MANCHESTER // It was supposed to be a day of celebration at Old Trafford. Manchester United were to go top of the league by beating bottom team Blackburn Rovers, providing both a perfect end to 2011 and a 70th birthday present for Sir Alex Ferguson.
The United manager's entrance was serenaded by fans joining in a choir singing 'Happy Birthday', but football, like Ferguson's team selections, do not do convention.
Ninety minutes later, it was the young Blackburn players - six of whom played in the team which won the Northern Reserve League last season - who were celebrating in front of the tiny band of away followers. Steve Kean's injury-hit side, with 10 absentees, had just beaten United 3-2 in one of the shock results of the season so far.
Rank outsiders Blackburn led 2-0 and survived a United comeback which levelled the score, before getting their own 80th-minute winner through Grant Hanley, the 20-year-old defender, novice of just a dozen league games.
"We got our shape right and deserved the result," said the Scot, who excelled alongside an even more inexperienced defender, 17-year-old Adam Henley.
Hanley got the winner, but Blackburn had to thank man of the match Yakubu for their two goals, his 12th and 13th of the season.
"We fought for each other as a team and gave everything," Yakubu said. "It's a great feeling to come to Old Trafford and get three points."
His beleaguered boss Kean wore a rare smile, as "the Yak is on fire and our fans are loving him," he said.
"If you feed him, and give him good service, he'll score. We built on last week where we got a very good point at Anfield. The young lads are growing up quickly.
"Scoring has not been a problem. We've scored in every away game, but we've not kept one clean sheet because injuries mean we've never had a settled back four."
Ferguson, who said before the game that he expects, health permitting, another three years at the helm, commented: "Nobody expected that. We lost two terrible goals and you can't do that in games like this. Blackburn were resilient and defended well, but if you lose goals like that it gives them the opportunity to hang on. The pitch was really heavy, boggy, and that didn't help the speed of our passing."
Asked whether he thought goalkeeper David de Gea could have done better to prevent Blackburn's winner, Ferguson sidestepped: "We all could have done better."
Injuries meant United again fielded a much-changed side with several players out of position but the most notable - and suspicious - absentee was Wayne Rooney, who his manager said was injured.
Even so, Blackburn had won just five of their previous 33 league games - though you would not have guessed.
Absorbing United's pressure, they led 1-0 at half time after Yakubu's 14th-minute penalty, which he won after tussling with Dimitar Berbatov.
United's hopes of a second-half comeback were dealt a blow five minutes after the break when Yakubu held off Rafael to shoot past De Gea, ably demonstrating how to play alone up front.
Rafael was immediately involved at the other end when he volleyed a cross for Berbatov to head United's first. Previously eerily quiet, Old Trafford woke up and the team responded. Just after the hour, Morten Gamst Pedersen gave the ball away and the dangerous Valencia outpaced Henley to cross for Berbatov. The Bulgarian swept the ball past Mark Bunn for the equaliser and United appeared transformed, with substitute Anderson effective in the middle, but Blackburn struck again through Healey's header past a fumbling De Gea.
The 900 away fans, the smallest number to visit Old Trafford this season, went wild and there were none of the 'Kean out' chants that have dominated their games.
The United fans drifted away in the Mancunian rain to ponder this strangest of seasons.
QUEENS PARK RANGERS 0
Arsenal Van Persie 60’
Robin van Persie was thwarted in his hunt for a Premier League goalscoring record but helped Arsenal end 2011 with a win against QPR. Van Persie swept home an Andrey Arshavin pass.
ASTON VILLA 3
Chelsea Drogba 23’
Aston Villa Ireland 28’, Pertov 83’, Bent 86’
Aston Villa came from behind to snatch victory at Chelsea. Stiliyan Petrov and substitute Darren Bent scored late on to put another nail in the Blues’ title hopes.
Norwich Jackson 90 +4'
Fulham Sa 7’
Simeon Jackson grabbed a stoppage-time equaliser as Norwich rescued a 1-1 draw. Orlando Sa put the visitors on course but Jackson nodded in to earn a share of the points.
Stoke Walters (pen) 75’, Jerome 84’
Wigan Moses 45’, Watson (pen) 85’
Red cards Gary Caldwell (Wigan)
Ben Watson came off the bench to rescue a valuable point for Wigan.
Swansea Sinclair 84’ Tottenham Van der Vaart 44’ Scott Sinclair’s scrambled for a late equaliser to earn Swansea a deserved point and deny Tottenham the chance to close within four points of the league summit at Liberty Stadium. Rafael van der Vaart had given the visitors the lead.
Tottenham Van der Vaart 44’
Scott Sinclair’s scrambled for a late equaliser to earn Swansea a deserved point and deny Tottenham the chance to close within four points of the league summit at Liberty Stadium. Rafael van der Vaart had given the visitors the lead.