One more time…we’re gonna celebrate…music got me feeling so free. It’s the final update from Matt Wills’ Return of the King series. It’s been emotional. Can it finish on the ultimate high? And what next? All of this, and more, is answered below. Part 5 is here too if you need to catch up.
So, last week I started off by saying it was the final part of Season 2, but I left a cliff hanger with the FA Cup and Champions Leagues Finals to be played and Eric knocking on my door saying he didn’t want to play in the FA Cup Final…
‘What do you mean you don’t want to play in the FA Cup Final tomorrow Eric?’
‘I want to rest, relax, be ready for, how you say, Le Big One?’
So, Eric doesn’t want to risk himself in the FA Cup and save himself for the Champions League Final, ok fair enough, but who do I select?
We’re up against Division 1 QPR, who have finished 7th in the league and missed a Playoff Spot by 4pts. Their squad is not particularly packed with quality, but they do have Matthew Rose, Steve ‘Don’t pick me up Tony!’ Morrow, Gavin Peacock, John Spencer and Mike Sheron in their ranks, so I can’t take things too lightly.
Big Peter starts in goal and at Full Back I select Denis Irwin and 1990 Cup Final hero Lee Martin. In the centre of defence it’s big Pally with Nicky Butt, saving Steve Bruce’s legs for midweek. Roy Keane is captain and starts in the holding midfield role as he’s suspended for the Champions League Final. On the flanks it’s the usual trio of Giggs and Kanchelskis as my flying wingers, with David Beckham in the hole. Up top, I go with Brian McClair to partner Paul Scholes. On the bench it’s Walsh, Blackmore, Sharpe, Gillespie and Dublin.
Wembley is sunny and Eric mills around geeing up the players. Unemployed Bryan Robson is my guest assistant manager on the bench following his sacking by Boro and I receive a ‘Good Luck’ text from Alex Ferguson, which was nice.
As finals go, and much like most 90’s finals in real life, there isn’t much action or drama here. The first half is mostly a drab affair until the 42nd minute when Brian McClair gets himself a straight red-card for stamping on Steve Morrow. I glower at Eric, I think he gee’d the Scot up a bit too much.
Just before halftime, Scholes break free and slots past Lee Harper in the Rangers goal to put us one up at half time. In the Wembley dressing room, I receive an apology from a distraught Brian and tell the lads to keep possession and use the width of the Wembley surface to wear QPR down. It works a treat as Kanchelskis puts us 2-0 up early in the second half and on 65 minutes I bring off Kanchelskis, Scholes and Giggs to keep them fresh for Wednesday and bring on Blackmore, Gillespie and Dublin for a 25 minute run around. On the final whistle there are cheers of joy, but celebations are kept in check for ‘Le Big One’.
Kanchelskis gets Man of The Match even though I took him off after 65 minutes and I apologise to Walsh and Sharpe for not playing.
And so, with the FA Cup Final celebrations over, we head to the Waldstadion in Germany for the Champions League Final and a date with Paris St Germain.
PSG came through a group including Juventus and then dispatched Bayern Munich and Barcelona on their way to the final.
Their squad is impressive, with some CM9798 favourites such as Domi, Agboh, N’Gotty, Allou, Sibierski, Rai and Florian Maurice, lining up in a defensive sweeper system.
I stick with the favoured 2-3-1-2-2 which is tried and trusted, I just need pick the players now, and break some hearts.
Schmeichel and Gary Neville are certs for GK and RB respectively, but LB is an issue. I rested Sharpe for the FA Cup Final but he picks up another knock in training and is injured, a sad story of his season. In the middle, who else but Dolly and Daisy – Bruce and Pallister (I never worked out who was who in terms of nicknames, I’ll have to ask Alex…). I pray Steve’s legs last one more game.
With Keane suspended I opt for the experience of Ince over Butt in the holding role and the flanks are taken by Giggs and Kanchelskis. In the hole, Beckham and upfront its Cantona and Scholes.
On the bench, Walsh, McClair, Butt, Gillespie and Dublin. There’s heartache for Irwin at left back, but despite playing 49 games this season, his stats have been below average. The quiet Irishman is not happy…
So to the match, the biggest game over these two seasons, Cantona’s ultimate destiny and a chance for an unprecedented quadruple. But that’s a story for next week…
Only joking, here we go…
PSG start on the front foot, dominating possession and peppering Schmeichels goal with some long range efforts which Peter is more than equal to, I’ve never seen him so agile!
As we approach the half hour mark, we make the break through we dreamed of, Giggs curling in an effort from the edge of the area past Revault after some neat work from Beckham. I’m beaming, fantastic!
3 minutes later I’m furious. Beckham tussles with Paul Le Guen. Rumours are Paul said something like ‘Spice Girls are crap, All Saints are boss’, but it’s never been proven. Beckham kicks out at Le Guen right in front of the Referee and it’s a straight red card. He looks solemn as he leaves the pitch, close to tears.
I tell Scholes to fall back and fill the gap, but this leaves Eric isolated and PSG press the advantage and I’m glad to get into the dressing room at half time still 1-0 up.
David is being consoled by McClair in the dressing room ‘I loved Spice Up Your Life, David, honest’ lies the Scot.
My half time team talk is basically ‘Don’t get sent off, keep it tight and move the ball’
The second half begins and the lads listen to my instructions but unfortunately they move the ball to Rai and the Brazilian weaves his way past Dolly and Daisy and coolly slots past Big Peter who screams at Pallister and Bruce until his face is the same colour as his nose.
However, PSG start going for the kill and we mamage to hold them off and launch some counter attacks of our own, but Eric is still getting isolated and the PSG players are doubling up on him, restricting us to long range efforts that Revault deals with easily.
