Football: Sheringham triggers the treble shooters

Manchester United 2 Newcastle United 0 Sheringham 11 Scholes 53 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 79,101 FA Cup final: Two down, one to go. Barcelona now beckons Ferguson's double dream team
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The Independent Online
WELL BEFORE the end, the men from Manchester bore the disdain of knighted thespians surrounded by overawed extras. On tour from the Theatre of Dreams, Alex Ferguson's team of such supremely diverse talents duly clambered those famous steps to be received by the Prince of Wales. A prince surveying royalty indeed. Meanwhile the commoners of Newcastle stared disconsolately at the Wembley turf, just as after a similar defeat by Arsenal a year previously.

Another day, another dangling medal. How foolish we were, those of us who suspected that the second leg of the Old Trafford trilogy might just turn out to be, if not exactly a tragedy, at least a temporary departure from the norm. In the event, it was little more than a light-hearted romp for the men already crowned champions and whose desire for a remarkable treble could become reality on Wednesday at Barcelona's Nou Camp.

We allowed ourselves blithely to ignore the fact that United were undefeated in 31 games. Ruud Gullit's Newcastle boasted just one victory in their last 10 Premiership contests. And then there was the England captain, Alan Shearer, defiantly asserting that 25 goals for club and country in a season of supposed under-achievement is as many as Andy Cole has scored in a season of accolades.

With that in mind you could speculate that even underdogs have their day, even if they are taking on Cruft's supreme champions. You felt this could just have been Newcastle's on an afternoon when, with Wednesday's final journey playing on their minds, the champions would perform well within themselves. There was also the small matter of the absence from the starting line-up of Dwight Yorke, Jaap Stam and the departure of injured captain Roy Keane, eight minutes in, to encourage Gullit's men further.

A goal in each half, from steady Teddy Sheringham - without a medal for so long, then several come along at once - and the utterly dependable Paul Scholes were searing indictments for the sceptics who believed it was a game too many. The spectacle of Keane, so influential in the passion that Ferguson has created, thrusting the trophy towards the joyful red section of Wembley damned those who refused to believe.

Perhaps we should also have just reminded ourselves that Newcastle have become professional runners-up. For all the occasional spurt of style, the dash of grace from the feet of Temuri Ketsbaia, Dietmar Hamann and Robert Lee, and the impassioned pleas from the Newcastle faithful who so desperately yearn for success, it was United - the ones in red - who won this with enough aplomb to cast discredit on all of those who had this down for a Manchester United off-day.

Shearer, with not a chance offered him all afternoon, knew his fate well before the end. Even the introduction of the pounds 8m Duncan Ferguson to accompany him after the interval failed to bring its reward.

The force, undeniably, is with Manchester United as they prepare themselves for Wednesday. Part of the reason is that there are no star wars at Old Trafford. Ferguson must be the most envied manager in the business as he adeptly switches his cast list according to occasion. Here there were a few well-kept secrets. Ryan Giggs, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Cole in, but no Yorke who, along with Stam, watched from the bench before taking part belatedly. No game either for a suited Nicky Butt, who sat behind the substitutes. But his time will come on Wednesday, as it must with Keane and Scholes missing.

Will Gullit's time come again? And where? The Dutchman savoured an FA Cup experience with Chelsea two years ago, only to feel the crushing humiliation of dismissal. How he yearned to brandish a metaphorical gesture towards west London yesterday.

The Toon Army, like any other, marches on its stomach, and there has been precious little to whet the appetite and provide sustenance for its supporters in recent years. The so-nearly-men of Newcastle, epitomised by their fate a year ago when, under Kenny Dalglish, they allowed Arsenal to complete their double at a canter, had not secured a significant trophy since they won the old Fairs Cup in 1969.

It was a sequence which had to change, wasn't it? With their leader Gullit standing, hands in pockets, alone in front of the benches, as if attempting to influence events by some Dutch brainwashing technique, Newcastle quickly emphasised that they had no intention of merely providing a black and white backdrop for the colourful ambitions of Ferguson's side. During the initial skirmishes Gary Speed relieved Keane of the ball with a fair challenge but one which was to have a crucial influence on the game.

The United skipper, for whom this would be his last game of the season, limped out of the tackle and by the eighth minute the Irishman's season was over when he was replaced by Sheringham. Having now received that elusive championship medal to brandish in the faces of north London fans, red-clad and white, the adrenalin was flowing. Two minutes after he entered the fray he picked up a ball from Cole, played an exquisite one-two with Scholes and thundered through the middle before sliding the ball past goalkeeper Steve Harper.

With the champions deploying an exceptional David Beckham accompanied by Scholes in central midfield and Solskjaer in a right-wing berth, United were not at their fluid best, although before half-time Cole contrived to hook the ball over the onrushing Harper, only for Nikos Dabizas to clear.

If, after the interval, Ferguson's introduction gave the Newcastle supporters cause for optimism, it was short-lived. Sheringham won the ball from Dabizas, played it on for Solskjaer who delicately pulled it back for Scholes to plunder a second. Newcastle responded valiantly, with Ketsbaia nearly profiting when Peter Schmeichel strayed off his line, only to be reprieved by David May clearing off the line. Towards the end substitute Silvio Maric shot savagely past a post. But by then Ferguson's men were easing down. Newcastle can console themselves with a Uefa Cup place, while United march on. To the unthinkable?