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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Tom Clare's 5 favourite Manchester United games

RN contributor Tom Clare has an excellent new book out, Forever a Babe (order below), and here he selects 5 classic Utd games...

My Five Favourite Match Recollections by Tom Clare

In September 2009 it will be 55 years since I made my first trip to Old Trafford to watch United’s first team. So much has been crammed into those 55 years and the Club today is totally unrecognizable from the Club as it was back then in 1954. Watching the United team during this period could be likened to riding a huge roller coaster without ever being able to get off. It has certainly proved to be a ride to the top of what was thought to be many unconquered peaks, but along the route there were also times when it plunged deep into the darkness of despair and heartache.

From my own point of view it has certainly been a journey that I would never have wished to miss. I feel so proud and privileged in that in all those years I have been able to follow the best team in the world and have been able to witness the things that I have. There are so many memories of so many things: the rise of the ‘Babes’ and their ultimate tragedy; the rebirth of the Club in just five short years; the emergence of the 60’s team and their triumph in bringing home the Holy Grail in 1968; the plunge into mediocrity that followed almost immediately afterwards; the brief flicker of a flame under Docherty which was extinguished in the wake of his lies and philandering; the boredom that we suffered under Sexton; the pretender that was Big Fat Ron who could be called ‘the nearly man’; and finally, the coming of the apprentice builder who served out his time, and who blossomed into the Master Builder just as Sir Matt had; the glorious years since 1990 that have brought us so much in terms of glory, silverware, and honours. Hopefully those years will not stop for a while yet.

It is wonderful to recall all the wonderful players that have graced the wearing of that red shirt. The litany of names is just far too long to recall here, but every one of them, even those that played just one solitary, single, first team game, have played a part. To have the ability to be selected to pull on that jersey for even just one appearance is a thing that the ordinary man can only dream about, yet never fulfill.

When I recall all those years, there has been so many matches along the way – almost 3000 when you add them up, and I have been requested to recall just five that I would consider to be my favourite recollections. No doubt you will agree with me that it is a very difficult choice to have to make because there has been so many high points during those many years. But try I will, and for my sins, these then are my five favourite all time match recollections.

Match One – United versus Anderlecht – September 1956.

This was the night that competitive European football came to Manchester for the very first time – and what a night it turned out to be! Nobody going to Maine Road that evening could ever have envisaged what they were about to witness over the 90 minutes of playing time. As the skies opened and the rain sheeted down, United’s team of young ‘Babes’ produced a performance that was a joy to witness and made the whole of Europe sit up and take notice.

The Belgians were absolutely mesmerized by United’s fluidity, passing, movement, and deadliness in front of goal. By half time United were leading 5-0, and when the final whistle sounded, that score had been doubled! It was a night of superlative wing play by outside left David Pegg who had a hand in virtually every goal, yet he never got onto the score sheet himself, despite the efforts of his team mates to try and tee one up for him. This was the game that whetted the European appetite of United’s fans, and that appetite has become voracious ever since.

Match Two – United versus Bilbao – February 1957

In my honest opinion, this game is certainly the greatest game of football and crowd atmosphere that I have ever seen and been part of. Trailing 3-5 from the first leg, and seemingly having no chance against what was a very, very good, Spanish team, United’s young kids rose to the challenge. The atmosphere that night at Maine Road was so pungent that you could chew upon it. The game itself was nail biting but the thing that I will always remember about that game is the quality of performance put in by Tommy Taylor. Without doubt it was the finest display of centre forward play that I have ever seen.

Tommy was a terrific athlete and was such a good looking lad that he wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Hollywood film set. He had skill in abundance, and led the line in what was then a very unconventional manner. Tommy didn’t plough a furrow down the centre of the field as the traditional role warranted, but instead, he roamed all over the place. Against Bilbao, and directly in opposition against one of Europe’s great centre halfs (Jesus Garay) he was outstanding. I’ll never forget seeing him collect the ball just in front of me near to the half way line on the Kippax side, and jockey with Garay all the way down the line towards the scoreboard end. At this time the score was 2-0 in United’s favour and time was running out, and a third game in Paris was looming. He teased Garray all the way down the line, shuffling the ball from foot to foot, showing it to him. Eventually, Garay took the bait as big Tom dipped a shoulder, and when the big Spaniard’s tackle came in, Taylor was gone in flash …. delivering the perfect cross which was met by little Johnny Berry who crashed the ball into the roof of the net for the tie winning goal. The roar that erupted was like nothing I had heard before, or have done since… it was deafening. 75,000 United fans, 90% crammed in shoulder to shoulder, voicing their pleasure as one.... unforgettable.

Match Three – United versus Benfica – May 1968

Less than 10 minutes to go and with the score at 1-1, the ‘Black Pearl’ that was Eusebio gets behind the United defence and bears down on goal with just Stepney between him and glory. Truly, for all of United’s massed army that were present at Wermbley that night, and the millions watching at home on their television sets… it was a heart stopping moment. Once again, were United to be cheated of their quest for what had become their Holy Grail? Just two years earlier, they had fallen to Partizan Belgrade at the semi-final stage of the European Cup competition, and it was defeat at this stage for the third consecutive time in the Club’s history. In April/May of 1968, after two epic semi-final games against Real Madrid, they had at last managed to win through to the final. Surely, this would be their year?

