Manchester United ended the Premier League campaign with a welcome return to winning ways as a first-half goal from Marcus Rashford proved enough to see off Watford.
The day was, of course, dominated by the farewell to Michael Carrick. Both squads lined up at the tunnel before the match to give the Reds’ retiring captain a guard of honour in his final Old Trafford match as a player. It was the 36-year-old’s 464th appearance since his 2006 move from Spurs.
There was also a big pre-match standing ovation for David De Gea as he received his Golden Glove award for the most clean sheets in the Premier League this season, having notched up 18 personal shut-outs.
The Spaniard was rested for the game against the Hornets as manager Jose Mourinho made wholesale changes ahead of next Saturday’s Emirates FA Cup final versus Chelsea.
There was also an extremely warm welcome for members of United’s European Cup-winning squad from 1968, to mark the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the 4-1 Wembley win against Benfica. Eight of them – Denis Law, Paddy Crerand, David Sadler, John Fitzpatrick, Sir Bobby Charlton, Jim Ryan, Jimmy Rimmer and Alex Stepney – were introduced to the crowd shortly before kick-off.
Due to the ‘dead rubber’ status of the match, with United already guaranteed second spot and Watford comfortably safe from relegation a while ago, it was a lethargic start in the Old Trafford sunshine with limited goalmouth action. Then, in the 33rd minute, Carrick rolled back the years and put his own personal stamp on his farewell with a glorious pass to start the move for United’s winning goal.
From his own half of the field, he guided a measured pass forward to pick out the run of Juan Mata. The Spaniard had ghosted in behind Watford’s rearguard and he brilliantly controlled Carrick’s pass as it dropped out of the sun. Marcus Rashford had made strides to join the attack and Mata unselfishly squared for the Mancunian to side-foot the ball home. It was a classy move from start to finish and a memorable, typical, Carrick involvement.
Sergio Romero had been a spectator for most of the first half but his concentration was tested just before the interval and the Argentinian certainly stood up to the task. De Gea would have been proud to have had Romero’s save from Richarlison’s point-blank header in his own portfolio. But rather than milk the applause, the goalkeeper was swiftly ready to stop a follow-up shot from Gerard Deulofeu. It was a great piece of goalkeeping that sent the Reds into the dressing room at half-time with the 1-0 lead still intact.
The second half became even more of an end-of-season stroll as the baking sun drained the players. Midway through the half, Old Trafford rose as one in support of Sir Alex Ferguson as he continues his recovery in hospital following his brain haemorrhage last weekend.
When substitute Ander Herrera stripped off his tracksuit top on the bench, the crowd seemed to sense this was the final bow for Carrick as they sang his name but Mourinho threw a curve ball as he brought off Daley Blind instead in the 77th minute.
The acclaim for Carrick finally arrived in the 84th minute as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s many superb purchases finally left the stage. He stripped off his armband, handed it to Mata, and all the United players made their way over to the departing midfielder as he walked to the touchline, arms aloft as he recognised the ovation from the stadium.
Carrick turned to all four corners of Old Trafford, touched the United crest on his shirt and then he wrapped his arms around his replacement Paul Pogba. A bear hug in the technical area from Mourinho followed before he made his way to the bench following the goodbyes. All of it was fitting recognition for a multi-medal winning United legend.
The Reds’ crowd may have wanted more goals to end the season on an even bigger high but perhaps it was right and proper that the last strike of the Premier League campaign involved a touch of Carrick elegance. THE LINE-UPS
United: Romero, Bailly, Rojo, Blind (Herrera 76), Darmian, Carrick (c) (Pogba 84), Mata, Young (Shaw 60), McTominay, Rashford, Alexis.
Subs not used: J.Pereira, Jones, Valencia, Lingard.
Booked: Rojo, Young, McTominay, Shaw.
Watford: Gomes (c), Janmaat, Cathcart, Kabasele (Mariappa 20), Holebas, Doucouré, Hughes, Deulofeu (Deeney 63), Pereyra, Richarlison, Gray (Chalobah 72).
Subs not used: Bachmann, Prodl, Lukebakio, Sinclair.
Carrick is a class act
Around 18 months ago, Jose Mourinho reflected that he wished Michael Carrick was 10 years younger – and so say all of us. In his final Old Trafford match, the 36-year-old gave us all one last reminder of how much of a Rolls Royce he was, as Paul Scholes once described him. Even classic Rolls Royces end up having to be garaged permanently at some point but all owners will remember them fondly. Thanks for the memories Michael.