Return of the King: Part 6 – Kings and Clowns

Matt Wills is back with your usual Thursday-fill, but if you missed part 5 you can catch up here.

Welcome back for Part 6 of Return of the King where we’ve convinced Cantona to do a U-turn on retirement and bring back his 93/94 teammates for another crack at the English treble.

I left you at the end of Part 5 with the first part of the domestic treble completed with victory over Division 1 Sunderland. We’re now getting to the business end of the season and we’ll see if Eric and The Reds can keep the dream alive.

We finished March on a high by lifting the League Cup, but there was little time for celebration as we prepared ourselves for some important semi-finals in April.

First up was the away leg of our Champions League semi-final with Parma. We’d been using the European matches to give some game time to the non-regulars of the 93/94 season, but after edging past Monaco in the quarters, we’re suddenly 180 mins from a European Cup Final and a possible quadruple, so we’re starting to take things seriously now.

Silk and Steel (Cantona and Hughes) are absent for the first leg so I go for Little and Large (Scholes and Dublin) upfront, and use Roy Keane in defence in place of Bruce – it makes little odds though as we concede to Orlandini in the 7th minute. We make few chances and a second half goal from Orlandini again looks like putting the tie beyond us. There was no way past a defence containing Thuram and Buffon – we’ll need something special to make it to the final now.

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We dust ourselves off and head to Sunderland for our FA Cup Semi-final showdown with Everton. There’s some revenge to be had for the 1995 final here but because of injuries to Gary Neville and Leee Sharpe, I can’t send out the same line up from that final, but Parker and Giggs come in to ensure we’ll be heading back to Wembley with a thumping 4-1 win where we’ll play Tottenham after they needed a replay to overcome Liverpool.

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After what seems like an age, we resume league action and wins against Blackburn, with McClair getting all 4 goals, and West Ham are only tempered by a draw with Aston Villa. Our cup exploits in chasing the treble meant the Villa game was 2 days after the West Ham game and 2 days before our crunch game with Parma, so a decidedly second-string side do well to get a point.

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We head into our biggest game of our season so far which a place in the Champions League final at stake, but we have two Orlandini goals to cancel out and the spectre of an even tougher assignment if we concede an away goal.

The good news is Cantona is back from injury, but Hughes is suspended, so 4 goal hero McClair goes upfront with the Frenchman, with as strong a line up as I can muster, a good start to this game is imperative.

Giggs gets us off to a flyer after 16 minutes, bundling in a rebound after Buffon had saved from a Cantona long range effort. 10 minutes later Old Trafford is rocking when Irwin doubles our lead and puts us level on aggregate. During the goalmouth scramble that led to Irwin’s goal, Buffon is injured and has to be taken off. Buffon was a colossus in the first leg and I’m secretly hopeful this will open the floodgates. He’s replaced by Luca Bucci who goes on to become the hero of the hour for Parma.

We batter the Parma goal, but Bucci preforms even better than Buffon, resisting all advances and the more we push forward looking for that 3rd goal, the more I’m aware what a breakaway away goal will do to us.

The end of normal time sees us level on aggregate and extra time looms. Cantona is knackered having only just come back from injury, so I send Scholes on in his stead but still the break through cannot be made. Kanchelskis comes on for Beckham for the 2nd half of extra time, but still Parma stand strong – penalties it is.

I opt for 5 players with good set piece skills, but I can do nothing about Bucci – he saves from Giggs, Irwin and Scholes and we go out 4-1 on penalties, so close yet so far.

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To go from using the Champions League like Fergie used to use the League Cup to being a goal away from getting to the final is quite a turn around and I was secretly hoping to get through and play Barcelona and give the 91 Cup Winners Cup Final line up a run out – imagine Robson lifting Old Big Ears! Alas, it was not to be. Maybe I should have started Eric on the bench and brought him on for penalties…

In reality, Eric came to the decision to retire after Utd lost at the same stage to Borussia Dortmund, so I need to have a chat with the Frenchman and make sure he’s not more deflated than I am.

