Jonny Evans left Turf Moor with a prize to accompany the praise. After a first Premier League assist for Manchester United in a decade came a physical memento of his night. “Bruno [Fernandes] passed me on the man-of-the-match award. I think it’s the third of my career,” said the self-deprecating centre-back.
Many another would disagree. Sir Alex Ferguson once described Evans as the best defender in the country. Pep Guardiola doesn’t make a habit of raiding Tony Pulis’ teams but he tried to buy Evans from West Bromwich Albion. Pick an all-time Northern Ireland XI and Evans might be in it. But the veteran has a dry sense of humour to accompany the defence-splitting pass for Fernandes’ winner that suggested he is the Belfast Beckenbauer.
Evans is at the stage of his career when he has spent more time with a pundit – his old United sidekick Rio Ferdinand – than most of his current colleagues. His 200th United appearance came more than eight years after his 198th and a few months after he attended two Cup finals as a United fan. One of the best nights of his life, in his own description, was enhanced by the unlikely feel.
“On one side it feels really surreal and then on the other side it just feels completely normal,” he reflected. Age, as much as his injury record and Leicester’s relegation, rendered him a leftfield signing. “For a 35-year-old to come back in, not many people get to do that.” He rejoined United to train with them in pre-season, eventually getting a contract for the campaign on a frantic deadline day. “I got the call and didn’t have another option,” he outlined, his modest, self-effacing streak again apparent.
And if that is an unconventional route back to Old Trafford, Evans at least provided a rarity at United in recent weeks: there have not been too many feel-good stories of late. The Theatre of Dreams may live up to its nickname for a player long assumed to be part of United’s past. For several, however, it is shaping up as the Theatre of Unexpected Opportunities.
To Evans’ left in the Turf Moor back four was Sergio Reguilon, who could have joined United’s lengthy list of absentees. “Reguilon was ill,” said Erik ten Hag. “It says something about his character and spirit. He wanted to play and contribute.”
The Spaniard had an incentive. He was arguably Spurs’ last-choice left-back before United’s injuries in the position afforded an unlikely opening. From fifth in line for Tottenham to United’s de facto first choice, at least until Luke Shaw is fit, it is another improbable development. United, often criticised for their transfer business, can feel they did well to secure the Spaniard in an emergency; certainly Reguilon seems a better option than Marc Cucurella, an alternative at the end of the window.
Reguilon celebrates with Fernandes after United’s winner— (Getty Images)
When illness compelled Ten Hag to replace Reguilon, United ran through three left-backs in a few minutes: first Victor Lindelof took over, then Sofyan Amrabat’s debut came out of position. An audition of a few minutes was enough to suggest the Moroccan is no natural left-back and underlined the problems United could have had if Reguilon had ruled himself out. That Ten Hag was forced to improvise illustrated how strategies have had to be rewritten and ripped up.
The third of the unlikely lads was found in the No 10 position: which, when United bought Mason Mount, seemed to be reserved for the new signing or Fernandes. Donny van de Beek, one of the stars of Ten Hag’s Ajax, and Christian Eriksen had watching briefs from the bench as instead it was occupied by Hannibal Mejbri, who spent last season on loan at Birmingham. Ten Hag was flattering in describing his performance as “perfect”. Yet what the youngster brought was enthusiastic running.
For a manager who questioned the attitude of Jadon Sancho when dropping him, that willingness was welcome. Ten Hag argued the display at Burnley showed togetherness, unity and spirit. The victory also came with a mere 38 per cent of possession and with a wonder goal. None of which felt a particularly sustainable formula. All of which came in handy for a team who had lost their previous three games, who were shorn of a host of players, whose plans seemed in ruins.
This was not the blueprint United imagined, the star-studded side they thought they were compiling at some cost. A couple of months ago, would have seemed inconceivable: the ageing crock, the Tottenham reject and the overlooked youngster would scarcely have seemed worthy of places in their second 11, let alone the first team.
Now perhaps only Reguilon will be starting regularly in the next few weeks; perhaps only he should be. But for a one-off, a strangely heartening tale of incongruous figures grasping an unforeseen chance, it was a United tale with a difference. Not least because, after their losing run, there was a happy ending on Saturday.