Just ten years after the Munich disaster, and it was hoped that the dream of those boys who had begun the European journey back in September 1956, would finally be realized. United went into the game with a team that was littered with home grown players who had come through the ranks from the juniors; Brennan, Foulkes, Stiles, and the five forwards, Best, Kidd, Charlton, Sadler, and Aston. I doubt that we’ll ever see anything like that happen again.

For most of the game United had been in control, but had failed to get their nose in front, until that is, just after half time when Bobby Charlton rose to a Sadler cross and deftly flicked the ball into the net with his head – a rare occurrence. But oh! how we danced… that is until the Portugese half back Graca scored with a simple equalizer. And now… as Eusobio was through on goal, our hopes and dreams were about to be shattered. Stepney advanced, then retreated, and we all held hour breath – a simple roll of the ball either side of him, and Eusebio would score and Benfica would be victors. Instead of doing the simple thing, the big charming lad from Mozambique decided to pull the trigger and hammer the ball home. It went like a bullet straight at the target – Stepney. Remarkably, the big Londoner held onto the ball, clutching it in to the safety of his chest and the danger and threat was instantly averted.

You could feel the sense of relief that swept around the stadium in the areas where the United fans were gathered. Not too long afterwards and the final whistle for the end of normal time went, and the rest they say is history. Records show that United went on to win by 4-1 in probably the most one-sided periods of extra time that a European Final will see. The final whistle blew, the European crown was ours, and the players surrounded Matt (as he was then). It told you just how much this victory meant. When Bobby Charlton went up those famous old 39 steps to collect the European Cup, it was such an emotional moment, and to see him and Bill Foulkes walk off that pitch together totally spent, is a memory that will live with me forever.

Match Four – United versus Blackburn Rovers – May 1963

26 years had been an awful long time to wait for a club of United’s magnitude to win the League again. From 1967 up until 1993, there had been so many false dawns. The club watched and had to concede to the superiority and dominance of mostly Liverpool, but also at times along the way, Everton, Forest, Derby and Arsenal. For United fans it had been a bitter pill to swallow. Every season had started with big expectations, even in the dark days of the early to mid seventies. The appointment of Alex Ferguson in 1986 didn’t immediately change the situation and there was a time when it looked as though he too, may be on his way out of Old Trafford. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and he won his first major trophy with United in 1990 – the FA Cup. The following year saw us lift the Cup Winners Cup, and the year after that we won the League Cup, but unfortunately, after being in pole position for the League Championship for long periods that year, once again failed to win it in the run-in.

The new Premier League began in season 1992/1993 and we got off to a really bad start losing the first two games, but after that progressed steadily, and lost only 2 more games to the turn of the year. In late November after having beaten Arsenal 1-0 at Highbury, United lay in 5th position 10 points behind the leaders Norwich City, who were also 5 points clear of their nearest rivals and everybody had played 17 games. The following week, a certain Frenchman named Eric Cantona joined United from Leeds, and he proved to be the catalyst in what was already a very good team.

On January 9th 1993, United beat ‘Spurs at Old Trafford by 4-1 and went to the top of the Premiership on goal difference from Villa, and Norwich. From that moment on, up until April it was a three horse race and the lead changed hands several times. However in April Norwich slipped up and United had a lead of four points after they won at Palace on April 21st. On April 25th, Villa played Oldham at Villa Park and had to win or draw to deny United their first title for 26 years. Oldham were decidedly the underdogs lying 3rd from the bottom and only picked up points in just six games away from Boundary Park. In reality they were no hopers. But as the saying goes – “there is no such thing as a dead cert!” Oldham completely overturned the form book and beat Villa 1-0 – the League title had come home to Old Trafford at last!

The following day, Monday, April 26th, United had a home game with Blackburn Rovers and Old Trafford rocked with a carnival like atmosphere. The players were recovering from a long night/morning piss up that had taken place at Steve Bruce’s home the night before and had lasted well into the daylight hours. When the teams took to the field, several United players were still suffering hangovers, and for the first 20 minutes of the game… you could certainly tell it! Blackburn scored first and should have had the chance of a second when Kevin Gallagher was blatantly fouled in United’s area but the referee denied them. United turned it on from then on with Giggs scoring from a stupendous free kick, and Ince adding a second, which got their nose in front. Apart from Gary Pallister, every outfield player had managed to get on the score sheet during that season. This was rectified in the dying minutes of the game when United were awarded a direct free kick on the edge of the Blackburn box at the Stretford End. Up strode’Pally and drove the ball around the wall and into the bottom right hand corner of the goal… he was mobbed by his team mates. Shortly afterwards, the final whistle went, and the celebrations began.

It was a crazy, happy atmosphere and I’ll always remember singing “We are the Champions” as the crowd lifted the roof. Afterwards, it was such a joy to see the pictures of Sir Matt and his daughter Sheena as they had joined in singing “Always look on the bright side of life”…. His face and beaming smile told the whole story. It was indeed an incredible night set up by the simple fact that after 26 long years, we were Champions again!

