Football: United stand tall but Beardsley looks to deliver: Henry Winter on today's Premiership programme

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A YEAR ago, Manchester United gave Eric Cantona a red shirt and a new start and the rest is history. A year ago, Newcastle United were 12 points clear on their way to the Premiership and the rest is hysteria. United now lead the elite by a similar margin but at St James' Park this afternoon, the Premiership procession could, in 90 vibrant minutes, revert back into a competition.

The royal visit of Alex Ferguson's runaway thoroughbreds is the one Tyneside has waited for; an extreme test of both clubs' strengths and ambitions. No one will be more motivated than Peter Beardsley. The highpoint of his six-month spell at Old Trafford in 1982-83 was a League Cup tie before Ron Atkinson sold him. 'At the time I was disappointed when they got rid of me but in the end they did me a favour,' the Newcastle striker said yesterday.

Beardsley, 33 next month, shows little sign of slowing, whether in speed of limb or thought. His irresistible, inventive form has propelled Andy Cole to the forefront of the scoring ranks while bringing Beardsley himself nine goals in his last six League matches.

The former Wallsend Boys Club luminary will open his usual box of tricks and flicks in front of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, but it is his incisive diagonal passes to team- mates running through that could trouble the visitors.

For all their home advantage, and confidence emanating from an impressive draw at Old Trafford in August, Beardsley knows Newcastle face a substantial challenge. 'Manchester United are the best team in the Premiership by a mile. While I am not saying we will beat them I believe that we can.'

Confirmation of Newcastle's class came yesterday as the Magpies collected all four Carling awards for November - part of what the Premiership called Carling's ' pounds 12' sponsorship (small beer indeed). Keegan (top manager) and Cole (fastest hat-trick, against Liverpool) received individual honours while the team were top scorers (11 in four games). The Carling No 1 award for 'special contribution to football' went to the rejuvenated club, the judges particularly praising the passionate following. 'This club has been travelling at a million miles an hour for the best part of a year,' Keegan enthused.

Two other Premiership clubs - the Blues of Manchester City and Chelsea - have been heading equally rapidly in the other direction. Undermined by injury and distracted by demos, City's midweek success over Everton 'will have done the team a power of good', according to their manager, Brian Horton. They will need to be charged up today. The visitors, Tottenham Hotspur, boast an impressive recent record against City: Spurs won at home in August, and last season triumphed three times at Maine Road in the Premier League, FA Cup and Coca-Cola Cup, on top of a championship victory at White Hart Lane. At least a pro-Franny Lee protest has been called off.

Eight of Horton's squad have knee injuries but a new arrival has engendered hope. Carl Griffiths, an astute pounds 500,000 purchase from Shrewsbury, has scored two in two as a replacement for Niall Quinn and should, if fit, ruffle a few feathers in Spurs' rearguard.

After picking up a solitary point from a possible 27, Chelsea desperately need a victory - anything, in fact, but another reversal - at home to Ipswich Town, who intend to equal an all-time club record of five successive clean sheets.