Fourth-round classic: United 5 Wrexham 2

Tuesday 23 January 2024 17:30

It seems the world's media had descended on Old Trafford in the days leading up to Manchester United's FA Cup fourth-round tie against third-tier Wrexham in 1995.

There was no sign of a Disney+ documentary crew - this was 25 years before Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney acquired the visiting club and with all due respect to the Red Dragons, all of the attention was focused on the home team and its absent talisman.

News reporters had swarmed all over United since midweek when, in the preceding fixture, an enraged Eric Cantona took exception to the taunts coming from an abusive Crystal Palace supporter during a gritty 1-1 draw and infamously launched himself into the stands, feet first. On Friday, the day before our Wrexham clash, the club suspended our no.7 for the remainder of the 1994/95 season and fined him £20,000. The FA subsequently increased the Frenchman's ban to eight months, and after admitting a criminal charge of assault, he was ordered to serve 120 hours of community service.

On Saturday, the football world was still in shock and, as a junior reporter in his first season working for United's monthly magazine, I was despatched to the forecourt ahead of kick-off to gauge opinion from our fans for the next issue. Way back in 1995, they had no internet forums nor social media to vent on. I would have to do.

This young fan attending the FA Cup tie against Wrexham made it clear how she felt about Cantona's ban.
Anne Coles, 20, of Manchester told me: "What he did was bang out of order, but so was the fan who provoked him. United were perhaps a bit harsh with him - there had to be a ban of some sort but it could work out to be over 20 games, and I don't want to lose him. We've got to buckle down now and show the country what we're made of."

Phillip Greenfield, 16, from Chesterfield fumed: "What he's done is terrible and it's totally wrecked the club's ambitions of winning the league or even getting to the FA Cup final. He probably deserves the ban. United will have trouble for the rest of the season - they're going to have to pull players in. I still hope he stays until next season because he's a great player. He's won us two league titles and the FA Cup and we should hold on to him."

Jeffrey Rumbelow, 46, from Rotherham commented: "Whenever United play, the first thing the opposition tells its players is to provoke Cantona. He's got such a fiery temperament that if they upset him, they can probably get him sent off. We can't condone what Eric did to that supporter and he's got to bear the consequences of that. I hope this hasn't spoiled our chances of clinching the championship again."

Even with its top entertainer in exile, the show must go on of course. When referee Martin Bodenham blew his whistle at kick-off, you could almost hear a sigh of relief around Old Trafford that the outcome of a football match - at least for the next 90 minutes - was once again uppermost in our collective minds.

If anyone was concerned that United's players would be distracted by the previous days' events, we were somewhat worried when Kieron Durkan opened the scoring for Wrexham after just 10 minutes. The League One side were ahead and dreaming of another upset, having claimed a Premier League scalp in the previous round, albeit an Ipswich Town team that would be hammered 9-0 at Old Trafford two months later.

"Wrexham fully deserved their early lead," said Alex Ferguson, in a post-match interview. "I thought it added a wee bit of spice to the game. We had to work really hard to get into the match."

Phil Neville made the first of his 386 senior United appearances when we faced Wrexham in January 1995.

The encounter called for a cool head and few, if any, were more dependable than Denis Irwin who smashed home from the edge of the box when a corner was cleared just seven minutes later. By the half-hour mark, United were in front, thanks to a goal from Ryan Giggs that was assisted by his fellow Academy graduate, Phil Neville - making his first-team debut in the same season when he would lift the FA Youth Cup as captain.

Normal service resumed? Not quite, if you were expecting the 1994 Double winners to open the floodgates. In fact, the scoreboard was stuck on 2-1 until midway through the second half when Brian McClair gave us some breathing space. Irwin followed up from the penalty spot to complete a rare brace for the full-back, before an own goal by Wrexham's unfortunate no.4, Tony Humes, gifted us goal no.5 in the 80th minute.

At that point, the celebrity United supporter I was sitting with in the South Stand warmly bid me farewell and signed my copy of his latest solo CD as a unique match souvenir.

Denis Irwin scores a penalty, the first of his two goals in the FA Cup tie.
"To Adam, thanks for a great game, 5-1," wrote Mike Peters, frontman of Welsh rock band The Alarm. Like the thousands of away fans packed inside Old Trafford, he was heading back to his home in North Wales; a race to the M56 was on.

I hate to break it to you, Mike, but you missed a goal. Jonathan Cross netted in the 89th minute to make the final score 5-2 and give the Wrexham faithful something to cheer, just before the curtain came down on their FA Cup campaign.

Meanwhile, United's quest would continue all the way to Wembley where our bid to retain the trophy ended in a shock 1-0 defeat to Everton. Cantona had scored two penalties in the previous year's 4-0 final triumph against Chelsea but this time, the suspended maverick could play no part.