Manchester United did what they had to do by beating Sunderland 1-0 to achieve their 13th away win of the season, but events at Eastlands ultimately ensured this was a miserable occasion for manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Briefly, though, their fans could dream. That was the period when Wayne Rooney’s goal moved them above Manchester City to top spot in the Premier League.
They were to stay there for much of the second-half as Queens Park Rangers threatened to beat Manchester City until the late, late drama at Eastlands.
For 20 seconds after the final whistle, United believed they had won the title for the 20th time, until they heard about Sergio Aguero’s winner for their local rivals.
What would have been a celebration in front of their fans became an abrupt about-turn as the stunned players headed back to their dressing room as joy turned to despair.
Until then, it seemed that Rooney’s goal would be the crucial moment of the game, sparking them into life because, until he struck in the 20th minute, they had been unconvincing and surprisingly unadventurous.
They started with only Rooney forward, although Ryan Giggs was given a supporting role in front of the back four.
But, within ten minutes, Rooney started to drop deeper in search of the ball, as he so often does when United are failing to click.
Sunderland were equally unambitious, using Stephane Sessegnon as their lone forward as manager Martin O’Neill opted to stifle Ferguson’s team with a five-man midfield.
They cancelled each other out for nearly a quarter of the game, creating just two early chances as passes went astray in blustery conditions.
David Vaughan, the Sunderland midfielder, was responsible for the first when his 30-yard shot was saved by David De Gea.
United’s Phil Jones headed just over the bar after 18 minutes, but there was nothing to suggest a goal was on its way. Rooney had other ideas.
The England international timed his run to perfection to meet Jones’s cross at the far post and head past Simon Mignolet from inside the six-yard box.
It was an important moment. United now settled down, started to control the midfield and could have extended their lead on several occasions before the interval.
A 27th-minute shot from Giggs was punched out by Mignolet before a foul on Rooney on the edge of the area produced a free-kick that he steered against the bar.
And Rooney should have added his second on the half-hour when he failed to connect in front of goal after Ashley Young’s mishit shot fell to him.
O’Neill responded with an early change of tactics by sending Fraizer Campbell forward to join Sessegnon and the pair soon combined to create a glorious chance.
Sessegnon lifted the ball over two United defenders to put Campbell clear, but the former Old Trafford player could only drag his shot woefully wide.
United were unable to add to their tally and after City’s late fightback their victory became an irrelevance.