Football: Title rivals need share option

Ian Ridley says Newcastle and Manchester United should not play off
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For those involved, there is no joy in football at this time of the season. Fans, managers and players, no matter how attractive their team, no matter how much they believe in the ethics of the game, just want the ball belted into the opposition's net in the first few minutes and then for the referee to blow the final whistle.

Newcastle United should recognise the condition better than any. After their exciting defeats at Liverpool and Blackburn, they now seem to have got the Manchester United message and have eked out two 1-0 victories.

It has made for paradoxical viewing, barely watchable but compulsive nevertheless. Like Greg Norman, Newcastle had a large lead; unlike Norman, Newcastle have at last staunched the wound, inducing some self-doubt in their once-certain rivals. Now United are back in territory once familiar to them, enduring similar emotions to those at St James'.

Eight days ago, gallows humour was Newcastle's preserve. That Saturday, David Ginola was enjoying a late lunch with a French journalist in a Tyneside restaurant. Three times autograph seekers came over to tell him that Southampton had scored against United. "Now perhaps they will only get one point instead of three," he replied to the third. Now United have their own line: it was right to bin the grey shirts, goes one joke, but Andy Cole should have been left in one.

It was being told last Wednesday night, in the rare moments when breath could be drawn. At 7.55pm, just as United were taking the field against Leeds at Old Trafford, Robert Lee hammered out a warning with a goal for Newcastle against Southampton.

At 8.17pm, the pendulum swung United's way with the sending-off of the Leeds goalkeeper Mark Beeney; at 8.19pm back to Newcastle as they were awarded a penalty - only for Dave Beasant to save Peter Beardsley's kick. And so it went on. At 9.32pm Roy Keane's goal for United sent murmurs of gloom out from the Milburn paddock around St James', to be followed at 9.34pm by a roar of relief at their team clinging on to Lee's goal, a state echoed in Manchester 16 minutes later.

The presence at Old Trafford of Leeds, who pipped United for the title four years ago, was a reminder of how United themselves let slip a title after leading much of the way. Alex Ferguson has clearly learnt much from the experience. The United manager knows, for example, just how to use his press conferences.

Before Wednesday, as Newcastle prepared for Southampton, he made a point of extolling the virtues of Matthew Le Tissier, a player who thrives on confidence and the approval of others. After Wednesday came the condemnation of the Leeds players for what he challengingly described as "cheating their manager" with their lack of effort in matches that did not involve United. Leeds entertain Newcastle on Monday week.

Such is the tension that the managers do not seem content to do their battles off the field. At times against Leeds, Ferguson was so close to the touchline that it looked as if he was about to come on; Keegan had said after his team beat Aston Villa last Sunday that he empathised with the foreign coach who recently intervened in a match.

Given all this, imagine a play-off between the two teams, should points, goal difference and goals scored be the same, a possibility that has been exercising the minds of the Premiership. There are better ways of deciding it, however. Clearly a new rule cannot be invoked at this late stage, but there are few options anyhow.

One would be the results that the two sides had achieved against one another - on that score Manchester United would walk away with the title - another would be fair play, a system that is used in the event of a tie at the top of the European Champions' League.

Newcastle would be more likely to claim the championship on that basis -at present they have 43 yellow cards to United's 48; one red card to United's three - but that system assumes a consistency in refereeing that current Fifa guidelines should produce, but do not seem to.

Too often they insist on a personal interpretation, often based on a misguided benevolence, as witnessed by two contradictory incidents last week. At Old Trafford, Beeney was sent off for what seemed an error of judgement in handling a foot outside his own penalty area; in Nantes the same night, the home goalkeeper, Dominique Casagrande, was shown only the yellow card against Juventus for deliberate handball a long way outside his area.

It would be a tragedy if the title were decided by a system reliant on such foibles and, despite the monetary temptation, a play-off is no way to settle a league competition. All things being equal, there is only one fair fashion in which to decide: to spread the joy, the title should be shared.