We left Part 2 with the regrouped United squad sitting 5th in the Premier League and the board grumbling over my performance. To keep the domestic treble dream alive, things had to improve….
Back to the league campaign and Sheff Wednesday are beaten 4-1 at Old Trafford with goals from Cantona (2), Hughes and Irwin. Bryan Robson getting a start and rated an 8. Kanchelskis gets injured in the 12th minute so Keith Gillespie steps in on the right wing. Our closest challengers in 93/94, Blackburn are up next, but without the SAS we take a 2-1 win with goals from Cantona and Ince.
The Crazy gang come to Old Trafford an early ‘reducer’ from Vinnie Jones croaks Bruce in the 2nd minute. Paul Parker is on the bench but I opt for the physicality of The Dube and be plays a blinder in the centre with Pallister, getting a 10, while Ince, Hughes and Cantona get the goals in a 3-0 win.
Next it’s back to the Champions League and a date with Leverkusen. I significantly shuffle my pack and Paul Scholes scores the goals (well one) in a 1-1 draw, their keeper playing a blinder, but we only manage 6 out of 15 shots on target, which allowed them to grab a point with an 80th minute equaliser. Still, given that I had Les Sealey in goal and Mike Phelan anchoring the midfield, I mustn’t grumble!
Along to Upton Park and West Ham. Tim Breacker gets himself a red card in the 8th minute and I’m hoping the man advantage will help continue our recent good league form, but again, 13 chances and only 6 on target means we must settle for a 2-2 draw and a MOTM award for their keeper.
Time for the League Cup to start and an away trip to holders Leicester City in the 3rd round. I go against type and play my usual 11 minus an injured Giggs and Kanchelskis, but welcome Bruce back in defence. Steve Claridge gets a goal mid-way through the first half but Ben Thornley pops up with an equaliser. The 2nd half is a stalemate, so we head into extra time. I completely forgot you only get 3 subs in the league cup, so my options to rest tired legs are Clayton Blackmore and Mike Phelan, neither of whom you would call super-sub. Not to worry, as Gillespie slots home on the 97th minute and we take the tie. Both goals from the stand-in wingers, but again 15 goal tempts and only 8 on target, with Kasey Keller getting MOTM. We draw City out of the hat for the 4th round in early December, which should be a tasty tie, looking forward to that one!
No league game on the following Saturday as it’s the international break and England play the first leg of their World Cup Play-off against Yugoslavia. Neville, Ince and Beckham all feature in a 1-1 draw, with Ian Wright getting the goal – finely poised for the return leg in a fortnights time.
November begins with a home game against PSV in the Champions League and an inspired performance from Cantona with two goals sees us win comfortably 3-0. Paul Scholes takes the other strikers role and scores the 3rd goal, with Nicky Butt and David Beckham also playing.
The league programme resumes with a trip to the Dell and a returning Giggs scores on the 9th and 27th minutes. Hughes scores a third on 39 and we are coasting at half time. Straight after the re-start, Pallister gets sent off for a reckless challenge. Neville replaces Gillespie and drops into defence and Cantona moves to the right wing. Ostenstad scores a consolation on 80 minutes, but it’s job done by then, thankfully.
The international break sees England play the return playoff leg against Yugoslavia. However, it’s not held in eastern Europe, instead both teams head for the sun of The Maracana in Brazil. The warmer climes inspire England to a 2-0 win through Tony Adams and Sir Les. Gary Neville ad David Beckham play while Paul Ince and Gary Pallister both come on in the 76th minute to shore things up. Dion Dublin warms himself on the bench in the Brazilian heat.
The world cup groups are drawn and England will face Germany, South Korea and Norway – not the easiest of groups. Wins against Norway and South Korea will be vital and give it a go against the Germans.
Host France pull the USA, Scotland and Australia out of the hat and there are a few cries of host favouritism labelled against FIFA, which frankly I am shocked at. FIFA are nothing but honest, integral and upstanding aren’t they? Anyone?
Villa are beaten 1-0 in the league next with an early Cantona goal the difference and then Derby visit Old Trafford. Concerned about the ‘shots on target’ ratio, I switch from a 4-4-2 diamond to the recommended 2-3-1-2-2/Direct tactic and we score 4 with no reply. Hughes gets 2 and the MOTM award, with the other goals from Cantona and Beckham. We’re coasting so well, I bring on Parker, Robson and McClair for the final 15 minutes, who all enjoy their run out.
Our penultimate Champions League game is away to Brondby and I shuffle the team and give some playing time to some of the non-regulars, with only Giggs and Bruce retaining their spots. For some reason that I can’t quite recall, I make John O’Kane captain for the night.
