UTD Unscripted: Ending the long wait
I still remember walking off the pitch at Anfield in April 1992, having just lost the game that confirmed we’d lost the league title.
Liverpool were delighted, as you’d expect. They’d stopped their major rivals winning a first title in 25 years, so the home fans were absolutely thrilled. A week earlier, we’d looked like certainties to win the league. Suddenly, Leeds were champions. Having seen that situation come unstuck, it would be understandable for people to wonder if we’d ever win it.
But, I have to be honest, that thought never crossed my mind. Not even walking off the pitch at Anfield surrounded by all those jubilant Liverpool fans. As far as I was concerned, we were the best team in the league.
The saying is that if you win the title, you deserve it, because you’ve been the best team over the course of the season. Not taking anything away from Leeds, who did well that season and deserve credit for sticking with us and handling the pressure when we ran out of steam, but I do feel we were the better team. Circumstances cost us the title.
That season, we did well in the cups and that got in the way of the league performances right at the end of the season where we had a backlog and had to play a lot of games in a short period of time. We got quite a few injuries which weakened the squad and that’s what cost us. We did go on to win the League Cup, but I do think it was the cup runs which gave us such congestion at the end of the season and cost us the league title.
The last two weeks were just too much. We’d been beaten three times in the first 32 games, and the last four games we lost three times in the space of six days. That told the story: all the fixtures caught up with us.
Of course, it was a huge disappointment. For years, United fans had been saying:
“We haven’t won the league since 1967,” then people from other clubs start piping up, saying:
“It’s unbelievable United haven’t won the league in 22… 23… 24… 25 years.” We’d been close before. In 1985 we got off to an amazing start, won our first 10 games but then we were badly affected by injuries and we tailed off.
Then it happened again in 1992 and, at that point, you’re thinking to yourself: Crikey, I’ve been at the club for 11 years and we still haven’t won it yet.
But I honestly didn’t think that was my last chance.
Going into the next season, I thought: Wow, we are really strong now, the lads are gonna improve from losing the title, because we still had quite a few young lads who now had some valuable experience. You could see with people like Incey, Pally, Sharpey, plus the experienced boys who had been there for a few years; we believed we were the best team in the league.
Inevitably, having lost the league in ’92 the way we did, there was a bit of disappointment carried over into the first few weeks of the first season of the Premier League. That was inevitable. We dropped a lot of points in those opening weeks. But then once you get onto a run and you know that you’re catching people up, we felt all along that we had the ability to go the distance. We knew that if we ended up in the same situation again, we had what it took to win the title.
A big part of putting ourselves back in that situation was the manager’s signing of Eric Cantona midway through the season. For me, Eric was the last piece in the jigsaw of what the gaffer was trying to achieve. You could see from his short time at Leeds that he had presence, he made a lot of goals, scored a couple of excellent goals, so we knew the quality that he was bringing into the squad. Everybody had a lot to say about his character and his charisma before he arrived at United, but that was never going to be a problem for the group of lads at our club.
When you look back at that squad… myself, Brian McClair, Mark Hughes, Brucey, Schmikes… all the lads had great attitudes. When you’ve got lads with strong characters, there’s never going to be a problem with somebody else who comes in with a strong character.
Eric fitted in great with the boys, but some things he did stood out immediately.
Straight away, the one thing you noticed was his preparation for both training and games. Even though we always did a warm-up anyway, Eric would always go out and do his own little routine, then he’d join in with the boys for the group warm-up. Afterwards he’d warm down, whereas the lads would just go in. Pretty much straight away, almost all the lads thought: that’s not a bad idea, and we all started warming down after training because we’d seen Eric doing it.
Even though I was 35, it didn’t stop me taking on new ideas and learning from people like Eric. I started thinking about my own routine and, recognising that we had a lot more games and it was increasingly important to warm down, I worked it into my home life. I always used to take my girls swimming and go for walks with them, so I started using those sessions as a way of recovering on a Sunday morning after the previous day’s game. At that stage in my career, I wasn’t playing every week, but it was important for me to be ready when called upon.
