‘Boss, we need to talk…’ were the ominous words from Eric Cantona at the end of the 97/98. Eric had come out of retirement and we’d got the 93/94 team back together and managed to crack the domestic treble. Robson, Sealey, Parker and Phelan all retired and then Eric knocked at my door.
‘I retired the first time when we lost the Champions League Semi-final in 97’
‘You’re not thinking of doing it again are you?’
‘Non, non – I want to win the Champions League! We came so close, I know we can do it’
‘I do too, but we’ll need some reinforcements – Jardel is available on a free…’
‘Non, we stay the same…’
Who am I to argue, we had a great season last time out and got so close to getting to the Champions League final, let’s see if we can take this team to the ultimate glory.
The 98/99 season roles around and the squad is looking a little lighter, but still packed with quality. The likes of Neville, Butt, Beckham and Scholes will get more game time this season.
To get us in the mood, I arrange four home friendlies before the Charity Shield curtain raiser against Arsenal. Dortmund, Anderlecht, Sao Paulo and River Plate all contain a player that was discarded for Eric’s 93/94 revolution.
Two Cantona goals brush aside Solskjaer’s Dortmund before a turgid 0-0 draw with Jordi Cryuff’s Anderlecht. An understrength team get done 1-3 when Ronny Johnsen’s Sao Paulo visit – Ronny only lasts half the match due to some choice tackling from Hughes. Beckham and Scholes combine to send Henning Berg’s River Plate packing 4-1 with 2 goals each.
This sets us up nicely for the Charity Shield match with Arsenal. I plan my team carefully, Schmeichel in goal, with a back four of Sharpe, Bruce, Paliister and Irwin, Giggs and Kanchelskis on the wings, Keane and Beckham in the middle, with Scholes and Cantona up top, Walsh, Blackmore, Ince, Dublin and Hughes on the bench. On the eve of the match, poor Leee Sharpe is ruled out for 6 months with a damaged spine – this is a blow.
In my hour of need I turn to 1990 FA Cup Final Replay hero to fill in at left back. The game finishes 1-1. Cantona scores from the spot in the first half and Vieira pounces on some goal mouth confusion to level in the second half. The match goes to penalties. Eric misses the target with the first spot kick and iceman Bergkamp coolly slots their first but misses from Wright and Overmars and steady nerves from my players and our recent form at Wembley continues with our first piece of silverware in the cabinet – happy days!
First up in the league are Spurs who have added Frank Lampard to their ranks since we defeated them in the FA Cup, but he can’t stop us winning 3-1 at the Lane. Beckham revelling in his central midfield position gets 2 with Kanchelskis the other.
Next up is Derby and we play so poorly, I wonder what’s going on. Eric looks out of sorts – did the penalty shoot out miss in the Charity Shield affect him? Is he about to retire again? With 15 minutes left I haul Eric and Scholes off for Dublin and Hughes and they combine in the final minute for Dublin to nick us a 1-0 win – Clayton Blackmore the next to fill in at left back.
Crystal Palace are our next visitors and routine 3-0 is spoiled by two Bruce yellow cards, but Chris Casper makes his claim for a central partnership with Pally by getting a 10 and motm – you’ll have to fight Dion for that position Chris.
Our first midweek game is also a first test against the bigger teams (no offence Spurs). Scholes scores twice to put us in control, but Liverpool come back strongly to draw 2-2 with goals from Berger and Spanish International and Tennis Uncle, Nadal. Schmeichel gets MOTOM and Eric again looks like a lost soul out on the pitch – worrying.
Eric is benched for the next game against Sheffield Wednesday and Hughes comes off the bench to get his first of the season in a narrow 1-0 win.
All of which puts us top of the pile after 5 games with a 3 point lead, but Arsenal have a chance to reduce this to 2pts if they win their game in hand.
At the bottom, City and Villa need to get going and Newcastle betray a tight defence with a lack of firepower.
The Champions League draw swings around and I anxiously wait to see who we are up against –
Arsenal? How does that work? Dortmund won’t be easy and we don’t want to drop any points against Standard. This won’t be an easy ride.
Transfers – I keep forgetting to screenshot these!
As I’m not purchasing players, the transfer market seems less active, however, the big signings are Rio Ferdinand heading to Arsenal from West Ham, quickly followed by Neil Ruddock from Liverpool, Stan Collymore moves from Aston Villa to Chelsea for £3.3m and Villa replace him with Kevin Phillips from Sunderland for £1m.
Cantona is restored to the line-up for the visit to St James Park, but apart from supplying an assist for Scholes to chip Given for the opener, he does little of note. Chris Casper adds to his form book by scoring the second with a header from a corner. Dublin playing at centre back handles in the box on 70 minutes, which gives the unusual sight of Shearer missing a penalty (or rather motm Schmeichel saving it) so a comeback is averted, and Newcastle still only have 1 goal on the board this season.
The Euro 2000 qualifiers gives the league programme a break and England draw 3-3 with Czech Rep, Ince getting 2 of the goals, with Neville and Beckham also featuring. France beat Scotland 2-0 with Henry starring and Eric is injured on 59 minutes – I await the prognosis gingerly. Hughes puts 4 past San Marino for Wales to show there’s life in the old dog yet. It is just San Marino though…
That’s a relief…
League action resumes with a top of the table clash with second placed Leeds, being spearheaded by Andy Cole who has 4 goals in 6 league games, will he be out for revenge for being cast aside today?
You couldn’t make it up! Scholes has a goal disallowed for offside, we hit the woodwork 4 times and then up pops Cole with 10 minutes to go level on points with us at the top.
The board make their feelings known – steady on. On the back of this, Arsenal and Liverpool make bids for Gary Pallister which are quickly rebuffed.
We make a strong start in Europe against Dortmund and that’s the closest we’ve had to someone sounding Cantona scoring for us for a while…
Back to the league and struggling Villa look to carry on where Leeds left off and Cole’s best mate Yorke strikes on 73 minutes but luckily Welsh maestros Giggs and Hughes save my blushes and further gripes from the board.
Ronny joins Ole in Germany.
Hughes and Giggs carry on where they left off with Villa against Coventry and the game was over by half time when Scholes added the third.
Gary Neville is an idiot. He was injured for the start of the season, now he’s in the team. Numpty.
High flying Middlesbrough in 3rd are up next, but we do Robson no favours at the Riverside, Schwarzer brings down Hughes in the first 5 minutes, who converts the penalty and when Scholes adds the second, the result is not in doubt. Leeds keep winning though and we’re level on 25 points at the top of the league, with a gap appearing…
We finish off the month and this part of the blog with our second game in Europe against Standard in Belgium. Hughes has found his scoring boots in Eric’s absence and adds 2 to an early strike by Kanchelskis. It looks like Hughes wants the Champions League as much as Eric.
We’ll be back next week with a visit from Arsenal in the league – we’ll play them at least 5 times this season, and we get the League Cup campaign underway against Sheffield United. Eric will be back from injury, but he’s so out of sorts, I wonder whether it’ll be collar up or collar down – see you soon.
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