Football: Villa thwarted to end United's long wait: The championship returns to Old Trafford for the first time in 26 years after Oldham bring to an end the challenge from Atkinson's men

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Aston Villa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

Oldham Athletic . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

ANTI-CLIMAX it may have been, but no one at Old Trafford was complaining. After 26 years of fretful frustration, Manchester United will take the title any way it comes, and the fact that it finally came yesterday courtesy of Villa's inadequacy will cause them not a moment's concern.

Instead of steeling themselves for a tricky home game against Blackburn Rovers tonight, and an even more hazardous trip to Wimbledon on Sunday, United's last week of the season is going to be one long party.

Everyone involved had expected it to go down to the wire, but Villa were unable to fulfil Ron Atkinson's pledge that they would maintain the chase right to the end. Whatever happened, his team would not bottle it, he had said. Unfortunately, at the end of a season in which their football has pleased purist and punter alike, they lost both their momentum and nerve.

With the pressure on, they have won just four of their last 10 matches. Hardly Championship form.

United, in contrast, have won five in succession, proving beyond question that they are the better side.

The near-miss of last season intensified their desire, and they renewed the pursuit of their holy grail with an iron resolve to buttress their myriad skills.

Untroubled by the injuries which undermined them 12 months ago, and blessed with a less hectic run-in, they have looked the part as champions-in- waiting since 5 April, when they went to Carrow Road and won 3-1 to see off Norwich City's plucky challenge.

Villa snapped away at their heels, but three weeks ago Atkinson's team seemed to sense that it was not to be their year when United came back from a goal down at home to Sheffield Wednesday to win 2-1 in the seventh minute of stoppage time.

Luck as well as the deepest reservoir of talent in the country was behind the red battalions. It was an irresistible combination.

Villa were good, but only second best. Collective strength is their forte. They have no Ryan Giggs or Eric Cantona to turn a match with one flash of individual brilliance.

How they needed one yesterday, when they played without real conviction as if accepting that their chance had gone when they lost 3-0 at Blackburn two weeks ago.

Oldham, in urgent need of points themselves, to stave off the threat of relegation, were stronger mentally. Their nerve was rock solid, and they also played well enough to suggest that they might win their last two games, at home to Liverpool and Chelsea, and scramble to safety.

Darren Beckford and Ian Olney both spurned inviting chances yesterday before Nick Henry scored the fateful goal, after 29 minutes. Gunnar Halle created the opening, winning an aerial challenge with Steve Staunton, and when the ball ran loose, via Beckford's maladroit boot, Henry buried it past Mark Bosnich's left hand.

To the delight of their near-neighbours up in Greater Manchester, Oldham defended their lead with impressive resolution, and deserved their good fortune when Dean Saunders crashed a 25-yard free-kick against Paul Gerrard's left-hand post, at its junction with the crossbar.

Saunders, football's nearest thing to perpetual motion, was unlucky again when Steve Redmond denied him with a stunning clearance from under the bar, but Redmond had an excellent match, and deserves full credit for his covering position on the goal-line.

Atkinson, a prowling bear with a sore head in the dugout, sent on Tony Daley, his England winger, as a last throw of the dice, but it was not to be. Villa's play became ragged rather than progressive and their lofty ambitions petered out with a fusillade of hit-and-hope pot-shots.

Ray Houghton, who won two championships with Liverpool, was bitterly disappointed at missing out on a third. 'We played like idiots,' he said. 'We never really put any pressure on them and just threw it all away. It has all gone wrong because we have been playing with too many players out of form.'

At the end, Atkinson took a deep breath and grabbed the public address microphone to promise a dejected full house another sustained challenge next season. He paid handsome tribute to his old club, who had deserved their triumph, he said. 'We've had a good season ourselves, regardless. Now we've got to make sure that we finish second to get into Europe next season.'

Joe Royle, the Oldham manager, forecast a new golden era for United, akin to that which saw Liverpool dominate the domestic game for two decades. 'They could rule the roost here for years to come,' he said.

Up in Manchester, the celebrations were already in full swing. Steve Bruce, champagne in hand, promised: 'It's going to be one hell of a night at Old Trafford tomorrow.'

Alex Ferguson, unable to bear the tension, had retired to the golf course for the afternoon. The 19th tee will have seen nothing like it. After a celebratory glass, the United manager said: 'This is the greatest achievement, the greatest moment of my football career. I couldn't have asked for anything else. I'm proud of the players and really pleased for the chairman, the supporters and everyone connected with the club.

'Some of the people concerned have been connected with the club for all those years and it's fantastic for them.'

Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker (Daley, 60), Saunders, Atkinson, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Cox, Spink (gk).

Oldham Athletic: Gerrard; Halle, Pointon, Henry, Jobson, Fleming, Redmond, Olney, Beckford, Milligan, Bernard. Substitutes not used: Ritchie, Adams, Keeley (gk).

Referee: D Allison (Lancaster).

----------------------------------------------------------------- PREMIER LEAGUE TOP TWO ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Man Utd (C) . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40 22 12 6 62 29 78 Aston Villa . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 21 11 9 56 38 74 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

United's worthy heirs, page 24

Rangers secure title, page 25