Football Commentary: Belief brings vintage red to maturity: United's guts and glory game

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The Independent Online
KEVIN KEEGAN glanced around him and for one horrible moment St James' Park felt like Rorke's Drift. To the front, Manchester United were advancing in line abreast while to the side Alex Ferguson held England's most expensive footballer in reserve.

In that one, daunting instant came the realisation that the pack were chasing nothing more than a lost cause. United would be champions again; the big prize already as good as theirs. 'The rest of us', he said, 'are just fighting for scraps.'

Keegan's Newcastle team had given their all, hurling themselves at the runaway leaders in what Ferguson described, a little uncharitably, as 'kamikaze' fashion. They bounced off. United, impressively resolute, stood shoulder to shoulder in the maelstrom and came away with a deserved 1-1 draw. Guts and skill. As that 13-point lead suggests, no one even comes close.

Keegan's momentary panic attack came in the second half, after Andrei Kanchelskis had replaced Mark Hughes. 'I was sitting there, level with their front line, and looked across at Giggs, Sharpe, Cantona and Kanchelskis. Awesome. Anyone who plays like that deserves to win things.'

Changing the view was no help. 'When I looked at their bench I saw Roy Keane there, waiting, and when I looked in the stand I saw Bryan Robson, not even in their 14. It's not just the players in their team but those who can't get in who show the difference between United and the rest.'

It was this them-and-us feeling that prompted Keegan's pre-match suggestion that the uncommitted wanted Newcastle to win. What he meant was that everyone not of the red persuasion would be happier if United lost a game or four to make the championship a real race, rather than a regal procession.

Ferguson cannot be expected to see it quite like that, of course, and he interpreted Keegan's comments as an attack on his team's popularity. 'According to Kevin,' he sniffed, 'everyone wanted them to win. He says he had everyone on the phone - even chairmen - begging him to beat us. Fortunately, chairmen don't win matches.'

Closing ranks in 'no one likes us' mode is a common enough managerial ploy, but United are good enough, and big enough, to rise above all that. If it is not a device, and Ferguson genuinely believes his team are unpopular, he is wrong. A certain amount of envy is inevitable - they should be playing in green at Maine Road - but the overriding attitude is admiration.

Ferguson has assembled the best side in the country, by far, and in so doing he has persuaded others to play the United way. The right way. He has had credit for that, continues to get it, and a little less of the Mr Angry would be more becoming.

As Keegan said: 'If Alex is going to be grumpy about everyone wanting to beat United, he's going to be grumpy for the next 10 years.'

Fast and furious, the match held Tyneside's biggest audience of the season (36,388) in thrall, but without ever quite blossoming into the classic it was billed as. United versus Norwich City the previous Saturday was much better from the footballing point of view.

Swept along by a cup-tie atmosphere and a strong, gusting wind, the first half was played at a pace that precluded composure and precision. Newcastle tried to run United out of it, and might have succeeded had either of two chances gone in. Instead, Peter Beardsley was thwarted by a good save, then headed wide at close range.

Playing against the gale, and tigerish tackling, United had struggled to get out of their own half. It had to be different in the second half. Or did it?

The wind dropped, Peter Schmeichel denied Beardsley and Lee Clark, and when Paul Ince pinched the lead, on the hour, it was completely against the run of play.

If United scarcely deserved it, the scorer certainly did. Ince gave a titanic performance, operating deeper than usual to screen his defence, yet still getting forward to become the 13th United player to score this season.

A beauty his first was, too, driven past Hooper's right hand after Ryan Giggs had teed up a Kanchelskis cross.

Suddenly scenting blood, United switched to a full-blown 4-2-4 and Sharpe, put through by Cantona, should have doubled the margin.

At 2-0, Newcastle would have been out of it. Reprieved, they ensured justice was done when Beardsley's umpteeenth clever contribution sent Robert Lee scampering down the right to cross for Andy Cole's 23rd goal in 21 appearances.

Cole accomplished nothing else of consequence, but the Geordie legions will settle for that. As far as the singing stripes were concerned, Goal King Cole had done it again.

Late chances for Keane and Beardsley convinced both sides that they had done enough to win, but the result was a fair one.

'It's a great compliment that everybody is desperate to beat us,' Ferguson prickled. 'Newcastle have given it their best shot but, at the end of the day, if anyone was as good as us, they'd be up there beside us.'

Swaggering stuff, but Keegan was not inclined to argue. 'I suppose if we're a little bit disappointed with a draw against Manchester United, we're getting somewhere. I remember not so long ago, when I first came here, we'd have been grateful to get a draw off Peterborough United.

'I think we've just seen this season's champions here today. The rest of us will probably have to catch a ferry if we want to get into Europe.'

Don't forget the cup route, KK. Newcastle look worth a wager there.

Goals: Ince (60) 0-1; Cole (72) 1-1.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Hooper; Watson, Venison, Howey, Elliott; Lee, Bracewell, Clark, Sellars; Beardsley, Cole. Substitutes not used: Srnicek (gk), O'Brien, Allen.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Sharpe, McClair (Keane, 76), Ince, Giggs; Hughes (Kanchelskis, 56), Cantona. Substitute not used: Sealey (gk).

Referee: K Hackett (Sheffield).

(Photograph omitted)