Mark Hughes was always convinced that his Queens Park Rangers squad would be good enough to compete in the Premier League. There was evidence here that he might have been correct. An additional conclusion from the first 63 minutes might have been that the problem was Hughes himself. Rangers were spirited and determined, looked organised and were in a deserved lead.
Jamie Mackie, a player who Hughes usually ignored, had scored from close range after Kieron Dyer, the forgotten man's forgotten man, had forced an unconvincing save from Anders Lindegaard. Manchester United, well beaten by Norwich last week, were playing at a stately and distracted pace; Rangers' banks of four had held them at bay with some comfort. QPR's players were snapping into tackles and making repeated key interceptions.
Paul Scholes, their punisher last season, was subbed off, rendered impotent. Aside from a small corner of hooped wind-up merchants from West London, Old Trafford had the atmosphere of a funeral parlour. In the stands, new boss Harry Redknapp must have been wondering what the fuss was all about.
Three Manchester United goals later and the depth of Redknapp's new task is revealed. At Tottenham, 'two points from eight games' was his mantra. Four points from thirteen matches will be this year's model. In the Old Trafford director's box, Redknapp was sat next to Kamarudin Meranun. Tony Fernandes' right-hand man was hardly doing his best to look inconspicuous, wearing an Air Asia cap after spotting a product placement opportunity.
A struggling team can only make its predicament worse when conceding set-piece goals. Quickfire headed finishes from Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher both came from corners. They induced a familiar sinking feeling before Javier Hernandez finished off the type of sweeping move Rangers had previously prevented United from making. The solution is clearly not going to be as simple as getting rid of Hughes.
The defeat will not go against Redknapp's name. With the incoming boss having concluded his deal to take over in the dead of night, presumably through a car window, Mark Bowen, a Hughes loyalist, took the reins. Redknapp departed the scene with five minutes to play, Kevin Bond no doubt having been sent to warm up the car. It was either that or a call to jilted Ukrainian suitors telling them that he had reconsidered and would now be making the flight to Kiev.
Bowen faces an uncertain future as Redknapp brings his usual cabal of Joe Jordan and Bond with him. Since Hughes' reputation has taken such a caning at QPR, Bowen's future may even lie away from his old friend, though he spoke of his continuing hope that he, Hughes and Eddie Niedzwiecki will continue working as a unit together.
"I haven't spoken to Harry," said Bowen, before showing where his loyalty still lies when talking of Hughes' dismissal. "It's difficult because football is an emotive game. Yesterday was a desperate day because Mark's my friend as well."
Redknapp's task is to turn a squad of players that looks disjointed into a team. A summer spree already looks in need of a January clear-out. Bowen, in his first and probably final act, made a mass culling of those culpable in the Southampton defeat that cost his friend his job. Clint Hill and Shaun Derry are relics from the Neil Warnock era. Indeed, the current Leeds boss brought them both to Rangers from Crystal Palace.
Esteban Granero has now graduated from Real Madrid reserve to QPR benchwarmer. Along with Julio Cesar, he was the type of continental star meant to push Rangers from survival hopefuls to West London entertainers. Players who come for the money and not the challenge are rarely much use in a relegation fight. Bowen's selection of hardened English professionals looked an admission of that.
In April, a win for United in which Scholes glittered and Rangers were wronged by the dismissal of Derry, coupled with Manchester City's defeat at Arsenal, looked to place a 20th title in red hands. Three days later, United's grip loosened with defeat at Wigan, before QPR played their own part in taking the race to a climax still unpalatable in M16.
With City playing Rafa Benitez's Chelsea on Sunday in the weekend's other session of 'meet the new boss', United are back atop the Premier League, after a performance bearing striking familiarity. Starting and continuing poorly, United only woke from slumber once they had conceded. Ferguson's launching of heavy artillery by playing all four strikers paid off once again but serious doubts remain.
After Ryan Giggs' static performance at Norwich last week, it was Scholes' turn to be a struggling perennial. Rangers' fresher legs often overpowered him, and United only gained energy and a true grip in midfield when the oft-maligned Anderson came on for the veteran.
Alongside Scholes, Darren Fletcher was a little more effective, playing his second 90 minutes in four days and a first Premier League start of 2012, a landmark in his recovery from the bowel condition that looked to have finished his career. A good news story was written when he scored his first goal after his comeback, his last goal was United's forgotten consolation in the cataclysmic 6-1 defeat to City last October.
United are hardly winning ugly, but they are getting the job done with clear blemishes on show. Carrow Road saw the cliché of their playing better when behind besmirched. This win, achieved with barely 25 minutes of coherent play, will have restored that idea, though they were helped by playing a team whose confidence is as fragile as bone china. As so often in the Sir Alex Ferguson era, United had got away with it.
On Friday, Ferguson, the man who ended 26 years without a title for United, celebrated 26 years at the club with his wife unveiling a statue of him behind the stand that bears his name. The same day, Redknapp became Rangers' 26th manager of that time. During those years, United going three matches without a win has been a distinct rarity. For QPR it has been the state of affairs all season. Redknapp has just 25 matches to save them.