Football: United restore their self-respect

Manchester United 3 Leeds United 0
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Manchester United 3 Leeds United 0

THE wake turned into a statement of defiance and rebirth, Manchester United resuming life as former champions with a victory that will help soothe their very public grief.

Leeds United, ostensibly seeking affirmation of their Uefa Cup qualification, probably provided the perfect opposition in the circumstances. The historical hostility between the teams and their supporters tossed in just the required dash of spice.

Leeds were three down before Gunnar Halle was dismissed in the 61st minute for a second bookable offence and were fortunate not to concede as many again as they succumbed to United's late exhibition.

The inquests have long since established complacency as the cause of United's demise in the Premiership these past months, although they were not alone in assuming no team was capable of mustering a genuine challenge to their championship status.

The restructuring was effectively underway last evening, evidence of their intent presented to a disillusioned gallery on the pitch and off it. Self-respect lifted United's players out of any trough of self-pity and their performance was sufficient to suppress George Graham's mysteriously uninspired ensemble.

Jaap Stam, the Dutch central defender due to sign for United today in a pounds 10.5m transfer from PSV Eindhoven, watched from the stand, along with his wife and a couple of agents as United took a two-goal lead and command by half-time. Stam, who is fulfilling a life-time's ambition by coming to Old Trafford, unashamedly soaked up the atmosphere and attention like a starry-eyed schoolboy. "When you watch games here on television it gives no impression of how fantastic it is," he said. "It is much more intense than I realised."

He was less taken by Leeds. "United were good, but you have to say this was not a good Leeds team."

Leeds' reliance on Stam's compatriot, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, palpably limited their attacking options. Much of Leeds' threat to yet another Dutchman, Raymond van der Gouw, playing in the United goal so that Peter Schmeichel may take an overdue rest, was from distance, only Hasselbaink's late shot causing real discomfort.

United's early play still lacked the fluency that once seemed second nature yet was incisive enough to give them the ascendancy. A demonstration of that cutting edge produced a seventh-minute lead.

Gary Neville's determination won a 50-50 tackle on the right, he sprinted to the line and chipped back the perfect cross for Ryan Giggs to convert with a glancing header.

Then Teddy Sheringham was beaten to Irwin's centre by the climbing Ian Harte and referee Willard awarded a penalty. Nigel Martyn chose to dive to his right, Irwin placed the ball to his left, and the contest was effectively over in 31 minutes.

In the 58th minute, David May and Martin Hiden competed in the air, the ball fell to David Beckham, who drilled a low shot between Martyn's left- hand and the near post.

Ferguson seized the opportunity to give Brian McClair perhaps a final fling in the Premiership and Wes Brown, a central defender, a first sample of the big league. The youngster was welcomed to the fold in time-honoured fashion by Halle, who was duly sent on his way.

Manchester United (4-4-2) Van Der Gouw; G Neville, May (Brown, 58), Pallister, Irwin (P Neville h-t); Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Giggs; Cole, Sheringham (McClair, 58). Substitutes not used: Berg, Mulryne.

Leeds United (4-1-4-1): Martyn; Kelly, Wetherall, Hiden (Hopkin, 58), Harte (Robertson, 72); Radebe; Halle, Haarland, Bowyer, Kewell; Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Beeney (gk) Wallace, Jackson.

Referee: G Willard (West Sussex).