Football: United's power put to the test

FA CHARITY SHIELD: Double winners are back at Wembley as Newcastle United warm up with a comfortable victory in friendly; Newcastle have a point to prove in the traditional opener to the English season.
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Alan Shearer and the Toon Army are in disagreement. As far as Shearer is concerned, tomorrow's FA Charity Shield is an irrelevance compared to next week's Premiership opener at Goodison Park.

Tell that to the Newcastle supporters. They were looking forward to this match even before Shearer came home. It is 20 years since they have been to Wembley, long enough to persuade many to cheer Manchester United's double because it meant Newcastle, as Premiership runners-up, would contest the Shield.

Newcastle's last Wembley memory does not quite date back as far as lace- up balls and waxed moustaches, but it was in the days when the Football League Cup was unsponsored and Manchester City won trophies - they won that 1976 final through Dennis Tueart's spectacular overhead kick. Newcastle's last Wembley win was in lace-up times, 1955, when Jackie Milburn scored in the 3-1 FA Cup win over Manchester City.

It is the arrival of Milburn's latest successor, Shearer, which has lifted this match out of a private Novocastrian party to an international event. Manchester United may be so blase about Wembley as to request less than a full ticket allocation but the rest of us want to see how Shearer settles in.

The player himself expects goals to be harder to come by. "With due respect to the lads at Blackburn it was my job to get the goals there," he said. "Here at Newcastle we have so many other players capable of scoring I might struggle to get anywhere near the 30-mark."

Who he plays with will be almost as interesting as how he plays. Les Ferdinand missed last night's match at Lincoln with flu but he is expected to start if fit. That could mean both Peter Beardsley and Faustino Asprilla beginning the season on the bench. It is unlikely that the latter, at least, will be prepared to stay there for long.

Philippe Albert, who has a back injury, is Newcastle's only other doubt although Robbie Elliott has been left out following his transfer talks with Blackburn Rovers.

Such is the fuss surrounding Shearer it is almost forgotten that the champions have been busy in the transfer market signing a clutch of foreigners. They include one of the stars of Euro 96, the Czech Karel Poborsky, and Johan Cruyff's son, Jordi.

They should all be on the bench tomorrow as Ferguson hinted that he would start this season with most of the team which finished the last. Paul Scholes is expected to replace Andy Cole, who has pneumonia, while Gary Neville may come into defence.

Ferguson warned that no one would retain their place all season. "I never use the term dropping players, but you have got to ease them in and out very carefully with a programme like the one we face.

"Bryan Robson, when he was here, wanted to play in every match but it's just not possible. He used to argue with me but, looking back, I think he knows I was right. It is something that Jordi Cruyff already knows. The Premier League is just too hard and physical for players to play every game.

"Our intention is to go for everything this season. The European Champions' Cup is the pinnacle but we aim to stay near enough the top of the league to make that a realistic aim in the last couple of weeks as well."

The FA Cup final winner, Eric Cantona, missed last season's Charity Shield - he was still banned - but has done well in the past. He scored one of the goals which beat Blackburn in 1994 and struck a stunning hat-trick in Leeds' defeat of Liverpool two years earlier.

That fixture echoed the first Wembley Charity Shield in 1974. That meeting was made infamous by a fight between Kevin Keegan and Billy Bremner. Keegan, who threw off his shirt upon the inevitable dismissal, was reminded of it this week when he said "these fixtures are just friendlies".

"Not too friendly that day," he agreed. Neither was last year's snarling scrap between Everton and Blackburn.

This should be played in a better spirit though there is more at stake than just pride. Newcastle need a good performance. They have not beaten Manchester United in six matches since returning to the Premiership. As the champions showed last spring, when it comes down to the wire belief can tip the balance.

Manchester United have featured in 15 Shields, winning eight, including the first in 1908, and sharing four. Newcastle have lost four - including a 4-2 defeat to Manchester United in 1952 - and won once, in 1909, against Northampton.

In those days the match was between the winners of the Football League and the Southern League. It has come a long way since then, and raised millions of pounds for charity. Last year, which was poorly attended, raised pounds 273,000. The 40-plus beneficiaries included the Birmingham Royal Institute for the Blind, Turning Point and the Police Benevolent fund.

This is the most public of many charitable works by footballers and football clubs and the benefits will be gratefully received. Even so, given the game's current wealth, consideration should be given to turning over all the expected pounds 1.2m receipts to charity. Only a third is passed on, Wembley (for whom charity always begins at home) take their customary third and the teams share a similar sum. In Newcastle's case, that should just about cover Shearer's big toe.