UTD Unscripted: The King and I
I’d played against United when I was at Blackburn in the first two seasons of the Premier League, and I’d always been struck by how powerful and strong they were. There wasn’t a weak link in the whole squad. Virtually every single one of them was a full international, and they were all proper players. They were just so good and so, so tough to play against.
I think I’d been up against Choccy and Sparky, which was exactly the kind of experience you’d have expected. I was 22 or 23 at the time and of course they already had great reputations, so getting the chance to play against them was something in itself. Every time United came to Ewood Park, it was just completely packed out. That was something that I admired. When Liverpool or Everton came over, it was never like United. Never. It was as if it was a home game for United whenever they were in town, and playing in those games was brilliant.
First year in the Premier League, 1992/93, we drew 0-0 at Ewood Park and I missed the game at Old Trafford that season – the night United lifted the first Premier League title – because somebody had gone into the back of my car the day before the game. Nightmare. But I did still go to the game. That was actually my first game at Old Trafford as a fan, stood in the Blackburn end. I’m stood there thinking: this is unbelievable. It was United’s first title in a long time and I just remember that atmosphere. It genuinely was unbelievable.
The following season, I played in both games as we drew at Old Trafford and, when both clubs were going for the title, Blackburn won 2-0 at Ewood Park and Alan Shearer scored both goals. United still won the league, though, and that summer I had the chance to join them, which was just an unbelievable opportunity. Two titles in a row and they’d just won the Double. I couldn’t wait to be a part of that squad.
Looking back, I remember being a bit gutted that I didn’t get the chance to play with Bryan Robson. Robbo left the same summer I joined, so I missed out on that, but there were so many unbelievable players in that squad. I think playing with them, rather than against them, the likes of Giggsy, Sparky, Keaney and Incey in midfield, Brucey and Pally… everywhere you looked, just s*** hot players all over the place. It was almost unfair, the team was that strong. For me, to have the opportunity to play there was beyond brilliant.
When you join a team, you’re initially sussing people out and seeing who’s on your wavelength, so you’re quite quiet while you take it all in. Incey was a bit of a centrepiece in the dressing room… Giggsy, Keaney… they all had their own little ways. Big Pete was a little bit vocal in there, but it was just the younger lads making most of the noise. Eric was quite quiet and didn’t give much away, but then I was the same at the time. People know me now as a bit of a joker in the dressing room, but in that first six months I never made a peep. I was just bedding into the system, not going in and being vocal or risking stepping on any toes.
I think Giggsy met up with Jason Wilcox over Christmas in my first season, Jason asked how I was getting on.
“Yeah, yeah, alright,” said Giggsy.
“He’s a lunatic, isn’t he?!”
“You what? Maysie? He wouldn’t say boo to a goose!”
Giggsy thought he was winding him up. Then the Christmas party came and I thought it was time to get my wings, so to speak, so I relaxed a little bit!
If I’m honest, my United career hadn’t gotten off to the flying start that I wanted. I was playing out of position at right-back, Pally and Brucey were phenomenal so I wasn’t breaking them up, but in January 1995 Brucey picked up a suspension for our game at Crystal Palace, so I played alongside Pally at centre-half. We’d just beaten Blackburn at Old Trafford to keep ourselves well in the hunt for the title, and going to Selhurst Park was one of those horrible midweek games where you knew you’d have to grind out a result. Selhurst Park isn’t a nice place to play, you know what you’re gonna get: up and under team, right in your faces, horrible conditions, horrible night to play football, but it’s your job to go out there and do what you do for United.
So it was just going to be a normal night. First half was tight, nothing really happened. Second half was only a few minutes in when Eric did what he did and catapulted Matthew Simmons onto the back page of every paper.
Eric had a bit of a kick out at Richard Shaw, the linesman flagged it and the referee sent him off. I thought that was that. You’re just thinking to yourself: Right, that’s a week’s wages for Eric, meantime we need to get the points, get out and get back up the road. I was standing in the centre circle thinking this when suddenly this almighty roar goes up.
You look over, see Eric flying through the air and two-footing this guy in the crowd.
You’re thinking: What the f*** is going on here?
It’s just something you’ve never seen before. Never.
I ran over, but really you’re just watching this unfold, suddenly cups of tea are being thrown at him from the crowd and it was all just so surreal. Eric disappeared down the tunnel and we still had a job to do, so we had to get our heads back on the game.
