This fixture can paint a quite unreasonable picture (last year United beat Newcastle 4-0 before losing 5-0 at St James' Park) and the weather is usually badly representative of the times ahead. Observing football in the sunshine is rather like watching terrestrial synchronised swimming or outdoor snooker. At least yesterday we had good, honest pigeon-grey skies and drizzle.
For the fans it is an opportunity to meet old friends and practise collective singing in the outdoors, a bit like scout camp really. They say the summer break from football is absurdly short, but it's always enough time for supporters to recharge their anticipational batteries, while at the same time wiping the memory bank clean. Forgotten are the dirty nights, the cancelled trains, the kebab-stained lapels. In their place is a groundswell of optimism, and the belief that new faces will transform the squad even if the Latin midsummer signings have been Long John Silva to play up front and Venus di Milo in goal.
Chelsea now have 13 foreign players representing 11 different countries, and Dennis Wise can save himself a fortune in holiday money should he wish to organise exchange visits. The only other place you see this number of wealthy multinationals in close proximity is in Jonathan Aitken's telephone book.
For the first time yesterday we saw Chelsea's new Dutch goalkeeper. Ed de Goey does not have the look of a character who belongs between the posts, rather someone who should be delivering them. To remind us he has played abroad, he punches a lot.
We were also introduced to Uruguay's Gustavo Poyet, who was greeted with an (accidental) kick on the head by Roy Keane. Roy, it bears mentioning, was not booked yesterday.
When it comes to disliked players among the nation's supporters there is furious debate about who finishes second to Keane. He argues with the referee, he argues with his teammates and he argues with himself. He just argues. However, he displayed yesterday once again that it was he, as much as Eric Cantona, who knitted United to the championship.
Keane and Wise could start a fight in the confessional, and the latter engaged in an odd episode with Nicky Butt as each tried to slap imaginary insects off the other's head.
Teddy Sheringham said he wanted to go to United to win trophies, so this was a good start. As he was the sole major summer purchase by Alex Ferguson, the insinuation is that the manager is generally happy with the fabric of his squad. There remains, however, the groaning underbelly of a central defence which will soon need surgery. When the ball reached the United D yesterday the reaction was the same as if Reynard had dug his way into the coop.
Teddy is meant to be the replacement shepherd for Ferguson's scampering youngsters, and it may be to Andy Cole's chagrin that he seems to have the same adhesive quality with the ball that his predecessor possessed. By comparison, Cole has the sort of first touch that would lead to a very short career in a bomb disposal unit.
Chelsea will flourish this year and they have already received the ultimate compliment of having chunks kicked out of them during their medley of friendlies. It is too early to establish whether United will cope without the man whose name is now banned at Old Trafford. There were shirts commemorating the retired hero in the crowd yesterday, but as yet there is insufficient evidence to determine whether United will miss Eric as much as Ernie still does.Reuse content