Manchester United 8
Yorke 2, 66, Cole 7, 49, Solskjaer 80, 87, 90, 90
Half-time: 1-2 Attendance: 30,025
RON ATKINSON had that deadpan look about him, somehow reminiscent of the late Les Dawson. The face the comedian pulled as though he was desperately attempting to clear a wasp from his mouth. "Scored four, didn't he?" asked the Forest manager rhetorically of the Manchester United substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, on the field for just 19 minutes. A slight pause, then, "Good job they didn't put him on earlier..."
Sardonic humour was the only way to deal with the unpalatable facts of the afternoon, one which accurately revealed the disparity between these sides at opposite ends of the Premiership. That cruel reality also included a brace for Andy Cole, a feat which will be warmly received by the watching England stand-in coach Howard Wilkinson, and another for his accomplice, Dwight Yorke, increasing the Trinidad and Tobago striker's tally to 21 goals, and bringing their joint total to 38. In all competitions now, Alex Ferguson's men are fast approaching a century of goals. By the end, United were knocking them in with the disdain of the big, fit lads in a playground kickabout, as that Norwegian substitute for all occasions, Solskjaer, came on and added his own piece of history with quite remarkable nonchalance. He almost looked embarrassed.
By the end Solskjaer had contributed to the biggest away win in the Premier League. It was all a bit too much like a stately lion casually pouncing on the sick wildebeest of the herd. "In a nutshell, we got murdered," stated the former United manager Atkinson. "Our finishing was absolutely wonderful," agreed Ferguson, his successor at Old Trafford.
The Premiership leaders, with no fewer than four current England squad members in their starting line-up, and another, Nicky Butt, as substitute, were in a different league. And by the end of May the two clubs probably will be.
That first victory in 20 Premiership games at Everton last week might have been just the impetus Forest required. If only accursed fate had not matched them next with United, who signalled their intention of securing their seventh successive victory from Yorke's second-minute opener. As false dawns go, Forest had woken up to discover it was still just after midnight.
Certainly, Atkinson has a considerable way to go in his restoration process. Jonathan Creek, aka the actor Alan Davies, was watching from the stands. But even his alter ego in the BBC drama series would have trouble solving the conundrum of how Forest find salvation now.
"They had quality all over the field and are a magnificent side, but we contributed a bit towards it, too. Quite a bit," Atkinson said. "We've got to get this out of our system quickly. It's like a game of golf. That's another hole over, even if we're 12 over par."
If Cole served notice of his intention to play some part in that friendly against France on Wednesday, Wilkinson also departed secure in the knowledge that David Beckham is in his pomp, those crosses leaving his feet like heat-seeking missiles, programmed to reach a United shirt, his vision at its zenith. You would have thought rival supporters would have tired with constant abuse for a man with quite sublime talents.
In stark contrast, Forest sought their inspiration from Pierre van Hooijdonk, who turned out only after recovering from what was described as a pain in the ribs, presumably inflicted by the stiletto of Dave Bassett. He is too frequently a peripheral figure who dances gracefully, but to his own tune.
The game began in a maelstrom of activity as United profited from Beckham's first corner after just 90 seconds. The home defence failed to clear adequately and after Roy Keane had retrieved the ball and found Scholes, the England man's cross was sidefooted home by Yorke. Who else? Five minutes later, Forest seized upon an error by Ronny Johnsen, broke smartly through the United rearguard, with Alan Rogers swapping passes superbly with Jean- Claude Darcheville before beating Peter Schmeichel with ease.
Immediately from the restart, and with Forest still mentally applauding themselves, Cole raced away, and, with Dave Beasant stranded, struck the ball towards an empty net. The Norwegian John Olav Hjelde, in attempting to clear, merely succeded in assisting the ball into his own net.
After that introduction, it was inevitable that there would be a lull in affairs. The storm followed immediately after the interval, Paul Scholes striking the post. But only minutes later, Yorke's blistering shot forced Beasant to spill the ball and Cole followed up. 3-1. For a short period Forest rallied. The subsitute Dougie Freedman was denied by Schmeichel and then saw a 25-yard effort skim off the top of the bar. United were only pausing for breath. Jesper Blomqvist pulled the ball back from the goalline, Hjelde stuck out a leg, the ball deflected on to a post and Yorke was in for his second. 4-1.
Ferguson's men might have settled for that, but Solskjaer had other ideas as he converted every chance that came his way, his second a quite superlative piece of accuracy from the corner of the penalty area. Even now, it is unlikely that he will start next Saturday's FA cup tie against Fulham; yet, he insists on remaining at Old Trafford despite being constantly overlooked in favour of Cole and Yorke. "He's an intelligent lad and he realises that he's up against two fantastically in-form strikers," said Ferguson, linked this week with the England job. As he might have wryly reflected last night, who needs it with this depth of quality at his disposal.