We dust ourselves down and get back to league action to round out the month. Wins and clean sheets against Southampton and Leeds mean we’ve done enough to clinch the title with 4 games to spare. I’m both delighted and slightly deflated all in one go. In truth, once we hit form, no team has looked like catching us in the league, so was going to be a case of when and not if, still it’s the 2nd part of our treble chase in the bag, but I still feel gutted about missing out on a European final with this team that I’ve come to cherish.

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See you in Part 7 where we see if we can finish off the treble in the FA Cup final against Spurs and follow our Utd players starring in France 98.

You can follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_C_Wills

 

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Return of the King: Part 5 – Dublin, Monaco, London

Matt Wills is back with the Man Utd squad of 93/94, you can catch up with the previous entry here

Happy New Year to all and welcome back. It’s 2018, but we’re talking about 1998 with a team from 1994 – it’ll make sense to those who have been following the blog so far!

Part 4 ended with the Class of 94 at the top of the league, through in Europe and following some domestic cup drama, about to take on their fiercest rivals Liverpool in the League Cup Semi Final, let’s crack on!

League Cup Semi Final day is upon us and we face a Liverpool side we disposed of 3-0 in the league at the end of 1997. We’re at Old Trafford for the first leg and looking for a good result to set us up in the tie.

To keep the treble dream alive, I go for a strong line up including Gary Neville, Beckham and Scholes, with Butt and Hughes on the bench. Liverpool opt for Jorgen Nielson in goal, Richard Rufus in defence and Owen and Riedle up front. An early Scholes header is cancelled out a minute later by a Leonhardsen piledriver. For the rest of the game, we batter Liverpool’s defence, but Nielson is a colossus in goal and it’s not until the 88th minute and a Beckham freekick that we finally take the lead and the advantage in the tie. 19 shots with 10 on target against Liverpool’s 6 – typically they scored with their only shot on target.

part 5 1

Sandwiched between the ties, we take on Bury away in the FA Cup 5th round. With Hughes serving a ban for yellow card accumulation, Big Dion starts up front with Cantona, scoring twice, and ‘Dublin the lead’, to add to goals from Kanchelskis and Ince, with the only blemish being Bury’s goal on 58 minutes. It’s Derby up next in the Quarter finals.

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Back to the League Cup Semi-final showdown with Liverpool and we head to Anfield with a slender lead but with Liverpool having already bagged an away goal in the first leg. Beckham and Scholes come in and I put Robson and Kanchelskis on the bench. 3 first half goals from Giggs and Cantona twice see us cruising and on 63 minutes I bring on all 3 subs to see out the game. Strangely, Neil Ruddock gets Man of the Match. Still, we’re off to Wembley again and a date with Division 1 Sunderland in the final who beat Newcastle in the other semi-final.

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We finally get back to League action and a visit from Coventry. I start Robson who gets injured in the 5th minute, followed 5 minutes later by Pallister – are the legs beginning to go for this team?

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Cantona gets us going and Irwin doubles our lead before the interval. Sharpe rounds out the scoring in the second half before a late consolation by Moldovan for Coventry.

We’re sitting pretty at the top of the league, but I let complacency and arrogance get the better of me when basement club Leicester come to Old Trafford. I bring in Walsh, Blackmore, Gillespie and Thornley and lose 2-1. Not a good result.

I go back to a strong side when we play 3rd in the table Newcastle. An early own goal by Shay Given is cancelled out by a late Shearer goal. I’m happy with the draw, but not so happy to lose Cantona for a few weeks to a groin strain, especially with the Champions league restarting in March.

