Manchester United 1 Chelsea 1
It is sad to see the ending of a ritual, no matter how flimsy the evidence on which it is built. With one misguided swing of the boot, however, one was swept away on Saturday. Probably for ever.
For the Manchester United supporter, the principle was simple. No matter the number of times you saw Andy Cole make a Horlicks of a chance, you still chanted his name and hoped the encouragement would have an effect. You forgot the pounds 7m man did not look capable of trapping a bag of coins, that his shooting would have looked askew in a crooked gun contest. You closed your eyes, remembered the potency of his Newcastle days, and prayed.
That was until 67 minutes into this match. Perhaps it was the astonishment of finding that Lee Sharpe had passed to a player in a red shirt that threw him, and certainly the attentions of a defender close by did not help, but Cole was faced by an empty net and still missed. The crowd groaned and it was as if the noise broke the spell: sympathy dissolved and disaffection broke out.
When he next received the ball in a position of promise and managed to lose it instead of shooting, a wave of derision swept over the pitch. A sea change had occurred and Alex Ferguson discerned it immediately. Fearing irreparable damage to his player's already fragile confidence, he substituted him.
At least we had to presume that happened, because the opportunity to persuade the media that Cole had "a slight knock" was lost when the United manager refused requests for interviews afterwards. Ferguson does not usually duck these grillings, and his absence was probably a barometer reading of his disappointment.
It was left to Steve Bruce, the United captain, to reveal the party line. "We're all in it together," he said. "It wasn't just Andy who missed the chances. We all get the plaudits when we win, so we have to take the criticism together now. Andy just needs a goal and he'll go off on one of his spurts."
All of which was true except Cole has scored this season, three times, and the waterfall has failed to materialise. A couple of goals against Sheffield Wednesday next Saturday would swing the supporters round again. But not fully, you suspect. Scepticism will follow the striker round Old Trafford just as adulation sticks to Eric Cantona's side.
It was difficult to remain wholly confident either about United's title prospects. Chelsea had lost only twice in 30 seasons of coming to the place, and on Saturday the nearest they got to looking like sacrificial lambs was when they were gambolling across the field in celebration of their 53rd-minute goal.
John Spencer was put through with an exquisite pass, his shot was saved by Kevin Pilkington and Dennis Wise put the rebound in with admirable accuracy from 25 yards. Which would have made it a candidate for goal of the month had the pass not come from a United player: Sharpe.
That set the scene for 35 minutes of United waste that was broken only when David Beckham crowned a commanding performance with a shot into the top corner. Bruce (twice), Cole, Scholes and Beckham all squandered chances. The chuckles you could hear were from Newcastle, and for more, you suspect, than just the result.
Goals: Wise (53) 0-1; Beckham (60) 1-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Pilkington; G Neville, Bruce, May, Irwin; Scholes, McClair, Beckham, Sharpe; Cantona, Cole (Cooke, 74). Substitutes not used: McGibbon, Davies.
Chelsea (5-4-1): Kharin; Petrescu, Duberry, Lee, Myers, Hall; Wise, Burley, Newton, Spencer (Furlong, 82); Hughes. Substitutes not used: Sinclair, Hitchcock (gk).
Referee: M Bodenham (East Looe).
Bookings: Manchester United: Cantona, Neville; Chelsea: Newton, Hall.
Man of the match: Beckham.