Manchester United were failing again in a competition they once thought of as their own. The FA Cup has held little magic for them for nine long years and here was another deserved exit. The plaudits and place in the Fourth Round lay with West Ham. Just as in 1986 and 2001, the Hammers were ending their hopes.
Sir Alex Ferguson had previously presided over one Third Round exit, back in 2010 at the hands of Leeds United and Jermaine Beckford. West Ham and James Collins were being pencilled on that list. It had been a day to celebrate the return of a prodigal son.
These were all presumptions. They ignored that in Robin van Persie, Manchester United made the signing of last summer and probably many others too. With a killer pair of touches on a Ryan Giggs ball over the top, and an unerring finish with his weaker right foot, Van Persie had rewritten the script. With him on the pitch, his team will always have a chance. For all its romance, the FA Cup can be heartlessly cruel. West Ham had deserved progress. Instead, they must travel to Old Trafford with a sense that their chance has probably gone.
"You can't let them have a chance with the quality they've got," lamented Sam Allardyce. "Van Persie's first touch and finish were just unbelievable."
"You never rule out fighting back with our team," said Sir Alex Ferguson. "Robin van Persie was tremendous. The manner of the goal with Ryan Giggs' ball and Van Persie's finish was world class."
Joe Cole's second debut had brought New Year cheer to Upton Park. Fellow new signing Marouane Chamakh, ineligible to play, was introduced to the crowd with immeasurably less fanfare. To a man, Hammers fans gave Cole a standing ovation when his name was proclaimed. They did so again as he departed the field with 12 minutes to play, this time much louder, the rafters ringing with celebration. Home at last, the teenager who once held their hopes and dreams had made a heroic return as a fully grown though rather careworn man. Energy may eventually have deserted him but he had shown off the skills that once brought record attendances to youth team fixtures.
Cole has always retained a place in his heart for his alma mater, just as fans have forgiven him for going elsewhere. Such goodwill has never been extended towards Frank Lampard and Jermain Defoe. That Cole left Upton Park with tears in his eyes while the other two exited with pound signs in theirs is the accepted Hammer truth.
It was against Manchester United that he made his league debut, his substitute cameo of feint and flicks signposting a star of the brightest future. At 31, he can talk of a medal-strewn time away from East London, though he has not achieved quite what became expected after that January 1999 afternoon. At that time, Ferguson was a confirmed admirer, forever asking then-manager Harry Redknapp about Cole whenever their paths crossed. Fresh acquaintance almost brought further disappointment for Ferguson.
Playing in the central midfield role where he made his Upton Park bones, his first significant action was to ball-watch when Smalling stole on a Paul Scholes chip to smash a cross that Javier Hernandez narrowly failed to connect with. Allardyce, like Jose Mourinho, expects even his flair players to press the ball. Youri Djorkaeff and Jay Jay Okocha were made to work by his new boss. Cole will be no different, romantic hero or not. Fitness permitting, he looked more than willing to give his all for the West Ham cause, just as he always did a decade ago.
"It's obviously a fantastic debut for him, and the fans made him feel really welcome but it's about the whole team too," said Allardyce, briefly dampening the excitement.
Tom Cleverley, a latterday nascent English talent, of whom perhaps less is expected, opened Manchester United's scoring with a casual finish. The visitors' passing had hitherto been slick and full of purpose. Welbeck had already had a goal chalked off for offside after a similar move, again down the right, where Dan Potts, son of former captain Steve, was struggling.
Cole's moment soon arrived. A weighted cross expertly found James Collins' head and David De Gea's dive could only be in vain. The celebrations were divided between the congratulation of Cole and Collins. Cole himself wore a modest smile but looked glad to have made such an early impact. This was already going better than his Liverpool debut, where he was sent off against Arsenal, and from which his time on Merseyside never recovered.
Scholes, a year to the day since he made his return from retirement, was finding it much more difficult than his former England colleague. His team's suspect defence had given up another goal to a crossed ball.
A less-heralded debutant, but one who actually played for his country at Euro 2012, was France's Alou Diarra, making his first start after an injury hit five months at West Ham. He could not quite match the influence of the much-lamented Mohamed Diame though Shinji Kagawa being especially below-par had much to do with Diarra's discipline. Potts meanwhile, recently of Colchester, was finding his feet.
Cole, by now puffing and panting, repeated his trick for West Ham's second. His pass was superbly judged, even better than the first. Collins' run bisected Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans, as did Cole's ball. This time, Cole's jubilation was unbridled, with his team surely headed for the fourth round. Manchester United had been second-best ever since he had created Collins' first goal.
But as Cole departed the field, Giggs came on too. Van Persie had been on the pitch ten minutes. The homecoming fairy story would be denied by the class of the pair. Giggs stayed calm despite the onset of injury time. Van Persie finished with the unhurried class that only the best possess.
"We almost feel like we've lost in the last minute," said Allardyce.