Eric’s arrival in the November coincided with a really good run of results for us so, when the run-in started, we were right in the title race. There were a few points dropped in March, so people outside the club started to wonder if we were being affected by what had happened the previous season, but we were confident within ourselves as we went into April.
We went to Norwich, who were also right in the title race, at the start of the month, and scored three times in the first half. We were unstoppable. That was a really big win for us because it got us going again, really gave us a shot of self-belief. That was important going into the next game: Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford.
I was a sub that day and there was a bit of edginess around the stadium when Wednesday took the lead against the run of play midway through the second half. Straight away, the gaffer told me to get ready. Before I came on, I looked around and felt the lads had gone a little bit dead, really. I felt that I needed to liven up the crowd and liven the lads up, put in some really strong tackles, because that always gets people going and always puts you on the front foot. When I look back at the footage from the last 25 minutes, when the gaffer put me on, you can see that that’s what was on my mind: get some really good tackles in there, try to pass the ball forward as much as I could, just to put some life into us.
We got a fair few corners and free-kicks and we were just constantly looking to get the ball in the box and put them on the back foot. With three minutes of normal time to go, we got another corner. Denis whipped it into the box and Brucey got a great header on it. As it was heading towards goal, I was just following the ball.
Whatever happened, that ball had to end up in the net, so I put everything into following it in, just in case. Chris Woods in goal had been having a great day, Nigel Worthington was on the line and he might put a stop on it, so you never know. As it happened, Nigel didn’t move, but I still ended up bundling into him on the line, and he almost ended up in the net with the ball! From that point, we just kept piling on the pressure. We had all the momentum, had a couple of close calls and the corners kept coming. Way into stoppage time, Wednesday didn’t deal with one and Pally ended up crossing it back in from the right.
I was just coming into the box, coming in behind Brucey, so I could see what was going to happen. Brucey was always excellent in the air. Considering he’s not six foot three or six foot four, he was so brave, and that bravery made the difference again. There was only one person going to reach that ball. It was a great header, put straight back where it had come from, and as soon as it left Brucey’s head, I had the perfect angle to see that it was going straight into the corner.
The place went berserk. The most telling reaction was on the sidelines from the gaffer and Brian Kidd. Kiddo never really reacted that much, so to see him on his knees on the pitch, that summed it all up.
There was no time left, so we’d won the game. Once that goal went in, we knew we had three more vital points. I do feel that, no matter whether or not Villa had maintained their form, we would’ve gone on to win our last games anyway. We had the momentum and, whereas the previous year we’d run out of steam, this time around we’d hit our stride and started chalking off the wins.
Coventry, Chelsea and Palace were all beaten, while Villa lost at Blackburn the night we won at Selhurst Park. That meant that on the penultimate weekend of the season, Villa had to beat Oldham to stay in the race, while we hosted Blackburn the following night at Old Trafford. The boss had told us just to focus on our own game and not bother watching Villa.
You can’t not watch, though, can you? Of course you’re interested.
Oldham did us a great service, won 1-0 and that was it.
I reckon we arrived at Brucey’s house within an hour of the game finishing. It was him who thought of the idea of us all going round to celebrate, but the boss also gave the go-ahead for us all to go and have a few drinks with it. The good thing about the lads was that everyone took their wives, and that was great as well. Everyone was in just such a happy mood. I’ve no idea how Brucey had so much booze in his house! I think Schmikes lived across the road from him, another couple lived round the corner, so they all just emptied their fridges and brought everything round. It was a great night, everybody let their hair down.
It had been 26 years, we had to!
The good thing as well… it wasn’t as if it was an afternoon game against Blackburn, otherwise we’d have had to go home earlier than we did. It was a nice Monday evening kick-off and the boss had told us just to report to Old Trafford for the pre-match meal three hours before the game. It gave everybody a right good lie-in, so we all had a proper sleep beforehand.
As soon as we’d all arrived at the stadium, you could see it was party mood for the fans too. That party had been on hold for years, so it was going to be a big night. The one thing we all said to each other was: let’s not let ourselves down by getting beat, so we weren’t happy when Blackburn went 1-0 up early in the game. Because of the quality the boys had at that time, it didn’t matter that we’d had a one-off situation where we’d had a few drinks; we were going to work our socks off to make sure we won the game.