We’re up against Monaco in the Champions League Quarter finals and a plethora of young French talent. We manage to keep Legwinski, N’Doram, Ikpeba and Henry at bay and prevent the away goal, but it’s a game of few chances and a yellow card for Hughes puts him out of the return leg. There was no Cantona available due to injury, but was surprised to see his brother Joel, playing at right back. Not bad stats for Eric’s brother – available on a free at the start of the season too.

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6

The games are coming thick and fast now and its Derby County in the FA Cup Quarter final next. Hughes and Cantona both return upfront and get the goals either side of half time. With 75 minutes gone, on come Gillespie and Blackmore, but Gillespie lasts 10 minutes before getting himself sent off, so we close out the game with 10 men. Pleasingly, Mike Phelan played the full 90 minutes and only picked up a yellow card.

A midweek trip to Barnsley produces a fine 4-1 win, although I have to play Parker in the centre of defence due to the absence of Pallister. Then it’s a bore draw with Sheff Wednesday, Pressman again saving a penalty, this time from Dion Dublin.

There’s no time to dwell on missed penalties though, as it’s back to midweek European action and the return leg against Monaco. With the tie finely poised at 0-0, I know an early away goal will set us up nicely in the tie. Thankfully Henry is suspended and Trezeguet is injured for the match, so I feel we gave a chance, even with Cantona, Ince and Giggs missing. The last thing we want to do is concede early or worse…

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We do worse, Bruce gets a straight red after only 8 minutes. Then it gets better when Sharpe scores 4 minutes later and we’re looking ok, despite being down to 10 men, and then it gets worse again when Hughes is sent off just after the half time break. I switch the formation to 4-3-1 and we see out the game. For all their talents and 2 man advantage, Monaco create little and not surprisingly, nor do we. I breathe a sigh of relief when the final whistle goes and we are in the semi-finals along with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Parma. I pray we get Parma as I think the Spanish teams will destroy us. We get Parma!

It’s the end of March and we’re off to Wembley and the League Cup Final with Sunderland and the chance to claim the first piece in the domestic treble puzzle. Utd lost to Aston Villa 3-1 in the 94 final – Schmeichel was suspended so Sealey deputised in goal and the treble dream ended there for Utd. I’m sure the ex-Man City personal in the Sunderland ranks, such as Reid, Coton and Quinn would love to repeat that score line.

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With a chance to put right what once went wrong (Copyright ‘Quantum Leap’), I look up the final squad from 94 and apart from Sealey for Schmeichel, it’s the Classic 11 with Walsh, Sharpe and McClair on the bench. We’re without the injured Cantona, so I put McClair upfront and bring Robson on to the cup final bench. I then have a dilemma in goal. Do we have a better chance of beating Sunderland with Schmeichel in goal or do I give Sealey a chance of redemption? Of course I do and tell the 40 year old keeper to get his gloves warmed up. The Big Dane doesn’t look impressed and I hurry out to inspect the Wembley turf.

As finals go, it’s all a bit one sided and lacks the drama of the Sheffield Wednesday tie. We pummel the Sunderland defence and finally break it on the stroke of half time with a Hughes header. Feeling confident, I send on Sharpe and Robson for Parker and Ince on 73 minutes and 2 minutes later Hughes gets his second and I can sense my first major trophy beckoning. Dani Dichio pulls one back in the 86th minute, but we hold on to avoid extra-time and Robson and Bruce climb the Wembley stairs and the League Cup is back at Old Trafford. Les Sealey looks delighted, the Sunderland manager less so – Cheer up Peter Reid.

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At the training ground the following week, I receive a phonecall from Alex Ferguson. ‘Well done lad, that was some thing putting Les in goal on Sunday. He looked made up, and nice to give Bryan a run out – I see you’ve learnt something from me. The jobs not done yet though, it’s squeaky bum time from here, I hope you’ve got the Imodium handy…’

A quick look at the table before we go. We’re looking good with 9 games to go in the league:

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But at the bottom, Southampton, Bolton and West Ham are starting to get cut adrift.

