Crawley expose Man Utd's squad depth
Sergio Torres tucked a small piece of grass inside his sock and David Hunt laid claim to Wayne Rooney's shirt as consolation prizes when Crawley's FA Cup voyage ended at Old Trafford.
Moments earlier, before manager Steve Evans and his players took the acclaim of 9,000 supporters massed in Old Trafford's East Stand, only the crossbar stopped Crawley claiming the rightful reward for their heroic labours.
With Manchester United clinging grimly to the lead Wes Brown's first-half goal had given them, substitute Richard Brodie's header looped over stranded United keeper Anders Lindegaard and towards goal. Crawley held its collective breath, but the effort glanced agonisingly off the woodwork and the dream was over.
Evans was left to his 45-minute audience with Sir Alex Ferguson and an exchange of fine wines before turning his thoughts to the reality of promotion from the Blue Square Premier and a meeting with Southport at Broadfield Stadium on Tuesday.
Crawley Town's Sergio Torres is applauded as the minnows run Man Utd close Photo: Getty
Ferguson did not just offer an expensive glass of red to his fellow Glaswegian, he delivered a glowing testimony to Crawley's approach that threatened to embarrass United's shadow squad as well as admiration for a club that fails to inspire affection among the non-league community.
Crawley's big-spending approach inspired by investors who prefer to stay firmly in the background and the troubled past of manager Evans from his time at Boston United, when he served two touchline bans for improper conduct and was handed a suspended prison sentence for his part in a tax fraud, has drawn resentment from supporters of rival clubs, especially when their riches were increased by an FA Cup fifth round trip to Manchester United.
Indeed, when I dared to suggest the unique appeal of the FA Cup was encapsulated in the meeting of the Premier League's leaders with non-league's emerging force, it was met with the Twitterati's version of having a bucket of caustic soda dumped over my head.
Crawley Town and Evans were not, I discovered in the most graphic terms, a source of pride to many people outside of, well, Crawley. The old cliche of the magic and romance of the FA Cup was not apparently applicable in this instance.
Well on the evidence of the 90 minutes I witnessed at Old Trafford on Saturday, Crawley have plenty to be proud about, whether their critics like it or not.
As countless coaches roared up the M6, the prospect of taking anything back from United was probably only a pipe dream. In the end, the reward of a replay would have been the very least Crawley deserved for a wonderful second half performance.
Evans had every right to savour the occasion, despite the loss, as he said: "The history books will show we went out of the FA Cup but we go away with dignity and pride."
The atmosphere of Old Trafford has whetted Crawley's appetite for more, with Evans saying: "We might come back next year. Our aim is to be in the Football League this time next year and come somewhere like Old Trafford in the FA Cup because it means we have had some good results."
Reproduce what was on offer here and Crawley will reach their immediate goal at least. When Brown gave United the lead just before the half-hour mark and Crawley chased possession for the remainder of the first half there was an ominous look to proceedings, especially when Wayne Rooney was introduced at the start of the second half.
Such was the scale of Crawley's competitiveness after the break that United's frustration was summed up in the closing moments by Rooney chasing after the outstanding Kyle McFadzean and aiming the crudest of kicks in his direction, an offence for which he was fortunate to only receive a yellow card.
McFadzean was one of many Crawley heroes, with Pablo Mills looking suited to a higher level and Torres all heart and effort as they sought that unlikely equaliser.
Evans must now guard against the comedown following the adrenalin of Old Trafford but Crawley carried all the hallmarks of a club and a team destined for higher things.
He said: "Sir Alex was very encouraging and had kind words for us. He has treated us in the most exemplary fashion ever since the draw was made. I talked to Sir Alex and he was saying how important it was for Manchester United to win the Premier League and we are no different with the Blue Square Premier."
Whether Ferguson had kind words for his own team is doubtful. In mitigation, United were facing the usual element of a hiding to nothing that comes with a meeting with non-league opposition. Anything less than overwhelming victory is invariably deemed unsatisfactory.
Given a rare chance to demonstrate their potential in front of a packed Old Trafford gallery, this was a tale of opportunities missed and flaws exposed, especially by Gabriel Obertan and the hapless Bebe.
Little was known about Portuguese Bebe when he arrived in a £7.4m deal from Vitória de Guimarães in the summer. And this grim evidence means we are currently none the wiser about what he may eventually contribute here.
A player of no obvious quality, the 20-year-old's performance went into a deep depression. Ferguson is the master of spotting young talent and nurturing it, with Nani a recent obvious example of how it can be fashioned successfully under his tutelage.
Bebe, however, shows few signs of possessing the raw materials for Ferguson to work with and he did nothing to offer encouragement here, with the same applying to Obertan.
Whereas Bebe is a relative newcomer to the demands of Ferguson and United, Obertan still seems incapable of taking any great leap forward following his £3m arrival from Bordeaux in July 2009.
Michael Carrick's lack of influence in midfield also underscored his decline on a evening when few of United's players will take any good memories away from Old Trafford.
The glory went to Crawley in defeat with a performance that even their many detractors may grudgingly admire, if not openly.