago, but the team are in a far better place.
United are second and on target for more than 80 points in the league for the first time since winning the title in 2013. They've picked up between 64-70 points in each of the four seasons since. You won't find t-shirts being sold outside Old Trafford celebrating reaching 80 points, if that happens, but it will represent a milestone of sorts.
United are in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup with a home tie against Brighton, in the round of 16 in the Champions League and second in a tough league, having lost only one home game so far this season -- albeit to rivals City. Just as the team only lost one home game last season -- albeit to City.
This City side is excellent, but don't claim they're better than United's 1999 or 2008 Champions League winners until they've won Europe's top trophy themselves.
After Monday's victory, United have the rest of the week to prepare for the small matter of Liverpool at home on Saturday -- a game which consistently underwhelms. Lose against Liverpool on Saturday and we'll be back on the merry-go-round between hope and despondency.
As for the fans who missed Matic's magical winner, they got to Euston without problem only to find their train back to Manchester was delayed by 50 minutes. They could have waited after all.
"We were fuming," said Pat Euston, for the second time in an hour as he sat at the station which bears his name.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.