A few minutes later, I went up for a free-kick and, although Palace cleared it, we kept the pressure on, Sharpey put in a great cross from the left and I managed to get my head on it for my first Premier League goal for United. I was buzzing. Absolutely. From a little bit of a selfish viewpoint I was thinking: At least I’ve done something for the team to help, to get three points. We had a couple more chances but it was mainly just us keeping Palace at bay. Then, near the end, there was a bit of a scramble, Gareth Southgate knocked in an equaliser and we ended up drawing.
Once the final whistle went, of course you’re disappointed not to have won, but a draw with 10 men wasn’t disastrous. Then you think: Right, let’s get in the dressing room and see what the craic is.
Now, everybody in that dressing room had had a hairdryer from the gaffer in those six months I’d been at the club. Every single player, bar one.
The gaffer had a special regard for Eric. Of course he did. Eric was a very, very special player. But after this, you’re thinking to yourself: He’s bound to say something now. He’s GOT to say something now.
We get in the dressing room, and the gaffer goes around, ripping into all the players one by one because we’ve dropped two points.
He gets to Eric.
Here we go.
“Eric, you can’t go around doing that, son.”
That’s it. Done.
COME ON! IS THIS FOR REAL??
But what can I say? He was a special player who probably deserved special treatment.
In the bus on the way home, I think most of us were still in shock. Like, f****** hell, has he just done that? Can you believe that? But footballers being footballers, we were laughing about it the next day.
It wasn’t that straightforward for Eric. The club did the right thing and banned him straight away, but the FA came down even harder on him. The club did ever so well to keep him after that because Eric was ready to just quit football. Sir Alex hopped on a plane, spoke to him, stood by him, and that’s one thing the club always does: stands by its players.
It was playing out in the press that the manager had flown out to bring him back, and of course all the players were keenly watching the situation. There was no debate about it for us: we wanted Eric to come back. He was our talisman, one of our best players, United was his club.
Thankfully the gaffer did his thing and persuaded him not to quit, and to come back. In his absence, we still had a title to try to win. We made a good fist of it, took it to the last day of the season and reached the FA Cup final, but unfortunately we lost out in both competitions. If Eric hadn’t done what he did, we’d have won the Double that season, no doubt about that whatsoever. For me personally, it was horrific seeing Blackburn win the league. I missed the last couple of games with a hernia, and it was absolutely heart-wrenching watching us lose out on the final day. I’d left Ewood Park to join United so I could win trophies, and as soon as I’d gone Blackburn had won the title. I really was devastated by that. Really, really was.
But I didn’t blame Eric. Not at all. He did what he did, he served his time for it with nine months out. Eric knew himself that he’d let the team down. Once he’d been talked off the ledge and brought back into the fold, he set about repaying that debt.
The team he came back into was pretty different to the one he’d last played with at Selhurst Park.
Incey, Sparky and Andrei had all gone and the kids who’d come into the team were something special – we all knew that already from training with them – but still it was a very different team. Scholesy had already shown that he could play centre forward, which went well in Eric’s absence, Becks could provide a different supply line to Andrei and Butty was ready to step up after Incey had gone. Then Nev, Phil – Giggsy was established of course – but they were all top players.
You just knew that something special was brewing. Six born winners coming into the first team from the youth team, with the togetherness they had – and still have – throwing them into a strong team was a masterstroke from the manager.
A couple of months into 1995/96, he had Eric back too.
I was sidelined for his comeback game against Liverpool, but I still remember the whole day. The atmosphere still stands out in my memory. The king was back, French flags everywhere, it was a homecoming for him and everything was teed up for him, wasn’t it? He set Butty up after a minute or two, then scored the equalising penalty himself. Typical Eric.
Obviously it was great for all of us to have him back around the place. He would improve any team, and coming back into that team just added that bit of finesse to it. He was a huge presence in the dressing room and you knew you were able to rely on him. My word, did we rely on him at times that season.
Newcastle had started the season in ridiculous form, but the thing everybody knew about United at the time was that the season really started properly after Christmas. If we were in the hunt after Christmas, we could smell blood. That’s when you start making inroads and we went on a phenomenal run. We could just sense from Newcastle that if they lost one game, they’d lose two. We were watching them play Liverpool at Anfield in that famous 4-3 game, and when we saw Kevin Keegan slump on the bench after the fourth goal, we all thought the same thing:
We’ve got them now.
