Football: Exit Keane, and United get keener

FA Cup final extra: No substitute for inspiration as Sheringham leaves bench to make his mark; Andrew Longmore describes a day to remember for a forgotten man
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The Independent Online
AND FOR my next trick. Hey presto, my Pontins League team will win the FA Cup. It wasn't quite like that but, by the end of a tumultuous afternoon at Wembley yesterday, there was a distinct feeling that United's Under-11s could have done the job just as easily.

If the romance of the FA Cup has fallen beneath the red tide, no one could argue that United - "there's only one United", as the Mancunians sang - lent some of their own magic to the world's oldest cup competition. When Dwight Yorke came on for Andy Cole with exactly half an hour left and Manchester United 2-0 to the good, it seemed that Alex Ferguson was starting to take the mick out of the Football Association's state occasion. Paul Scholes off, Jaap Stam on for a little stretch of his legs. A red carnation in his buttonhole, pounds 30m of substitutes to use and 10,000 multi- coloured handkerchieves up his sleeve.

Midway through the second half, Ferguson came to the touchline to bark some new instructions. As he did so, the ball came his way and in a throwback to his old days as a thundering centre-forward for Dunfermline, Rangers and Falkirk, he executed a neat volleyed pass. Perhaps he should have brought himself on. The Stretford End, transferred to their second home, went into raptures. Fergie beamed back his acknowledgment. His United were home and dry and the footballing gods were in their heavens. Whatever happens in Barcelona in three days' time, he should savour the supremacy of that moment. Very few people take liberties with the cup and live to tell the tale.

The rest of us, associated with neither United, could but marvel at the rare glimpse of invincibility of such a multi-talented team as they linked arms and danced a jig in the centre circle at the final whistle. This is a team - a squad, rather - blessed. Born good and born lucky. Just think of fortune's favours. A goal down to Liverpool with the final minutes ticking away on the clock; Henning Berg's remarkable goal-line clearance in the first leg against Internazionale; Diego Simeone's disallowed goal in the same match; Dennis Bergkamp's missed penalty in the FA Cup semi- final; Ryan Giggs' extraordinary waltz through the meanest defence in the division for the winner. Lady Luck must have a hotline to Ferguson's team talks.

So off comes Roy Keane, totem of United's dominance, after eight torrid minutes and on comes Teddy Sheringham, the forgotten man of United's glories. No prizes for guessing what happens next. Or who is the undisputed man of the match, his one rival the indefatigable David Beckham, who was asked to share Keane's midfield duties with Scholes. An inspired substitution, of course. Ferguson said he thought first of bringing on Jesper Blomquist, then threw the dice and put on a third forward. If Ferguson owned a donkey, it would win next week's Derby.

The Toon Army deserved a better reward. Frustrations might have spilled over in the town centre but at Wembley they were, as ever, generous and fair-minded. They had returned bolstered by a vague belief in the healing powers of their manager and a hazy notion that their beloved Newcastle could not play as ineptly as they did under Kenny Dalglish last time.

Avoidance of embarrassment might not have featured in Ruud Gullit's plans, but it was high enough on the list of Geordie supporters' priorities as they flowed back down Wembley Way to warrant some serious consideration. Bringing home the FA Cup was the one acceptable excuse for the recent anaemic League form. Gullit's dressing-room ban on talk of the FA Cup while the Premiership season still had some life in it fooled no one. More pertinent was his admission that he could not understand the mystique of the Cup. Maybe his education in the ways of English football is a little more complete now.

The integrity of the Cup demanded a full-blooded game, not just some dress rehearsal for greater glories on foreign fields, and it got that, until Manchester United's neatly-fashioned second, completed by Scholes, reduced the striped shirts to a rerun of last year's 18-cert video. Plenty of smart money had decreed that Newcastle would take advantage of rival distractions. The theory had it that one half of United's mind would still be celebrating victory in the Premiership, the other in Barcelona. There is not much room for theory in United's trophy cabinet.

A slow start apart, they harried and tackled as if the sunshine belonged to late autumn, not early summer. Newcastle were simply unable to live at United's pace, and though Gullit rightly blamed some elementary mistakes in defence, they were the product of a collective panic. Quite what they made of it down Munich way is a matter of conjecture. That United won without Keane's inspirational presence lent an extra dimension to the victory. As if the team needs any extra boost to a confidence already switched to turbo.

Memories of yesterday's triumph will be erased if United are not singing in the treble clef by late on Wednesday. Ferguson would certainly swap the dear old overcoat of the FA Cup for a sparkling new suit of gold called the European Cup. But the thought was probably not closest to his mind as he paraded his second trophy of a remarkable season in company with Peter Schmeichel, his replacement captain. Two down, one to go. "I'm very pleased with them," he said. He sounded like the headmaster commending his school First XI.