Football: The tide turns for attackers: The Premiership Kicks Off: Hughes ignites lift-off for the champions

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Manchester United . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Queen's Park Rangers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

FOR one moment the football world looked as though it was going mad. The referee, Dermot Gallagher, had just sent off Paul Parker and as his arm went up again in the direction of the tunnel, the vision of another United player following him intruded on the mind.

Then the confusion abated, the men in the red shirts halted their posturing and it was clear that only Parker was trudging disconsolately towards the touchline. Nightmare on Lancaster Gate had been averted.

On Saturday Old Trafford saw the probable shape of the game to come where dismissals, if the guidelines against foul play of the sport's world governing body, Fifa, are prosecuted aggressively, could become commonplace.

Twenty-two players were shown a red card last week in the Endsleigh League and Coca-Cola Cup on the first two days of the season and, although there were only three players sent off in the Premiership on Saturday, the evidence here was that the misgivings of managers fearing a frequent loss of defenders might be justified.

'I don't want to see matches played between teams of nine and 10 players,' Gerry Francis, the Queen's Park Rangers manager, said, 'but that's what we're going to get. With quick, skilful players like Giggs and Kanchelskis you have only to make a slight miscalculation with a tackle and you're going to bring them down. I feel sorry for referees, they don't make the laws, they just have to implement them.'

In fairness to Mr Gallagher both the dismissals of Parker and QPR's Clive Wilson were fully justified and indeed both players would probably have been sent off last season as, on each occasion, a man with the ball had a clear route to goal and was unceremoniously tripped. It might not be edifying to see a match with teams labouring in reduced circumstances but it is less satisfying that, but for the fouls on Andrei Kanchelskis (after seven minutes) and Les Ferdinand (74), we might have been watching a 3-1 game instead of 2-0.

'The referee was in a no- win situation,' Alex Ferguson, Francis's United counterpart, said. 'I'm delighted there is a clean-up. We don't want elbows in the game and if foul tackles from behind are stopped, great. I'm just concerned with the consistency in the application of the guidelines. I'd be interested to see how referees reacted to similar situations in other matches.'

Ferguson, of course, had the absence of Parker for three matches to temper his enthusiasm for the cleaner environment; forward players have no such reservation. 'Defenders don't get a few free tackles any more,' Mark Hughes, the United striker, said. 'Before they used to give you a few kicks early on just to remind you they were there. That's stopped.'

He suffered more than most from the focus on the sendings off because it took attention away from his ferocious 48th minute shot that settled the match. It was pure Hughes, an explosion of power from the edge of the area that crashed past Tony Roberts with no concession whatsoever to the normal constraints required for accuracy.

That did not do QPR justice and neither did Brian McClair's headed goal 21 minutes later. The Londoners might have been ripped apart if United had synchronised properly but then they might have also slipped away with a draw. The champions never flowed fully, relying on isolated patches of brilliance.

It was a day when the red tide was unstoppable. But on this occasion we were talking cards not United.

Goals: Hughes (47 min) 1-0; McClair (68) 2-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; May (Parker, 70), Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Kanchelskis, McClair, Ince, Sharpe (Keane, 70); Hughes, Giggs. Substitute not used: Pilkington (gk).

Queen's Park Rangers (4-4-2): Roberts; Bardsley, McDonald, Yates, Wilson; Impey, Barker, Holloway, Sinclair; Ferdinand (Penrice, 81), Gallen (Maddix, 89). Substitute not used: Dykstra (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Ronnie Whelan, Liverpool's Republic of Ireland international midfielder, is likely to be named as the player-manager of AFC Bournemouth this week. He watched the Second Division side lose 2-1 at home to Blackpool on Saturday.

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