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Well, that’s part 1 of the treble done and a couple of gambles have paid off for me, but now we head into the business end of the season and ‘squeaky bum time’ and I’ve got a coupe of semi’s on. Join me in part 6 when we take on Parma in the Champions League and Everton in the FA Cup, amongst the small matter of pushing for the title – can tired legs do the quadruple?

You can follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_C_Wills

Return of the King: Part 4 – Domestic Cup Drama

Matt Wills is back in action, trying to re-live Man Utd’s glorious 1993/94 season but in 1997/98. Confused? Here’s part 1 to explain what’s going on, or if you need to see the previous edition, here’s part 3

I left you in Part 3 having taken Utd through the Champions League Group stage, to the top of the Premiership and with the domestic cups getting going. We head into Xmas on a roll, but will it last?

Mid-December ’97 and the Class of 94 are at the summit of the Premier League, through to the knockout rounds of the Champions League and ready to take on the domestic cups in our quest to go one better than the Utd team of 93/94 and win the domestic treble – with the team of 93/94, albeit a little bit older and a little bit slower!

There’s a gap in fixtures while the international friendlies are played. England beat Sweden away 2-0. Scholes, Dublin, Ince, Beckham, Neville and Pallister all feature, with Wright and Scholes scoring for England. France beat Norway by the same score line. Cantona doesn’t get on the score sheet, but does collect a yellow card.

Back at the United camp after the break, some players are not happy with the current regime…

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That’s turned down, and so is this…

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The last Saturday game of 97 takes Utd to White Hart Lane. Hughes is injured while training with Wales, so Paul Scholes deputises for the Welshman to keep him happy. To keep the Welsh quota up, I bring in Clayton Blackmore on the right wing for a run out and give a recall to Paul Parker at right back.

An early Scholes goal is cancelled out by Nicola Berti. We have 13 shots on goal, but only 2 on target – worrying.

On to Boxing Day and a visit to Old Trafford of old rivals Liverpool whose recent run have seen them climb the table. McClair comes in for want-away Scholes and Kanchelskis comes back to the right wing having recovered from his hip injury. The first half is a cagey affair, but after the break, we turn the pressure into goals, with McClair getting his first of the season, followed by Ince against his old/future club. Bruce makes the game safe in the 81st minute, so I use the cushion to bring on Sealey, Gillespie and Dublin for the last 10 minutes. Paul Parker gets an 8, happy days.

The Third Round of the FA Cup starts, with Utd away to Hartlepool, who are midtable in Division 3. After the Liverpool win, I’m feeling confident with the squad so make a host of changes. Neville, Butt, Beckham and Scholes all start, with Walsh, O’Kane, Casper, Whitworth, Wellens, Wellens, McKee and Ferguson joining them. Wellens gets an early goal, but a 2nd alludes us. Hartlepool equalise in the second half and I start to question my selection policy. Going out of the cup here would be disaster. Thankfully, Colin McKee rescues me on 71 minutes and we’re into the hat for the 4th Round Draw.

hart 1 - 2 mufc

What did I tell you in Part 3? It was almost inevitable…

FA 4th

4 Days later and it’s the Quarter Final of the League Cup and we’re at Hillsborough to play Sheffield Wednesday. In the build up to the game, the press are trotting out the standard cliché’s ‘in a replay of the 1991 League Cup Final, Utd will be looking for revenge against The Owls…’. This gets me thinking, why not let the players from the 1991 final get some revenge? I pull out my Rothmans and check some facts.

Utd were defeated by Div 1 Sheff Wed, led by Ron Atkinson, 1-0 to a John Sheridan goal. The only thing I really remember from that game is Les Sealey ripping open his knee after diving low for a ball with a Wednesday player. Checking the squad from the day, Utd lined up as below…

lineup

Webb and Donaghy aren’t in my squad, having both left the club by the 93/94 season, and Alex is picking up his unemployment benefit. Webb is still in the game, on a free transfer having been released by Grimsby, but I’m not tempted to sign him up, as I have no space in the squad and I don’t want people missing out on their post. Donaghy is nowhere to be found. Looking at the Wednesday squad, I can’t see any survivors from that game, but note that they have the son of Showaddywaddy guitarist Trevor Oakes, Scott, in their ranks – true fact.