We leave it late, but the senior players come up trumps, with Robson and McClair coming up with the goods on 73 and 75 minutes. This win puts us top of the group with a 2pt lead over PSV with a game to go, so a good result against Leverkusen in the last game will see us still in Europe after Xmas.
The Brondby game was actually one of my favourites of the career save so far, and let me explain why (and for that awful pun title for the update!).
When I was a kid growing up in Cornwall, with no local team on any repute, everyone at school supported a ‘big club’. In the late 80’s this was either Liverpool or Arsenal, as they were winning most things. United weren’t. So on a rainy Sunday 8th April, unable to partake in our usual game of ‘3 and in’ in the garden, me and my best mate Steve, watched the Man Utd vs Oldham FA Cup Semi-final on tv. Neither of us had aligned ourselves to a particular club, so we both agreed we would start to follow the winner of the semi-final. I remember Robson getting the first goal and generally being impressed with his all action displays in the 3-3 draw. Utd won the replay, but some say Oldham should have won it in the first game but for Nick Henry’s shot which was adjudged to have not crossed the line – I doubt that I would have followed Oldham if they had won, but who knows.
Anyway, Robson – Captain Marvel – became my hero. I watched him score in the 1990 FA Cup Final, and was gutted when he was injured at Italia ’90. However, I saw him lift the Cup Winners Cup, League Cup and finally the Premier League. The 93/94 season was his last for United and he bagged a goal in the first league game of the season against Norwich. His next goal that season was against Oldham, in an FA Cup Semi-Final again, this time a replay after Hughes had saved the day at Wembley. It wasn’t the most graceful of goals, coming off his thigh from a Giggs cross, but it was goal 99 of his United Career and I was gutted he never got to 100 goals.
He didn’t feature in the FA Cup Final squad against Chelsea as Fergie wanted to get the youngsters involved, but I think this was a big mistake to a true servant. When Ince passed to McClair on a rain-soaked Wembley surface to make it 4-0, I remember thinking ‘That should have been Robson tapping that in and scoring his 100th goal for United.’ So as much as this is about the return of Cantona, there’s a big part of me that is delighted that Robson has his 100th goal for United.
Sorry for the detour into football nostalgia, but hey, this is what this blog is all about, right?
We finish the month with a 3-0 win over Bolton, Silk (1) and Steel (2) combining up front once again, which pulls us to the top of the league by a point over an unbeaten Arsenal. Newcastle are in third with two games in hand, and then Blackburn in 4th and Tottenham in 8th are only separated by a point.
On to the League Cup clash with Man City. City are in Division 1 this season, so won’t be meeting them in the league. Back in 93, the league fixture at Maine Road finished 3-2 to Utd, Cantona gets 2 to cancel out Niall Quinn’s two early goals, with Keane popping up with a late scrambled winner. The line up that day was – Schmeichel, Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin, Kanchelskis, Ince, Keane, Sharpe, Hughes and Cantona, with Sealey, Giggs and Robson on the bench. I decide to revel in the nostalgia further and play the exact same team. However, Kanchelskis is out with a hip injury for a few more weeks, so I bring Giggs in on the left, switch Sharpe to the right and put Dion Dublin on the bench with Sealey and Robson. Ian Brightwell goes close in the first half and then Bruce has a penalty claim waved away. Keane pops up with a goal at the end of the first half to maintain some synchronicity with reality, and Maine Road goes quiet at the interval.
Sharpe is struggling with fitness, so on comes Robson in the middle and I push Keane further forward to steady things up with Uwe Rosler threatening, but with no more goals in the second half, Keane again has the winner away at City. Perfect.
We draw Sheffield Wednesday away in the quarters. In 93/94 they were beaten 5-1 over the two legs of the semi-final, but Aston Villa are out, so definitely no repeat of the 1994 final.
Our next league game is against unbeaten Arsenal and it’s already got the makings of a title showdown, with them a point behind us in the league. Just before the game Colin McKee requests a transfer, but he’s going nowhere!
I stick with the same team that beat City, but rest Sharpe for Gillespie. However, I am fearful of Platt, Wright, Bergkamp and Overmars.
United take the game to Arsenal from the off and have 5 chances within the first 15 minutes, but Seaman is impervious. Arsenal grow back into the game and Pallister blocks a shot on the line, but it’s honours even at the break. I’m just hoping we haven’t thrown all our punches already.
