In came Paul Scholes, the home-grown teenager, and when a half-chance came along he buried it. United, who had been frustrated for 41 minutes by a tenacious Nottingham Forest side, never looked back.
Three minutes later David Beckham added a second. The match was settled, but further goals, from Beckham again, Ryan Giggs and Eric Cantona, were not academic. They mean that Newcastle United, who visit Leeds United tonight, are now six points and seven goals behind.
The dropping of Cole, though long overdue, was still a surprise as Ferguson had stood by him for so long. It was not a case of shirking the decision: six years ago Ferguson axed Jim Leighton, a long-time servant, from an FA Cup final replay. Clearly he had believed in Cole, believed that one goal would restore his confidence and open the floodgates.
It did not happen. Cole did score four on the trot, shortly before Christmas, but he continued to hesitate, or rush, in front of goal. He has scored 12 times this season, in 40 games, whereas Scholes has 14 in 29, nearly half as substitute. He looks a natural finisher, not one, like Cole, who needs a certain type of service.
Thus there were approving nods as well as surprised faces when the teams were announced. However, for 40 minutes, one could see why Ferguson had waited so long. With no Cole in the side Cantona had to lead the attack, with Scholes slipped in behind. It did not work, Cantona's guile was missed, and so was Cole's growing ability to act as a focal point.
After a bright opening United became sloppy. Giggs and Beckham gave the ball away and the final pass was lacking. It did not help when that pair managed to click for once, only for Lee Sharpe to make a dreadful hash of a diving header from six yards out.
Anxiety seeped into the biggest league crowd of the season, 53,926, and thence to the players. Forest, if they had had a decent centre forward, would have gone ahead. Then Sharpe at last tested Crossley with a 20- yard volley. The crowd were lifted and the players responded. With four minutes in the half remaining Jason Lee gave the ball away to Roy Keane, who played a first-time pass to Giggs on the wing. He skipped inside Alf- Inge Haaland and pulled the ball back. It came quickly to Scholes, and at a difficult height, but he leaned back and volleyed inside the far post.
Old Trafford echoed with a huge roar of relief. One man may have had mixed feelings, but Cole was trying to put a brave face on his hurt.
Three minutes later Crossley erroneously beat out Beckham's indirect free-kick. It fell to Cantona whose mis-hit volley was alertly directed into goal by Beckham.
Ten minutes later Beckham scored his second. Cantona released Denis Irwin, whose pass was beautifully dummied by Scholes before being driven in by the Londoner. Forest responded briefly, with Steve Stone and Bryan Roy testing Peter Schmeichel but the day belonged to United.
Giggs scored the fourth after 70 minutes, passing the ball in after Gary Pallister's tackle, and Cantona's run, had opened Forest up. Then came the coup de grace, a last-minute score from Cantona. He was aided by a deflection off Steve Chettle, but he still had to brush Colin Cooper aside before volleying past Crossley. It was United's biggest home win of the season and a 40-1 shot before the kick-off.
Hundreds of French flags waved as Old Trafford roared its approval. United then went on a lap of honour. The mood was celebratory, rather than triumphalist. They have not won anything yet and the memory of last year's double despair is still raw.
However, if Newcastle lose tonight, or at Forest on Thursday, the title will be back at Old Trafford, barring a Newcastle win over Tottenham next Sunday, a defeat for United at Middlesbrough on the same day and a big swing in goal difference.
Goals: Scholes (41) 1-0; Beckham (44) 2-0; Beckham (54) 3-0; Giggs (70) 4-0; Cantona (90) 5-0.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; Irwin, May, Pallister, P Neville (G Neville, 82); Beckham, Giggs, Keane, Sharpe; Scholes; Cantona. Substitutes not used: McClair, Cole.
Nottingham Forest (4-5-1): Crossley; Haaland, Cooper, Chettle, Pearce; Stone, Gemmill, Bart-Williams, Woan, Roy; Lee. Substitutes not used: Lyttle, Howe, McGregor.
Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).
Bookings: Manchester United: Keane. Nottingham Forest: Gemmill, Pearce.
Man of the match: Cantona.
Race for the title
P W D L F A Pts GD
Man Utd 37 24 7 6 70 35 79 +35
Newcastle 35 23 4 8 63 35 73 +29
Leeds United v NEWCASTLE
Nottingham Forest v NEWCASTLE
NEWCASTLE v Tottenham Hotspur
Middlesbrough v MANCHESTER UNITED