I decide to start with Mike Phelan on the right wing in place of Webb. On the bench I put Lee Martin and Ryan Giggs. Now with 3 subs, I opt for Gary Walsh just in-case Sealey rips his knee up again. Hold onto your hats, this cup-tie turns out to be a cracker!

Andy Hinchcliffe puts the host ahead in the 11th minute, but a minute later, McClair is through on goal and gets taken out by the advancing Kevin Pressman. I leap from my seat in the dugout and shout at the ref to send him off. The ref points at the spot and after talking to Pressman, produces no card. I almost explode. Up steps Bruce and Pressman saves it! There’s no justice.

13 minutes later, Wednesday advance and Les Sealey brings down Andy Booth. The ref points to the spot and talks to Sealey. I fear the worst and tell Gary Walsh to warm up. The ref looks over at me and then puts his black book back in his pocket – no cards. My relief is short lived as Booth shows Bruce what to do from the spot and we’re 2-0 down. I’m beginning to think my romantic nostalgia is a bit misplaced!

Phelan makes a clumsy challenge on the edge of the box, but Wednesday waste the freekick and then Pallister does likewise. This time yellows are shown. Having seen enough, I don’t wait until half time and bring Giggs on for Phelan. I can’t afford to lose a player or another goal. The words I say at half time are not appropriate for this blog, but crockery was broken.

My words ringing in their ears, the tide is turned, first by Giggs, and then by Hughes. We’re level in the space of 2 second half minutes. After this it’s end to end action, but neither team can get the third. Sealey keeps us in it and at the other end, Pressman literally fills the goal. Then on 87 minutes, Sharpe rises highest to a Giggs corner and heads past Pressman, we’ve done it, what a comeback! We’re into the two-legged semi final and we draw Liverpool out of the hat. It’s a Tyne-Wear derby in the other semi.

sheff wed 2 - 3 mufc

With that being probably my favourite, and most intense game of the save, we go back to the league and play Everton ‘in a repeat of the 1995 FA Cup Final’…. I revert to the classic line up and an entertaining first half ends 2-2, with Pallister getting the winner in the second half. We follow this up with a 0-0 draw with Crystal Palace ‘in a repeat of the 1990 FA Cup Final’ (I must stop this!), a result which the board describe as ‘Abysmal’ but at least Eric comes through unscathed.

Next, it’s back to the FA Cup and a 4th Round date with Oldham Athletic and a repeat of the 1994 FA Cup Semi-final. I can see it now, Hughes volley in the last minute to take it to a replay, which Utd win 4-1, with Robbo getting his last Utd goal by dicking in a cross from Sharpe.

I get my Rothman’s out again and look up the squad for the 1994 semi-final (In fact I had to pause the highlights on Youtube this time). I believe Cantona was suspended for this game but was surprised to see Dublin starting upfront, McClair in midfield and Butt on the bench. Andy Ritchie was the only survivor from the 94 semi-final in the Oldham squad that I could see. Utd avoid giving me the Sheff Wednesday palpitations, and in a repeat of the ’94 semi-final replay, beat Oldham 4-1 with goals from Sharpe, McClair (2) and Dublin. I bring on Robson for the final 20 minutes, hoping he might chin one in, but to no avail. McCarthy gets their goal and Andy Ritchie comes on but fails to make any impact. We’re through to the 5th round where we’ll play the winner of Bury vs Crewe.