As the clock ticks past the hour mark I look at my bench to see how best to change things up. I look to Bryan Robson who shrugs his shoulders. I look at Irwin who turns away from my gaze…
Then it happens, Ince, The Guv’nor, dives in for a 50-50 ball, misses and clatters Rai. Second yellow and an early bath. Perfect. I send Dion on for Pallister, who is knackered and drop Eric into the middle, at least he’ll see some of the ball there.
We hold of wave after wave of PSG attacks and we make it to the end of normal time level at 1-1.
As we prepare for the start of extra time, playing 9 against 11 grinning PSG players, I wonder how we can possibly survive the next 30 minutes.
On comes Butt for the weary Kanchelskis, Eric moves up the field and we kick off.
Eric back to Butt, across to Blackmore on the left flank who knocks it across to Bruce who plays it short to Schmeichel. PSG press and my heart is in my mouth as Peter waits until the last possible second to pass it wide to Neville. Peter gives me a thumbs up, as if a preventive for a heart attack.
Nveille knocks it inside to The Dube, who with no options on and surrounded by 3 PSG players, preforms a Cruyff turn and decides to go on a little adventure into the PSG half. ‘Get rid, get rid!’ I shout, but am ignored completely. Dublin nutmegs Rai and then plays a short pass to Cantona who turns his marker, slots in Scholes who takes aim and powers a rising shot at Revault’s goal. The Frenchman gets a strong hand to it and punches it out towards the left flank. Giggs drops on it and takes it into the corner.
I look up and Dion is ambling around on the edge of the area, what is he doing?
As I look back towards our goal I see Peter whispering in Steve Bruce’s ear, who nods and then sets off on a sprint up the pitch, what the hell???!!!
He rushes past Dion and Eric on the edge of the box, arm raised and Giggs finds a yard of space and sends a curling ball to the right hand side of the box. N’Gotty is back peddling and Revault is caught in no mans land, Bruce launches himself at the ball and powers a header into the roof of the net and the roof comes off the Waldstadion.
Bruce is mobbed by the United players and N’Gotty and Revault start squaring up to each other.
The United bench is jubilant as Rai carries the ball back to the centre spot.
Bruce looks absolutely shagged as he ambles back to our end for the restart.
My instructions are clear, keep ball and ride this out. Sit deep and don’t do anything stupid.
PSG start to get complacent and lazy. They are two men up and start assuming someone else is marking their man. Eric runs the ball into the corners and we reach half time in front.
Gary Neville is complaining of cramp so I send on Gillespie as my final sub. 15 minutes from glory. 15 minutes from disaster. PSG make no subs. Sibierski still on the bench.
The longest 15 minutes of my life as played out a hazy slow motion. Schmeichel comes for a corner and drops it only for Blackmore to clear from the line. Nicky Butt upends Hakan Mild but goes unpunished. We make a rare attack and Eric is one on one with Revault but tries to chip on the on rushing keeper and the ball floats onto the roof of the net…
The clock ticks closer to 120 minutes and the pressure mounts, but each cross or forward pass is intercepted by a red shirt and the PSG players start to get more anxious and start to lose the ball ore regularly, its agony.
I prepare myself for penalties, just in case. I jot down Cantona/Giggs/Bruce/Scholes/Dublin. Bryan looks at it and nods. I look past him at the clock, 119 minutes. For a second, I swear I see David may in a United shirt, sitting behind the bench.
The ball goes out of play near Blackmore, Bruce is almost on his knees. Clayton throws a short ball to Dublin who boots the ball as high as he can up the pitch and then rapture! The final whistle! We’ve done it, Champions of Europe, the quadruple!
We made it hard for ourselves but we did it. I embrace Bruce and the celebrations continue long into the night, I remember little of it…
Thursday 20th May 1999 – the morning after. I groggily awake in my hotel room to the bizarre sight of Bruce and Pallister asleep in bed together with the European Cup between them.
I make my way down to breakfast and join the other players to big smiles and congratulatory hugs and back slaps. It’s a dream come true…
Unfortunately, we all wake up from our dreams, and here’s where this story ends.
What a ride it’s been though, we emulated and bettered the Class of 99 and just like in real life made it as hard for ourselves as possible.
There’s been a few highs along the way. Robson getting his 100th United goal. Winning 9 trophies in two seasons, the penalty shoot out wins, Clayton Blackmore playing in a Champions League final. Brian McClair scoring 4 in one match. Steve Bruce lasting 2 seasons and stepping up with some big goals. Mike Phelan retiring.
There’s been some lows too – Robson hanging up his boots, Sharpe’s numerous injuries, Hughes’ season being cut short, playing Arsenal so many times.
As it started off as a blog about redemption for Eric, heres’ his stats, but as much as it’s been about Eric, its also been about Bruce, Sharpe, Hughes etc…after all it’s a team game.
At the end of the season, Steve Bruce, Lee Martin and Clayton Blackmore all retire and the squad is further diminished. I could carry on into Season 3 and try for a clean sweep including the Super Cups but I think I’d prefer to leave it here, in perfect stasis and would like to think Eric would go out again on a high, fully satisfied.
Big thanks to Dave Black for hosting the blog and to all Twitter followers who took the time to read it, overlook my spelling mistakes and take the time to comment on it, I hope it’s been enjoyable.
Also thanks to Kevin Smith for proof reading the blogs when I remembered to send them to him.
This is only Au Revoir for now and I hope to back soon for ‘One Night In Seville’
A big thanks from me to Matt for a fantastic series. He will be back soon with his new adventure but in the mean time you can follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_C_Wills