Football Commentary: United are stymied by tension: Ferguson's men on the wrong wavelength - Newell crafts a jewell - Magnificent Middlesbrough - Topsy-turvy Tottenham

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The Independent Online
IT'S early days yet Part Three. Manchester United's third match of the season, at home to Ipswich Town, failed to supply their first win, and while any conclusions drawn at this stage would be shallow and premature, they undoubtedly need an improved performance at Southampton tonight to settle their nerves.

It could be worse, of course. To United's relief, their principal rivals for the championship - Arsenal, Leeds and Liverpool - have also come stumbling out of the traps, but after the events of last season, Old Trafford is prey like nowhere else to the invasions of anxiety and self-doubt, and there is an uneasy tension about the place.

Their fretfulness has been reflected in a couple of incidents which have done them no credit, the latest involving a local radio reporter, who was denied his customary interviews with all and sundry because Tommy Docherty, their star turn, had the temerity to criticise Gary Pallister.

The Doc's comments had appeared in a tabloid newspaper, and were nothing to do with Piccadilly Radio, but the man with the mike had to go, the station condemned by association.

Petty. A club as big as Manchester United should be above that sort of thing - just as they should be above belittling a referee (Brian Hill) when the rub of the green goes against them.

All would be sweetness and light if the team could regain their magical form of last winter, but there is no sign of that. Anxious to atone for their 3-0 defeat by Everton in midweek, they instead struggled to master an obdurate but unremarkable Ipswich side, and deserved no better than their 1-1 draw.

United's performance was patchy, at best, personified by the winger, Andrei Kanchelskis, who promised much but accomplished little. Fast but inconsistent, like a Ukrainian Franz Carr, he was well held by Phil Whelan, an adhesive young full-back with less than a dozen League games behind him.

Whelan, diligent and determined, epitomised an Ipswich team who came to defend, with five strung across the back, and found their task less daunting than they might have expected.

Lifted by John Wark, who rolled back a good few of those 35 years to give a dominant performance in central defence, they nullified Mark Hughes and Brian McClair to such a degree that Craig Forrest had not made a save when, after 56 minutes, the Second Division champions took the lead.

Alex Ferguson, having castigated his defenders for their slackness against Everton, was again left muttering darkly about indiscipline when Neil Thompson's long throw from the left was allowed to reach Chris Kiwomya via Jason Dozzell's near-post flick.

Kiwomya, a 22-year-old striker of great promise, buried the chance with a confident thump, and the rest of Old Trafford fell as silent as the rubble-strewn Stretford End.

A famous win; a morale-sapping defeat? No such drama. Within a minute United drew level in spectacular fashion, Denis Irwin belting in an unstoppable 20-yarder, and that was the way it stayed.

Whether it would have done so had Dion Dublin been introduced in good time is a point Ferguson may well have pondered over the weekend. The tall striker was given just four minutes in which to make his mark, recalling England's crucial World Cup qualifier against Poland in 1973, when Alf Ramsey sent on Kevin Hector with even less time remaining with the exortation: 'Win it for us, son.' In fairness, Hector very nearly did.

On Saturday, with Hughes and McClair in check, it would have made sense to send on Dublin early in the second half, by which time it was clear that Plan One was not working, and have Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs loft a few of their crosses at the big man's powerfully productive forehead.

Instead, Ferguson delayed his first substitution until the 65th minute, and then it was not Dublin but Neil Webb who appeared, admittedly to tumultuous applause. Out of favour he may be with the management, but Webb is still a United player in every sense, his composure, vision and passing range from the club's very best traditions.

Unfortunately, good though he is, injuries have taken their toll, and he is now a slow starter, who needs to be on from the outset to attune to, or establish, the pace of a match. After 25 minutes he was still warming up. With the exception of a late shot on the turn, which demanded a falling save, the game had passed him by.

Ferguson was frustrated, yet again, but before going radio gaga he had put a brave face on his disappointment.

'We created four or five good chances and should have finished those off,' he said. An all too familiar theme, and a situation which is unlikely to improve until he comes up with a more prolific centre-forward than Hughes. Of the situation in general he said: 'It is going to be a different type of League this season, with no one flying away clear at the top. What we need to do is chisel away at our play, and get it right.'

'Chiseller Fergie'. Sounds like front-page stuff.

Goals: Kiwomya (56) 0-1; Irwin (57) 1-1.

Manchester United: Schmeichel; Irwin, Blackmore (Webb, 65), Bruce, Ferguson, Pallister, Kanchelskis (Dublin, 86), Phelan, McClair, Hughes, Giggs. Substitute not used: Walsh (gk).

Ipswich Town: Forrest; Whelan (Milton, 83), Thompson, Stockwell, Wark, Linighan, Williams, Goddard, Johnson, Dozzell (Youds, 73), Kiwomya. Substitute not used: Baker (gk).

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

(Photograph omitted)