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In the final game of this Part we play Chelsea (in a repeat of the 94 FA Cup Final – seriously, stop it now!). Hughes and Kanchelskis both score twice and get a 10 rating in a 4-0 win (Just like the cup final), which takes us 8 points clear of Arsenal at the top of the Premiership. United’s fine form also sees me named Manager of the Month for December and January, but the club is still losing money, strangely – I think the board had to give big contracts to some of the returning stars.

The recent cup games have kept me on the edge of my seat for this part of the blog and I’m now fully immersed in my objective of winning the treble with the class of 93/94. I’m even enjoying not having to look at the transfer market! The whole squad have played at least one game now this season, with their ratings below, but not everyone is happy, not even Lee Martin.

mufc squad

In next part we take on Liverpool in the League Cup Semi-final and find out if it’s Bury or Crewe in the FA Cup, hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am, and will join me again.

I’ve given Matt the rest of the year off but Return of the King will be back in the New Year. You can follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_C_Wills

Return of the King: Part 3 – Cap-ton Marvel

Matt Wills is back with the Man Utd squad of 93/94 trying to relive the glory days in 1997/98. Get caught up on what this is all about in parts 1 and 2

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.

4-1 Sheff Wed

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!

Leicester 1-2

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.

Soton 1-3

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.

WC group

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?

France group

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.

brondby CL

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.

City cup tie

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’.

Arsenal 0 - 2 Man Utd

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.

Leverkusen 4-1

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.

prem top 19 games

West Ham, Wimbledon and Barnsley prop up the table, with Liverpool now 6 points clear.

prem bottom 19 games

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.

Boro

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

 

Return of the King: Part 2

What’s all this then? Get caught up with part 1 here

My first order of business is to set up some friendlies before the Charity Shield showdown with Chelsea, so I opt for Celtic, Brondby and Kaizer Chiefs, just as Utd did in 93. I also check on players contracts expiring at the end of the season, as if this goes well, I might have a crack at the other treble with these players. Robson and Hughes aren’t keen, but King Eric signs on until 2002, good lad.

We kick off against Brondby at home, with the ‘Classic 11’ minus Pallister who is out for a few weeks with a facial injury, so GNev gets his ‘debut’ next to Steve Bruce in the middle of defence.

Hughes grabs the first when he nutmegs his marker on 22 minutes and blasts one in, and Giggs hits the second just before half time to take us in, 2 to the good. I’m pleased with that. Kanchelskis grabs a 3rd on 60 minutes, so it’s as good a time as any to ring the changes. On comes Sharpe and Robson to thunderous applause, replacing Irwin and Bruce. Brondby pull one back from a corner on 79 mins, but feeling satisfied, I bring on Sealey, McClair and Dublin for the final 10. Eric trudges off after a subdued return. It finishes 3-1, so a good start, but no stand out performances from the players yet.

Brondby friendly

Kaizer Chiefs are dispatched 2-0 with goals from Hughes and Giggs. Cantona plays a 7 and no goals, it seems his mojo is still in Marseille – we did all this for you Eric!

In the final friendly, Celtic hold us to a 2-2 draw, with Dion Dublin and Darren Ferguson getting the goals for Utd.

Onto the Charity Shield and FA Cup Holders Chelsea are dispatched more easily than I imagined, 3-0. Sharpe, replacing the injured Irwin, nets the first, a header from a Giggs corner, before Hughes scores against his old club, and Giggs rounds things off with a third. Eric, again plods through with a 7. Robson and McClair come on for the final minutes and Robson is back lifting silverware at Wembley. Hopefully more to come at the end of the season.

CS 97

In the league, we start with a 2-1 home win against Spurs, Hughes grabbing a brace. Next up is Liverpool away. Cantona gets his first goal of his return just before halftime. Pinned back, Schmeichel keeps us in it until the 80th minute when Riedle equalises.

In the International Break, Eric gets called up for France and scores 2 in a 4-1 win versus Croatia. Pallister and Dublin also make substitute appearances for England in a 5-0 friendly win over Cyprus.