We haven’t! Cantona breaks the deadlock on 56 minutes and we press for a second. I bring Sharpe and Robson on for Irwin and Keane and the games turns when Keown is sent off in the 83rd minute and two minutes later, Cantona gets his second to settle the match. We go 4 points clear at the half way stage and Arsenal are no longer ‘Invincible’.
For the final game of Part 3, we’re off to Germany and the final group game against Leverkusen, knowing a win or a draw will put us through for sure. I go with a strong line up with Neville, Butt, Beckham and Scholes all coming in. An early sending off for Leverkusen settles the game down but it’s not until Scholes breaks the deadlock after the break that we settle down. 2 minutes later and another red card and a penalty dispatched by Butt sees us in control and a further Beckham goal means we can start to celebrate. On comes Sealey and Dublin and immediately Ulf Kirsten pulls one back, but a Beckham freekick seals the deal. Topping the group and unbeaten to boot, lovely stuff. It’s AS Monaco in the quarters for us.
So there we go, half way in the league programme and top by 4 points, still in the League Cup and European Cup and the FA Cup begins soon against Hartlepool.
West Ham, Wimbledon and Barnsley prop up the table, with Liverpool now 6 points clear.
I’m pleased about where we are in the table and potential progress in Europe is a bonus, but I realise I can’t ‘auto-pilot’ games, there’s too much at stake for this team. Every game is going to be a cup final from now on, to reuse a well-worn football analogy.
So we’re half way through the season, having played 19 league games, but how are we really doing so far? Here’s my mid-season report on the regulars and the best of the rest:
1 – Peter Schmeichel – an almost steady 7 in the league for the 34-year-old Dane. In fairness he’s not had much to do and has been busier in his 3 European games. I’m taking into account this was his penultimate season for Utd in reality – I think the reason Utd were renowned for scoring so many late goals in the Treble season was because the statuesque Dane was letting so many in early in games, still, we can just remember his penalty save from Bergkamp and the cartwheels at the Nou Camp can’t we? Don’t have to remember he did a season at City either…
2 – Denis Irwin – This should be Paul Parkers spot, but to be honest, I think he’d ruin it, so I’ve got Mr Reliable at right back. A steady 7 average and the odd goal and assist will do me.
3 – Leee Sharpe – Another boyhood hero of mine. This boy played with a swagger that wasn’t just reserved for his goal celebrations. Sitting behind Giggs on the left wing, I’m hoping he can play his way back into the England Squad soon.
4 – Steve Bruce – He’s probably on his last legs and I do worry about him, but with 20 for tackling, influence, heading and determination, he’s getting the job done so far
5 – Gary Pallister – Playing better than I thought he would, but with Peter giving him 90 minutes of earache every game, there’s nowhere to hide. 2 assists and 2 motm awards is good going so far
6 – Roy Keane – I’m playing Keane as my holding midfielder and certainly getting stuck in, yellow cards in half the games he’s played tell the story. Surprised he’s only scored once though. Even more surprised he’s not been sent off yet…
7 – Eric Cantona – Le Roi – the centre point of the team and boy is he doing it now. 14 goals in 21 domestic games and 2 in his single European game, he’s definitely getting his mojo back. 3 goals in 3 games for France is also looking interesting.
8 – Paul Ince – The Guv’nor – he’s playing ok, but him and Keane only have 3 goals between them from central midfield and this does worry me.
9 – Andrei Kanchelskis – He’s been curtailed by a hip injury, but he wasn’t flying really before this. Since his injury we’ve played better with Gillespie or Beckham on the right wing. Back in a couple of weeks, I hope he improves.
10 – Mark Hughes – The Steel to Cantona’s silk. Cantona once said Hughes will get you 15 goals a season, well he’s done that by early December already, 16 in 20 in the league and cup is superb from the 34-year-old – just need to keep him fit.
11 – Ryan Giggs – Aside from the odd hamstring injury, doing the business on the wing. The only problem is when he scores he does that silly celebration thing with Ince. Can’t he take a look at Sharpe and do the ‘Giggsy Grind’ or something?
Of the rest of the squad, I feel I am wasting Neville, Beckham, Butt and Scholes away, so they are playing cup games and in Europe, but I may have to be a bit more ruthless as we get to the business end of the season. Elsewhere, Gillespie and Thornley have been ample deputies on the wings and McClair and Dublin has contributed the odd goal here and there. I’m not really sure who Whitworth and McKee are to be honest….
Not only did Robson get his 100th United goal, he’s also found time to get Middlesbrough up to 2nd in Division 1.
Join me for the next instalment where we head into the festive fixture jam and begin our assault on the F.A. Cup. See you soon.
Matt will be back next Thursday but in the meantime you can follow him on Twitter @Matt_C_Wills