Match Five – United versus FC Bayern – May 1999.

The 1998/99 season was an incredible roller coaster of a ride and we could never have dreamed how it would all turn out as we kicked off the season against Arsenal in the Charity Shield on August 9th 1998. We lost 3-0 and Nicolas Anelka had run our new centre half, Jaap Stam ragged. The omens didn’t look good. But Jaap settled well and when the real campaigns started, he was as solid as a rock. The European journey could not have started tougher with games against LKS Lodz, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Brondby. The latter was dispatched contemptuously and the games against Lodz ended up in a draw and a win. However, the games against Munich and Barcelona were all drawn. The Barcelona games were both 3-3 but I always like to think that both of them were classics and a joy to watch.

In the League, the title race was tight going into the turn of the year and United were lying 3rd, four points behind Villa. The FA Cup began with a 3rd Round tie against Liverpool in January of1999. What a cliff hanger it turned out to be. With Owen having scored early in the game, and the referee now playing added time.. the Scousers were singing and dancing, but the opportunism of Dwight York and OGS in those final two minutes, wiped the smiles off their faces and sent every United fan home deliriously happy! The next round of the European cup pitched them against Inter Milan – a tough tie, but they prevailed 2-0 at home and drew 1-1 away. In the meantime Fulham and Chelsea were dispatched from the FA Cup.

The semi-final of the European Cup drew us against Juventus and this was no easy tie, considering that sandwiched between those two games was an FA Cup semi-Final against Arsenal! The home game against Juve was hard fought and ended 1-1, and we knew that going to the Stadio Delle Alpi was going to be a huge hurdle to overcome if we wanted to reach the Final. The FA Cup semi final against Arsenal was a dour affair although United were cheated by David Elleray when he disallowed a perfectly legitimate, Roy Keane goal. The replay the following Wednesday night was so full of drama… Becks scored for United, but Bergkamp equalized. Then in the final minute United gave away a penalty kick and up strode the big Dutchman. For most of us, we thought that we were on our way out, but big Schmeichel read Bergkamp perfectly and he saved the kick. Extra time, and then Keano got himself sent off. Could we hang on? Then came one of the greatest moments in the history of the FA Cup. Picking off one of Patrick Viera’s crossfield passes, Giggs set off on a run from just inside his own half and straight at the Arsenal defence. He coaxed the ball along at great speed and on entering the Gunners’ area he beat three defenders in the space of a sixpence and lashed the ball past Seaman into the roof of the net. We were into the Final and the “treble” looked to be a possibility.

In the Stadio Delle Alpi the first 10 minutes of the game were an utter disaster for United as they found themselves 2-0 down. It was going to take something special to get them out of what was a nightmare. But cometh the hour, cometh the man…. And that man was skipper Roy Keane. In terms of performance and leadership, I would say I haven’t seen better. He single handedly dragged United back from the abyss, and he bollocked and cajoled his team into a stunning performance which saw them triumph by 3-2. The sad thing was though, that both he and Paul Scholes picked up cards that made them ineligible for the Final in Barcelona.

By this time, my personal life had taken a turn and I had decided that once the season was ended, I would leave life in England and emigrate to the United States. I travelled over there on April 23rd and on May 5th, married Paula Withers. I returned to England on Saturday may 15th and the following day was there to see the final League game of the season against ‘Spurs. The next 12 days were going to be incredible! The league title was assured with the 2-1 win against ‘Spurs, and on the following Saturday I travelled down to Wembley for the FA Cup Final against Newcastle. It was an easy game which United won comfortably by 2-0 and the ‘double’ had been achieved.

On Tuesday may 25th I joined the thousands of United fans who exited UK for Barcelona and the European Final. The mood was one of optimism, buoyancy, and anticipation. The Final was not in any way a classic, and to be brutally honest, United struggled for long periods and had the rub of the green. Bassler had scored early on for the Germans and as the second half progressed it looked odds on that the trophy was heading to Bavaria, and the Jerries weren’t slow in letting the United fans know that! But there are times when you have a gut feeling, when you just know that something is going to happen for you, when your faith is so strong it borders on the ridiculousness! That night in the Catalan air was one of those moments. As the game flowed into Colina’s allowance for added time the game was turned on its head simply and purely because of our boys never-say-die attitude. First a corner went into the area and was half cleared to Giggs who mis-hit his shot, only for Sherringham to poke out a foot and there it was… in the back of the net! Extra time thank goodness – or so we thought. Becks chased down a defender deep in German territory and forced the corner. The delivery was good – a flick of the head from Teddy and Ollie’s predatory instincts saw him flash a foot at the ball and it connected sending it crashing into the net….. we’d won! It was surreal. There was mayhem all around me as people hugged, kissed and cried… the ‘treble’ had at last been achieved.

Later that evening as I sat in my drunken state I thought back to where the journey had all begun and I cried unashamedly. I never ever thought that I would ever live to see the ‘treble’ achieved. When you look back at that season, it is incredible to see that after losing the league game to ‘Boro on Dec 19 1998, United never lost another game!