Back to the league and Everton come away from Old Trafford with 3 pts, Terry Cooke being the first ‘Cantona Castoff’ to exact revenge with one of the goals.
Next up, a trip to Selhurst Park and 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace – more unhappy memories for Eric here as Utd slump to 16th in the table.

The Champions League draw puts us in with friendly favourites Brondby, Bayer Leverkusen and PSV Eindhoven. On paper it looks like a good chance for us to be in Europe after Xmas and a welcome respite from current league form at least!

Another 3-0 win over Chelsea gets us back on track, a brace from Cantona and another Giggs effort sees us win comfortably. For this game I switched from a flat 4-4-2 to diamond formation, pushing Ince forwards and brought in Sharpe at left back and moved Irwin to righback and dropped Parker – I think his legs have gone.

Utd travel to Leicester in early September and come away with a 3-1 win, Dublin coming on for the injured Keane and netting at both ends. Another loss for Chelsea and Vialli is the first major managerial casualty after the de facto Bobby Gould/Wales parting (Howard Kendall jumps into the Welsh hot seat). Fergie for Stamford Bridge? No. In goes John Toshack, leaving Turkey and Besiktas behind him.

Another international break and another cap and goal for Eric in a friendly win over the USA – could he lead France to World Cup glory next summer?

A 1-0 win against Barnsley gets us back up to 6th in the table before we start our European adventure in Eindhoven. I shuffle my pack and bring in Neville, Butt, Beckham and Scholes, Neville getting the goal in a 1-0 win.

There’s no way past Steve Ogrizovic at Highfield Road and disappointing 1-0 loss bursts our mini bubble. Next up, table topping Newcastle come to Old Trafford and Hughes and Cantona combine to put Utd 1 up, before a late David Batty consolation goal.

A 1-0 away win at Leeds (Hughes) and then 1-1 draw against Brondby in the Champions League takes us into October.

board confidence

The board aren’t happy with the kid from Cornwall and we’re even losing money. I turn down a £3m offer from Lazio for Nicky Butt and David Beckham looks restless with only Champions League outings so far.

However, it’s not all looking too grim, we’re 5th in the league, only 3pts off Arsenal at the top, although Newcastle’s games in hand look threatening.

prem october

At the bottom, Liverpool look uneasy, and we play second bottom Leicester in the next round of the League Cup.

prem bottom october

Some thoughts so far –

I’m not sure how long Bruce, Parker and Kanchelskis will last over the season.
Robson is being used sparingly, but Sharpe is a revelation at left back, feeding Giggs on the wing.

Cantona isn’t quite performing as I’d hoped but overall the team is doing better than I expected.

Keeping the Class of 92 happy is going to be tricky, so I may have to field a ‘weakened team’ in the League Cup to keep them semi-happy, but we’ll see.

Before I finish this part, time to see where the ‘Cantona Cast Off’s’ have ended up.

short list october

Best friends Cole and Sheringham are separated by the England/Scotland border, pitching up at Leeds and Rangers respectively, while Phil Neville is training with Ronaldo, Zanetti and Djorkaeff!

John Curtis and David May are in the Prem while the Baby Faced Assassin is at Champions League holders Dortmund. Terry Cooke is getting regular games at Everton while Erik Nevland is banging them in at home in Norway. Wes Brown and Alex Notman are down in Division 1, along with Philip Mulryne, whilst Jordi Cruyff has popped up at Anderlecht. The biggest shock is at the bottom of the list. No, not reserve keepers still on a free! It’s Norwegian centre backs plying their trade in South America, looks like they needed to get as far away from Eric and Old Trafford as possible!

That’s all from Matt for this week but he’ll be back next week with part 3.

