United unable to take last chance

PREMIERSHIP DECIDERS: Defeat cannot spoil Blackburn's historic day as Ferguson rues missed opportunities; Anfield acclaims the new champs
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The Independent Online

West Ham United 1

Manchester United 1

It was Blackburn's championship to lose, we were reminded again and again these last few weeks, but when push came to shove it was Manchester United who tossed it away. After 39 weeks and 42 games they missed out on a third consecutive crown for the want of one goal.

Just a single swipe from the £7m feet of Andy Cole would have done it. Or for that matter a Mark Hughes sledgehammer. Recklessly, inexplicably, Hughes was left on the substitutes' bench until half-time. He made a difference when he came on, but the difference, agonisingly, stayed at a single goal, a single point.

For the last 26 minutes, after 3,000 transistor radios at the United end had told of Liverpool's equaliser, the West Ham penalty area became a small suburb of Manchester. Several times in an incredible, heart-stopping climax, the golden prize tilted away from Ewood Park and along the A666 towards Old Trafford but not once could the visitors make it count.

Twice in the last 10 minutes Cole was set up in the kind of scoring positions that £7-rated players should deal with - let alone those with six dazzling noughts beside their name.

Each time the Hammers' goalkeeper, Ludek Miklosko, stood bravely in the way. Strange how this season of sleaze and scandal should turn in the end on the presence of one large Czech.

Afterwards the United manager, who came that close to being enshrined as the first United manager to win three successive championships, paid enormous credit to his team and also to Blackburn. "Anyone that gets to 89 points deserves to win it," he said. "It has taken a good team to take the championship from us and I would like to congratulate Kenny and his players.

"My players were marvellous. It was a fantastic performance but it just did not go our way. We did more than we needed to win the game but maybe fate was against us. Still, it has been a tremendous effort this season considering all the cautions, all the injuries, all the suspensions, everything that has gone against us."

Ferguson said he had no regrets about the decision to leave out Hughes. "We had to take the wind out of West Ham's sails in the first half and I explained to Mark that he was always going to come on. We have done well in the past with only one up front. It was the right decision."

Ferguson will not struggle to find a few dissenters. Three years ago at Upton Park he left Hughes out when United were closing on their first League title since 1967 and paid the price as Leeds celebrated. Yesterday hinted at a macabre replay as West Ham began the stronger with United clearly nervous and hesitant.

It allowed another Hughes to take centre stage, the one christened Michael who began his career across the city at Maine Road. In the 31st minute he ran on to a cross from Matt Holmes, who just before had struck the crossbar, and side-footed a goal of stunning simplicity.

At that moment the ghost appeared to have been given up. Retribution for all those occasions this season when United have fallen foul of the disciplinarians appeared to have arrived. Even when Brian McClair glanced home Gary Neville's free-kick eight minutes into the second half, the celebrations were less than expansive.

It was as if United did not believe Liverpool had it in them to come back with a helping hand for their deadly rivals. John Barnes' equaliser changed all that. Hughes headed over, Cole lost out for the first time as Miklosko spread himself magnificently.

Then, with just two minutes to go, Paul Scholes slipped a perfect invitation to Cole. Surely this time, but no. Even in injury time Miklosko was there again to deny the luckless Cole. VEE-Day - Victory in the East End - was just that far from their grasp.

West Ham United (4-4-2): Miklosko; Breacker, Rieper, Potts, Rowland; Michael Hughes (Webster, 90), Bishop, Moncur, Holmes; Hutchison (Allen, 87), Morley. Substitute not used: Sealey (gk).

Manchester United (4-5-1): Schmeichel; Neville, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Butt (Mark Hughes, 45), Keane (Scholes, 79), McClair, Ince, Sharpe; Cole. Substitute not used: Walsh (gk).

Refereee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

n Marc Rieper, the Danish international defender who has been on loan, has signed a three-year contract with West Ham.