Man United: In Kagawa, Fletcher & Januzaj We Trust (For Now...)
The walk down Sir Matt Busby Way has gradually and almost imperceptibly changed over the course of this season. With each poor performance, with every loss, another brick in the champions' famous fortress has been loosened, every small crack enlarged to expose a vulnerability that it seems Sir Alex Ferguson has been papering over with remarkable skill these past few years.
With the winter breeze biting at our faces yesterday, as we made our way once again towards the Theatre of Dreams, the familiar sights, sounds and smells that have accompanied us on our journey since time immemorial were suddenly laced with apprehension. There was a less bullish, less confident atmosphere amongst the devoted pilgrims, the veil of self belief having been lifted over the course of a season of cataclysmic change and, in particular, a troubling beginning to the new year.
It would have seemed laughable to suggest, this time last season, that United would be approaching a home game against Swansea City with such jangling nerves but, having been bundled out of the FA Cup by the same side less than a week before, and still smarting from succumbing to Spurs and Sunderland either side of that result, there was less of a spring in the supporters' step than that street has grown accustomed to over the past twenty years.
We are not used to this. It is alien to us to walk to our temple through an atmosphere thick with questions and heavy with doubts.
Nevertheless, such feelings arguably bring with them an unfamiliar, yet not altogether unpleasant tingle of excitement, as fans close ranks and settle into a siege mentality they have not felt for many years. It has been a long time since a match such as this has meant so much.
United started relatively strongly, with attacking players interchanging positions with a fluidity and coherence rarely seen in recent weeks and months and, sitting in the stands, looking through the team, I was struck by just how far such a talented group of players has fallen since just last season.
Unfortunately, the match soon settled into an all too familiar pattern as, with each stray pass or mis-controlled ball, our players' confidence was visibly sapped. Suddenly United were playing like the away team, forming themselves into two perfectly geometric banks of four, inviting the opposition onto us alarmingly, as if defending a crucial and slender lead in a crucial cup tie.
Having sipped our halftime Bovril amidst murmurings of disenchantment and despair, the second half was a revelation, as the disillusionment of early 2014 was purged with a display remarkably reminiscent of the Manchester United we all know and love.
Shinji Kagawa, having been banished to the left wing for the first half, switched with Adnan Januzaj for the second and, between the two of them, we witnessed a glimpse of a potential future United partnership that could blossom into a thing of dazzling beauty.
Men of an older, wiser generation than me witnessed Januzaj's performance with a look of childlike wonder on their faces, and spoke in hushed tones of similarities with George Best, whispering this highest of praise as if the young Belgian was sat within earshot, lest he overhear them and be pumped up with an unwanted sense self-importance.
As for the third cog in United's second half masterclass, Darren Fletcher, it was difficult not to be moved by the vision of him bossing midfield with the relish of a man who had, for a long time, seemed destined to have to withdraw from the game he loves long before his time. It remains impossible to say whether he will ultimately be able to resurrect his long term career from the ashes of his illness, but every football fan, whatever their allegiance, must wonder at this man's iron will and steely determination, and pray that he can.
This was just one match of course, and it is important not to get carried away. Still, seeing the surge in collective confidence amongst the players, and feeling the fog of foreboding lifting from around this great stadium, meant that the walk back down Sir Matt Busby Way, though still bitterly cold, was alive once more with a sense of renewed hope and optimism. United fans, while wary of false dawns, once more can dare to dream.
Follow Paul on Twitter, @PaulGunning1