Maybe it was the sight of the black-and-white stripes that inspired him, or perhaps he is a big occasion player after all. Whatever the reason for Andy Cole's rediscovery of his scoring touch at Old Trafford last night, his timing was richly ironic.
It may also prove of great consequence. Cole's expertly-taken sixth-minute goal was the catalyst for the defeat of his old club, Newcastle United, by his current one, Manchester United. The win, which was sealed by Roy Keane's 52nd-minute strike, breathes life into a championship race which Newcastle were threatening to strangle.
Kevin Keegan's side remain top, but their lead is now an attainable seven points, not the almost irretrievable 13 which victory would have brought them. They remain favourites but the question mark about their staying power has been revived.
While titles are won over a season, not 90 minutes, last night's match counted for more than just three points. Ferguson's side had taken just three points from the previous 15. Now they can enter the second half of the season with confidence restored. Newcastle, however, will be suffused with self-doubt, especially on their travels for their away form (15 points from 10 games) is ordinary by championship standards.
They were never in the game last night. "We did not compete," Keegan said. "That was the most disappointing thing. They looked like a side desperate to win, we looked like one who thought, `We will still be seven points ahead if we lose.' "
The game was won in midfield where Roy Keane and Nicky Butt seized control from the first minute. David Beckham had already gone close before United scored. Peter Beardsley, who had a poor game, lost the ball in midfield, Ryan Giggs carried it towards the Newcastle defence and, as Eric Cantona made a distracting run, threaded a pass through to Cole on the right. The pounds 7m striker barely checked his stride as he drove the ball into the far corner of Pavel Srnicek's goal.
Beardsley could have levelled within a minute but miscued his shot. It was 20 minutes before Newcastle threatened again, Schmeichel saving with his feet from Les Ferdinand.
Newcastle did not create another chance, but even then it was already clear it would not be their night. John Beresford clashed heads with Ferdinand; then he was mistakenly shown the red card (referee Paul Alcock had confused him with Warren Barton). Beresford stayed on the pitch but Keith Gillespie did not, the winger being carried off with a ruptured tendon in his thigh. He will be out for two months.
United also suffered an injury, David May pulling a hamstring under a challenge from Ferdinand. Keane withdrew into central defence where he was as magnificent as in midfield. In the absence of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, Gary Neville filled the other centre-half berth. His assured display will have been watched with interest by Terry Venables.
His brother, Philip, was also in good form and, seven minutes into the second period, he created the second goal. Taking possession from a half- cleared corner he spotted Keane drifting into space on the far side of the area. His pinpoint cross was silkily pulled down by the Irishman before being thumped past Srnicek.
Giggs had already hit the bar and, briefly, a rout threatened. Newcastle were spared that but there was no doubt about the gulf between the sides. The individual battles, Cole v Ferdinand, Cantona v Ginola, also went United's way, even though Cole missed a good chance and appeared to lose interest towards the end.
The result was a repeat of the corresponding fixture last year. Then, as now, Newcastle arrived as leaders and were comprehensively outplayed. Last year's defeat presaged the collapse of Newcastle's title challenge.
That is unlikely to be the case this time. They have greater depth and variety this season. However, they will need to bounce back with alacrity. Their next match is away to West Ham which, as Manchester United found on the final day of last season, is not the easiest place to go looking for a win.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, May (McClair, h-t), G Neville, P Neville; Keane, Butt, Beckham, Giggs; Cole, Cantona. Substitutes not used: McGibbon, Scholes.
Newcastle United (4-5-1) Srnicek; Barton, Peacock, Howey, Beresford; Gillespie (Watson, 15), Lee, Clark (Kitson, 73), Beardsley, Ginola; Ferdinand. Substitute not used: Elliott.
Referee: P Alcock (Redhill, Surrey).
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