There are times when Manchester United have seemed weighed down by their past, unable to escape the burden of their history. And yet when Erik ten Hag’s team had made the club’s worst start to a season for 37 years, since Ron Atkinson entered a spiral that prompted them to turn to a certain Scottish manager, a throwback to Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign turned unlikely saviour.
It is 16 years since Jonny Evans’ United debut, 14 since he first lined up for them at Turf Moor. It was eight-and-a-half since his previous United start. His return had seemed a move so nostalgic that even Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might not have contemplated it. His selection seemed a case of desperation, not inspiration.
Instead, a glorious goal from Bruno Fernandes, halting United’s losing streak at three, was rendered possible by Evans’ wonderful pass. United’s first clean sheet since the opening weekend – after they had conceded at least two goals in five successive matches for the first time since 2001 and at least three in three in a row for the first since 1978 – came with a defence anchored by Evans, probably their sixth-choice centre-back.
Brief as it is, their season has featured some surreal storylines. The return of Evans, relegated with Leicester last year, the supposed successor to Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, the husband of an MUTV presenter, has been among the strangest. His comeback at Arsenal was ill-fated: a brief cameo featured two Gunners goals, one deflected off him. Over 89 minutes at Turf Moor, Evans answered United’s defensive SOS and contrived to contribute in attack.
He thought he had scored his first United goal since 2014, replays meaning it was disallowed. He instead registered a first top-flight assist for them in over a decade. He made a terrific block to deny Jay Rodriguez, a blast from Burnley’s past, in a race of the old stagers. At times, he was deputed to mark the younger, quicker Zeki Amdouni but he talked a new-look defence through the game. His squad number – 35 – is also his age but a figure from a bygone era came to United’s aid when their present had started to look unpleasant.
He fashioned a high-class goal that was out of keeping with a low-calibre game. Fernandes met Evans’ diagonal ball with a volley he drilled past James Trafford. It bore certain similarities to Robin van Persie’s 2013 strike against Aston Villa, courtesy of Wayne Rooney’s pass. It was an illustration of what Evans can offer: he has always been two-footed and the pass was struck with his left.
Fernandes was only stationed on the right wing because of the absences of Antony and Jadon Sancho and the reality United now lack an available and experienced specialist in the position. Yet it produced a benefit: there was no way Antony could have conjured a right-footed finish of that quality.
It was the second goal United had celebrated. Evans had headed in Sergio Reguilon’s corner. Replays then showed the offside Rasmus Hojlund blocking Trafford and, for the third consecutive league game, United had a goal chalked off by VAR. After five defeats in their previous six away games, they had a victory. After a difficult spell of fixtures, they entered a winnable run with a win.
The clean sheet had a redemptive feel for Andre Onana. The goalkeeper blamed himself for Wednesday’s defeat to Bayern Munich. After the awful error for Leroy Sane’s opener came a wonderful save, diving to his right to repel Amdouni’s header. The lively Amdouni also struck the inside of the post after an incisive pass by Aaron Ramsey as United’s defence creaked.
Lisandro Martinez had been added to the injury list. Raphael Varane only returned as a late substitute. Harry Maguire was still sidelined and may now find himself leapfrogged by his former Leicester teammate. But so Evans, whose United bow came when Hannibal Mejbri was only four years old, entered the team, almost as a player-coach. Meanwhile, the young Tunisian came into a midfield that also featured Scott McTominay. There was a makeshift look. There were points when Burnley were the slicker side.
But Vincent Kompany’s team remain winless. They are still pointless at home. They may savour memories of Robbie Blake’s seminal winner against United in 2009, when Evans played. Some 14 years on, the free transfer who came to the aid of a manager who has spent £400m went off for the last minute, meaning Sofyan Amrabat got a debut as an emergency left-back. And then the United fans chorused: “Jonny Evans is a Red”. He was long ago. The odd element is that he is again, and that he was so integral.