When the final whistle blew in the 171st Manchester derby, players wearing red, white and black made their way toward the triple-tiered away end at the Etihad Stadium to celebrate in front of 3,017 supporters.


As home fans made for the exits, United followers were kept behind and hollered “Oh, United we love you” loud enough to be heard above Oasis’ “Roll With It,” which was belting out on the public address system.

Meanwhile, United manager Louis van Gaal turned and looked up to the club officials behind him: Ed Woodward, Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill, plus the injured Wayne Rooney. The Dutchman gave a little smile and then joined his assistant Ryan Giggs in welcoming his players off the pitch.

One by one, the smiling footballers walked back toward the changing room, with goal-scoring hero Marcus Rashford followed by a TV camera. All were congratulated, while a City fan who had remained bemoaned his side’s lack of passion and suggested that their players “earned too much money” and should “get back to their Lamborghinis.”

Michael Carrick looked especially delighted and punched the air with his fists before entering the tunnel to celebrate with his teammates. Then the happy United fans, who’d worked through their repertoire of anti-City songs that mocked everything from a perceived poor dress sense of their fans to them not being from Manchester, finally left the ground.

It was a great result for United and several players were worthy of credit. Carrick, Anthony Martial and Chris Smalling all performed well, though the headlines since have been all about Rashford, the only Mancunian on the pitch.

Having scored five goals in eight games since his first-team debut on Feb. 25, Rashford is living the dream. A United fan, he’s a quiet, attentive lad who prefers to soak up whatever environment he’s in rather than stare or swipe at his phone like many footballers his age.

He still uses the dressing room of the U18 side rather than the first team and prefers to be with close mates like Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, the latter of whom came on for Matteo Darmian after 82 minutes in the derby.

Rashford has brought joy to fans starved of it this season. He’s the oasis in the desert and that’s good enough for today, though nobody pretends that United have been up to scratch overall in 2015-16.

After the game, journalists pushed City boss Manuel Pellegrini on his position. The Chilean was agitated and said he only wanted to talk about the match. His side are failing, just like United.

The two Manchester clubs have the highest wage bills in English football and the first- and third-highest average home crowds this season, yet these giants are fourth and sixth in the Premier League, respectively, with only a point — and West Ham — between them. It is unlikely that both City and United will be playing in the Champions League next term.

City have already decided to change their manager and the psychological effect of knowing that Pellegrini will be replaced by Pep Guardiola has resulted in a drop in form from their players.

United would seem likely to do likewise, but that decision has not yet been made.

You sense that executive vice-chairman Woodward would really like Van Gaal, his appointment, to survive and flourish. That would enable the road map laid out, which would see Van Gaal replaced by Giggs at the end of next season, to work.

The idea of Van Gaal being in charge next season is not palatable to most United fans. They’ve had enough, though there are mitigating circumstances. At least the man himself cut a more contented figure after Sunday’s win.

“I said we must win this game and I’m very happy,” Van Gaal said before explaining why he was now confident that Champions League qualification was now in his team’s own hands: “We have to win our games; we have more home matches than away matches.”

As he has pointed out, Van Gaal hasn’t had luck with injuries but he’s been rightly criticised for his team’s anodyne performances, results and lack of success. One thing the Dutchman has consistently done, though, is get results against the league’s better teams. That, in turn, is one reason why it’s so frustrating when United lose to weaker sides.

United couldn’t win against the big club under David Moyes but can’t stop under Van Gaal. This season in the league, they’ve seen off City, Liverpool (twice), Tottenham and Arsenal in the league and also avoided defeat to Leicester, West Ham and Chelsea (twice).

Statistics can be pushed to prove a point and that United are 16 points behind leaders Leicester — having played a game fewer — is nowhere near good enough.

But City fans aren’t happy and Arsenal supporters are protesting against Arsene Wenger, while Chelsea already dispatched Jose Mourinho after a disastrous start to the season, as did Liverpool with Brendan Rodgers. Dissatisfaction had become the norm for fans of the biggest clubs.

The derby win gave United fans reason to smile ahead of a two-week international break. Personally, I had never felt less optimism ahead of a derby as I did when walking in the Mancunian March sun towards the stadium on Sunday.

United’s recent record against City had been poor — David De Gea had lost six of the nine league derbies he had played before Sunday — yet when I spoke to home fans outside the ground they were hardly full of confidence either.

Their side has now taken just four points from the last 18 available and they can’t wait for Guardiola to arrive and take on what they believe to be a big rebuilding job.

The Catalan’s first game is likely to be against United in a preseason summer friendly, details of which are set to be announced this week. Who will be in charge of United that day depends on what happens between now and the end of the season.

Being knocked out of Europe by Liverpool was a setback and so there are now two aims for United: Win the FA Cup and a top four finish. For now, though, United fans are enjoying Sunday’s win and the city’s pubs — at least those that police allowed to stay open — were rocking on Sunday night.

No two-team city in the world, even those which are far bigger, attracts as many fans to games on a weekly basis as does Manchester. Football matters, the derby matters and, on Sunday, to the surprise of many of their own fans, United came out on top thanks to a goal from a lad born and Red on their doorstep.