United profit from peace and quiet

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Manchester United 2 Middlesbrough 0

It was just as well that the Manchester United supporters rose to wallow in nostalgia by applauding Middlesbrough's player-manager, Bryan Robson, before this match began. As soon as the whistle went barely a peep was heard in favour of the visitors. The Christians had more support in their fixtures with the lions.

The rebuilding work at Old Trafford has had two effects. One: the most impressive stand in Britain is being erected at an astonishing rate. Two: the banning of away supporters because of the reduced capacity has turned the ground into such a high temple of partisanship that Cyclops had a more rounded view by comparison.

Thankfully, visiting fans will be allowed into this Theatre of Screams by the time Southampton play here on 18 November. The result will mean increased atmosphere and decreased pressure on referees, who have the weight of 35,000 red opinions resting on their decisions at the moment. Even a few hundred fans to favour the contrary would make anti-United rulings easier.

Which is not to say that Mr Lodge did not have the courage of his convictions. The sending-off of Roy Keane, for a start, was hardly likely to endear him to his audience even if the Republic of Ireland midfield player's idiotic punching of Jan-Aage Fjortoft gave him very little choice. There were other decisions, too, which went against the popular vote.

Yet possibly the most important ruling of them all, waving play on after 70 minutes when Gary Pallister tripped Jaimie Moreno in the area, might have been altered if a couple of thousand Teessiders were baying for a penalty. The Middlesbrough players felt that the lack of sound effects was influential and it was difficult to argue against them.

"There were 9,000 watching on screens in Middlesbrough," Fjortoft said, "but we couldn't hear them. Eleven of us were shouting for a penalty but that was not enough. I don't think it's fair. The United fans put pressure on the referee."

The fact that Keane's departure meant there were only 10 United men to act the innocent as Moreno sprawled on the ground merely emphasised what a good result this was. It was not as comfortable as the scoreline suggests, but nevertheless to get two goals while being understaffed underlined the strength of spirit running through Old Trafford.

It was also apparent in the genuine joy at Andy Cole breaking his duck three minutes from time. The goal - his first since 26 August - was fortunate in that it deflected off the Middlesbrough goalkeeper, Gary Walsh, and turned like an off-break to go in by the far post, but the pounds 7m man's relief was echoed by his team-mates who dived on top of him like they were auditioning for the Playboy television channel.

"He is very popular," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said before revealing his own anxiety at his striker's famine. "I was nearly running on and putting the bloody thing in myself. Andy thrives on goals. It will be very important for him."

Ferguson was less forthcoming about Keane, other than to agree the dismissal was wholly appropriate. "I don't want to go into it," he said although the look on his face suggested that he went into it in very fine detail with the player himself.

Keane has now been sent off three times in a six-month period that also took in the summer break. Even the most one-eyed United supporter would not argue if he received a punitive club fine this morning.

Goals: Pallister (44) 1-0; Cole (87) 2-0.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Pallister, Bruce, Irwin; Scholes (McClair h-t), Butt, Keane, Giggs; Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: Beckham, Sharpe.

Middlebrough (5-3-2): Walsh; Cox, Pearson, Vickers, Whelan, Morris (Moore, 69); Pollock, Mustoe, Hignett; Barmby, Fjortoft (Moreno, 69). Substitute not used: Liddle.

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).