You can follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_C_Wills

Return of the King: Part 1

Welcome Matt Wills, our newest blogger who will be your Thursday entertainment. Matt has come up with an idea and it begins with a fictional conversation to set the scene…

15th July 1997

Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson sits in a Marseille café and tentatively awaits the arrival of one of his former players. Eric Cantona strolls into the café, his white summer shirt with collar upturned, ‘Le Roi’ sits down and acknowledges his former manager. A few weeks earlier, after guiding the Man Utd youngsters to another league title, Eric Cantona abruptly retired from Professional Football and returned to France. Alex is here to try and change his mind….

‘Eric, how are you?’
‘Good, good. I am surprised to see you here.’
‘Eric, listen, I’m here to talk some sense into you. Don’t retire, there’s still so much for you to offer United.’
‘I’m tired, I don’t want it anymore. The press, the away fans, the critics.’
What about our fans, The Stretford End, the red shirt, the fans adore you, you gave them something to be proud of again. Let me ask you, when were you last happy?’

Eric twitches – his eyes glaze a little – ‘1994’

’94? When we did the double?’
‘Nearly the treble’ Eric adds.
‘Aye, we nearly did it, that’s true.’
‘That team was C’est Manifique – silk and steel – I missed it. Robbo, Hughes, even Mike Phelan. And singing with Status Quo.’
Alex chuckles ‘Grand times. But what would it take to you make you come back?
‘Another chance of the treble’
Alex lights up. ‘We could do that, the kids are progressing and we’ve got some cracking new players’
‘No, I want the old team back together. Resign Hughes, Ince and the others – then I’ll play again.’
Eric?! That will take a hell of a doing?
‘It’s the only way I’ll come back.’
Ok, ok – I’ll speak to Martin and see what I can do.’
Eric smiles and gets up to leave. ‘Oh, and one more thing – you have to step aside and let a young lad from Cornwall manage the team…’
——————————————————————————————————————————————-

So there we are. Can I do what Fergie couldn’t with the class of 93/94?

I’d tried something similar on Championship Manager 03/04, playing as Ajax and trying to resign the players from the 95 Champions League squad and win it again, but it was a nigh on impossible task, but with CM97/98 and the editor, it might just be possible…

I’ve dived in the editor and checked the 93/94 squad on Wiki and put any current player not in the squad onto a free transfer, including Phil Neville and then brought back 93/94 squad. Bryan Robson was brought out of retirement and Eric I had to add in, but the game seems to have saved his history, so that’s handy – everyone else is still in the database 4 years later. So here’s the squad I have –

squad

I’ll be going for treble glory, but it won’t be easy. The 93/94 first eleven almost picked itself week in week out. Schmeichel in goal, a back four of Parker, Bruce, Pallister and Irwin, Keane and Ince in the middle, the Welsh Wizard on the left wing and the Siberian Express on the Right, with the Silk/Steel combo upfront, Hughes and Cantona.

On the subs bench, Les Sealey and Gary Walsh will battle it out for the No.13 Jersey behind the Great Dane. Bryan Robson gets a chance to replay his last season for Utd (If we make the FA Cup Final, he’ll definitely be in the match day squad – you really got that one wrong Fergie!). Then we have Leee Sharpe (that’s not a typo, name changed to spare him missing the season through injury), Brian McClair and the versatile Dion Dublin. There’s a few unknown youngsters in there (Colin McKee, anyone?). Plus the likes of Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Paul Scholes – all great players by now, but only making the odd appearance in 93/94.

So, my plan is simple – try and win the treble with the classic lineup – easy right? Utd are in the Champions League, so I can use those games for the youngsters and reserves, as Utd didn’t make much headway in that in 93/94, plus I’ll need to rest the ageing legs of Bruce, Parker and Robson – they are all 4 years older after all!

I’ll also keep an eye on what happens to all the players Fergie let go at the request of Eric, after all, I won’t be signing anyone. So here we go – C’mon you reds, c’mon you reds, the team every defender dreads…

shortlist

You can follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_C_Wills

My new book The World According to CM01/02 is available now!

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