United ignited by Cole

By Dave Hadfield at Old Trafford
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FOUR GOALS in a mere 11 minutes on either side of half-time greeted the reappearance of something recognisable as Manchester United.

FOUR GOALS in a mere 11 minutes on either side of half-time greeted the reappearance of something recognisable as Manchester United.

Thrashed by Chelsea in their last serious outing, their reserves well beaten by Aston Villa in the Worthington Cup in midweek and neither their past not present sides able to hold the Rest of the World in Sir Alex Ferguson's testimonial, it had been a bad two weeks for a variety of United line-ups.

Against that background it was legitimate to wonder which face they would show to the Rest of Hertfordshire, but Watford got part of the answer from the team sheet and the rest from the assault that brought goals from Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole twice and a Denis Irwin penalty.

With Ryan Giggs back after a month out with a hamstring injury and David Beckham finding acres of space on the right, United had the balance they have lacked in recent weeks.

They had already created all manner of chances before they cut loose, two of the best to Cole and Yorke in the first three minutes. Watford might even have started to imagine that they had weathered the worst.

They were disabused of that illusion in a brutal manner. Nicky Butt found himself free in Beckham territory on the right and put over the cross that was met with an acrobatic scissors kick by Yorke. Alex Chamberlain, already wondering what sort of afternoon he was in for, did remarkably well to get a hand to the ball, but could not keep it out.

Two minutes later Giggs celebrated his return with a centre that was despatched by Cole's head and, almost on the stroke of half-time, Watford were finished off by a penalty awarded after Peter Kennedy nudged Beckham over. It was one of a couple of decisions about which Watford's players believed they had a legitimate complaint - the other was the sending off of Mark Williams near the end - but Peter Jones consulted his assistant before pointing to the spot and booked the protesting Kennedy before Irwin fired in the penalty.

United started the second half as they had ended the first, Beckham once more finding himself alone on the right, and the Watford defence failing to clear his deep cross. Another spectacular overhead kick, this time from Cole, and United were four up. They were now playing with a poise and confidence reminiscent of the early weeks of the season, with one particularly mesmerising build-up ending with Paul Scholes firing just off target.

To Watford's credit, they were not lying back and waiting for the inevitable and few at Old Trafford would have begrudged them their goal in reply. Nigel Gibbs whipped over a cross which was met by a thunderous shot from Richard Johnson which his fellow Australian Mark Bosnich, back in a Premiership goal for the first time since August, could not stop.

That was only an interruption in the general flow of play. United could have had more, particularly through Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a second-half substitute. The diminutive but determined Dutchman, Nordin Wooter, did put a header on the crossbar, but Watford's afternoon ended sourly when Williams was shown the red card for a challenge on Jonathan Greening that looked - certainly to the Watford manager, Graham Taylor - more clumsy than malicious.

Taylor approached the referee, plainly furious. "I told him he'd got it wrong, Williams played the ball," he said, bemoaning the fact that the sending off and the accumulated bookings will cost him three of his back four in a fortnight's time - not something a club with Watford's resources can afford.

Not surprisingly, Ferguson saw it differently. "Graham was very angry but I thought it was a reckless tackle and could have hurt the boy," he said.