We kicked on from there. Giggsy scored a brilliant free-kick in the first half, Incey put us ahead in the second half and then, in the last few minutes, I won a free-kick just outside the Blackburn area.
It was funny. Kiddo was taking the mick out of Pally before the game, saying to him:
“You realise, Pally, that you’re the only outfield player in the squad who hasn’t scored this season.” Pally was straight on it:
“If we get a penalty or a free-kick, I’m taking all of them.” Thankfully he didn’t take the free-kick when Giggsy equalised, but there was no argument when he wanted to take that last-minute one. Seeing him bury that in the bottom corner was just the icing on the cake.
After that, one thing remained: get that trophy.
After all those years, all that time waiting, Brucey and I went to lift the trophy together. What a moment that was, after so long, and the whole night was just this enormous party. With Sir Matt still being alive at that time as well, I’ll always remember seeing him with a massive smile on his face every time I looked at him. He was delighted since it had taken the club that many years to win it back. He was in the dressing room after the game, along with a lot of other people, and everybody wanted to be involved.
Personally, being a champion after all that time meant so much. We had one more game left to play, against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park, and the gaffer started me. It ended up being a bit of a fairytale for me. We were 1-0 up when, with about 20 minutes to go, Brucey clipped a free-kick over the top of Wimbledon’s defence and I ran onto it. I knew I had plenty of time because they had tried to play a high offside line, so once the ball had got through and I’d got away, I knew there weren’t any players trying to catch me up. I knew I could take it round Hans Segers or tuck it away wherever I wanted. I knew I had time to make my decision, which helped. I opted to just slot it inside the post and that was it; 2-0 and my first goal in 18 months.
That was an extra-special way to end an extra-special season.
At that stage in my career, though, I knew my time at the club was limited. During the course of that season, the gaffer had regularly asked me to play in the Reserves, so I was playing with all the lads that came through from the Class of ’92. Anybody could see how good they were. They kept winning everything, the Youth Cup, the Lancashire League, and I think it was the first time in something like 20 years that we won the Reserve league.
So I knew Butty was coming through, the gaffer had an idea of using Scholesy as a midfielder, plus Incey was 25 at that stage and in his prime. Incey was a terrific player. He was a really good athlete, so quick over 10 yards; that’s how he got to people, got away from people, but he had good quality on the ball as well. He might have scored a few more than he did, but he was top drawer. When people talk about the best midfielders to play in the Premier League, I always think that Incey was up there with the names that always get banded about, like myself, Keaney and Steven Gerrard.
It was just after we’d won the title that the gaffer managed to sign Keaney. I’d played against him quite a few times by that stage and I knew he was a top player, even at that age. He was probably only 21 or 22, but he was already just top quality. What stood out was that he was really quick, strong, and a good tackler, but in those days he used to like to run forward to try to get a goal. That changed over the years at United because as he got older he would allow the young lads around him to get on with the game and score the goals, so it suited him to sit in and defend more, which he was brilliant at. But back then, he’d score goals, set up the play and just generally influence things.
With all that going on, I knew my time was almost up. The gaffer confirmed to me halfway through the 1993/94 season that he wanted to start bringing Butty and Scholesy through, so that’s when I knew that it would probably be my last season at Old Trafford. It was terrific to sign off in style with United winning the Double. Some mightn’t class me as winning the Double because I wasn’t even on the bench in the FA Cup final, but I feel I was part of it. I scored in the semi-final replay win over Oldham, played in quite a few league games, so I feel like I was a big part of that.
Straight after the Double, I went into player-management at Middlesbrough and played virtually every game of the following season, so I never had time to look back and be affected by leaving United after such a long time. It definitely helped that we’d managed to win the league before I left.
We’d won a fair few trophies during my time at Old Trafford; a few FA Cups, the League Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup, Super Cup… but what meant that I could relax and have no regrets was the fact that we’d finally, finally won the league.