We’d beaten Newcastle at St James’s a couple of games earlier to move to within a point of them, and it was then that we really started looking at their fixtures and eyeing up which ones would be tough for them. You’re hoping and wishing for favours, but at the same time you’ve got to do your own job and win your own games.
With Eric during that run-in, we were virtually unstoppable. It was mad, that purple patch that he hit. Every week it seemed to be Cantona, 1-0. Newcastle, Arsenal, Spurs, Coventry and he scored in most of the other games too.
He was on a one-man mission to make up for what had happened the season before. It was like, in his own mind, he needed to repay the fans, the club, the players, the manager for what he’d done.
Then, on the final day of the season, we went to Middlesbrough knowing that a win would get us the title. The night before, I was rooming with Choccy. Everybody knows how dry Choccy is, so we’re there in our room and I’m thinking all about the game we’ve got to play when I might win my first title. He was so calm though.
“Don’t worry about it, just enjoy it. Everything will be fine.” That stuck with me.
So did the gaffer’s words before we went out. Dead simple.
“We win the game, we win the league.”
Then, just before we were going out, Choccy turned to me and said:
“You know what? You’ll score the first goal today.”
About 15 minutes into the game, we got a corner. I just remember Steve Vickers was marking me, I managed to get a run on him, got up early, used his body for leverage and managed to get a header past Walshy in net and Branco on the goalline to put us one up.
Here we go!
I played well. Second half, Coley came on and scored with his first touch, and then Giggsy finished it off with a 25 yarder. The whole day was absolutely brilliant. We had a packed away end, pockets of United fans all over the ground among the home fans, plus the Middlesbrough fans all wanted us to beat Newcastle to the title anyway. I could just feel a massive relief. My first title, having missed out to Blackburn the year before, and it was one of those games where we didn’t feel they ever had a chance of stopping us.
A year earlier, we’d lost the league and the FA Cup in a week. This year, we had the chance to win another Double and we’d already secured the league. We had so much momentum. Biggest rivals, Liverpool, we’re there in our Burtons suits and they’re there in their cream Armani numbers. You don’t need any motivation to beat Liverpool anyway, absolutely zero, it’s the FA Cup final, you’re going for the Double, but them turning up like that just added a little bit of… spice, I suppose.
For me, I was obviously delighted to be named in the lineup, but of course that meant Brucey, the club captain, wasn’t playing. I was in form and I always remember Brucey coming up to me before the game and wishing me all the best.
“Just go out there and enjoy it. You’ll love it. You deserve to be playing, you’ve been fantastic.”
I just thought, WOW. I’d taken his place for the title decider at Middlesbrough, I’d taken his place in the FA Cup final, but he was absolutely different class. Him and Pally, from my first day at Old Trafford, even though I was there to take a place in the team, they were different class. I always thought: that’s going to happen to me one day. Some kid’s gonna come through and they’ll be exactly the same, so I want to be like Brucey when that day comes. If you ask Wes and Sheasy now, they’ll tell you I made it easier for them to step up because I talked them through games and never held a grudge against them for coming through. That’s all down to Brucey.
A lot is made of the FA Cup final being boring because it was 0-0 for so long, but I think both sides just defended well. We had a few half-chances, they didn’t really have anything at all bar one Redknapp shot over the bar, but the game was petering out. It needed somebody special to make something happen.
We had just the guy.
We got a corner on the right, I went up and tried to cause carnage. Mark Wright was marking me at the time, and the two of us, plus David James, ended up in a heap when James came to punch the corner clear.
The ball bounced out, and I’ve still no idea how he got his knee that high, but Eric just backed off and hit this volley, hip-high, and I just remember it going through all these bodies. Rob Jones, McManaman, Rush… it just went through the lot of them, hit the net and the place went crazy.
There was no time left for Liverpool to do anything about it after that. We’d won the Double and Eric went up to collect the trophy. Talk about your perfect ending to a season.
I actually spoke to Eric on the United podcast the other week and I mentioned the Selhurst Park incident to him. I asked him if he was given the chance to react again in the same situation, if he’d react differently. He said he’d do the exact same thing again. But he also admitted that he felt he owed the players a debt for getting himself banned, and he decided he had to repay everybody for what he’d done.
He couldn’t have picked a better way to do it!