Football: Cole and Schmeichel combine to keep United in the clear

Newcastle United 0 Manchester United 1
A strange thing happened on Tyneside yesterday. Andy Cole scored a goal at St James' Park.

Not for three years - since 26 November 1994, in fact - had that one- time phenomenon been beheld at the Manchester United striker's former place of employment. On that occasion, it earned a stuttering Newcastle side a point against Ipswich Town.

Yesterday the header he planted firmly into the right corner of the Gallowgate End goal gained vengeance for the 5-0 humiliation endured by his present employers at the Premiership's northernmost outpost 14 months ago.

It was not cold-served revenge, however. Quite the opposite, in fact. The ill-feeling between the two Uniteds, the players and the followers, stirred a white-hot atmosphere. Cole himself was so fired up in the first half he risked eyeballing old Psycho, Stuart Pearce. And when he became embroiled in an ugly spat with Darren Peacock, in the final minute, the alert Steve Watson had to save him from the beckoning clutches of a tanked- up Tyneside "Teletubbie" who waddled on to the pitch.

When the dust settled, and the final whistle blew, Cole departed to a chorus of booing and the champions left with three more Premiership points. They have 43 now, nine more than they had gathered by the half-way mark of their 1996-97 campaign.

They were not at their breathtaking best yesterday. Only in the last half an hour did they show their true champion class. But, thanks to Cole's goal, and two blinding saves by Peter Schmeichel, they did enough to pull four points clear of the pretenders behind them on this season's title trail.

It was an occasion fit for two Prime Ministers, if not a king, the Taoiseach Bertie Aherne taking a seat in the Milburn Stand alongside the Toon Army's Downing Street member. Whether Mr Blair rose from his seat as the chorus of "Stand up if you hate Man U" rang round the ground was hard to say but he had reason to be pleased with what he saw in the opening 45 minutes - presuming, that is, he was watching in black and white rather than diplomatic technicolour.

Manchester United's first-half attacking endeavour amounted to no more than three half-chances and only Cole's close range effort, three minutes before the break, was a serious threat to Shaka Hislop.

Such restricted action in the home goalmouth might have been expected, with six defenders in Newcastle's starting line-up, but it was by no means a damage-limitation exercise by Kenny Dalglish's side. Far from it.

From the moment John Barnes released Alessandro Pistone down the left and the Italian's cross narrowly missed the head of the vertically challenged John Beresford, Newcastle went for the jugular at every opportunity. It was not the attacking tour de force of 14 months ago but it unsettled Schmeichel and the red-shirted minders directly in front of him.

The Dane made a stunning reflex save after 24 minutes, when Stuart Pearce crossed from deep on the left and Barnes planted a seemingly unstoppable goal-bound header. Schmeichel had good reason for self-satisfaction, but not for long.

A minute later, Keith Gillespie whipped the ball into the six-yard box and Schmeichel, under pressure from the lurking Faustino Asprilla, failed to hold it. He regained sufficient composure, however, to deflect wide Beresford's follow-up shot.

Inevitably, though, Newcastle could not maintain their high tempo. They looked tired, indeed, in the 69th minute, when David Beckham crossed from deep on the right and Cole rose to head past Hislop - for the record book, his 48th goal in 47 games at St James' Park.

His name should have been joined on the score-sheet by those of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes as Alex Ferguson's side moved into top gear. Ultimately, though, they had to thank Schmeichel for their victory. It took a reflex save of the highest order to keep out Pearce's diving header with 10 minutes to go.

Cole's marker remained face down in the mud, contemplating what might have been. The Newcastle board of 10 years ago ought to have done the same. They chose not to come up with the cash when Willie McFaul, the manager at the time, wanted to sign the rising star he beheld in the Danish under-21 team. And Peter Schmeichel shone as brightly as Andy Cole burned at St James' Park yesterday.

Goal: Cole (66) 0-1.

Newcastle United (5-3-2): Hislop; Watson, Peacock, Pearce, Albert (Barton, 32), Pistone; Gillespie, Batty, Beresford (Ketsbaia, 75); Barnes, Asprilla. Substitutes not used: Rush, Tomasson, Given (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen, Pallister, P Neville; Beckham, Butt, Scholes (Solskjaer, 72), Giggs; Sheringham (McClair, 84), Cole. Substitutes not used: Berg, Curtis, Pilkington (gk).

Bookings: Newcastle United: Gillespie, Pistone, Batty, Peacock. Manchester United: Butt, P Neville, Cole.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Man of the match: Schmeichel.

Attendance: 36,767.