Sid Lambert is a 43-year-old man playing Retro Football Manager on his iPhone. He’s gone back to 1995/96 to take over Newcastle United and put right what once went wrong: beat Manchester United to the title. And he’d love it if he beat them. Love it.
I’ve barely had time to enjoy a pint of Brown Ale after our opening day win against the Villa before my attention switches to more urgent matters. The fixture list has blessed us with a midweek trip to Old Trafford, which I greet with the same sort of enthusiasm as a man who’s found out Freddy Krueger is performing his vasectomy.
Sir John Hall’s full of typical bluster. “Perfect timing. We’ll get into them early, show them we mean business,” is his war cry. I’m pretty sure General Custer said something similar about the Native Americans at Little Bighorn.
The truth is, we’re horribly overmatched here. We bossed Villa mainly because Savo Milosevic had all the accuracy of a sniper on a trampoline. This is a completely different prospect. Alex Ferguson has a near full-strength side at his disposal. There’s a slight surprise that Gary Pallister doesn’t make the matchday squad. Playing Gary Neville at centre half might be the only chink in their armour.
There’s conventional wisdom in football that you should never change a winning team. Having said that, playing 3-4-3 at Old Trafford feels akin to smearing yourself with chum and going skinny-dipping with Jaws. It’s a preposterous idea. But this is a preposterous team. So, we’ll have a go at them and see what happens.
What happens is that we get swamped from the minute the whistle blows. United have all the possession. My masterplan of exploiting Gary Neville at centre-back fails miserably. Mainly because the home side have so much of the ball, Neville is strolling around the pitch like Socrates in his pomp. I’m thankful for the heroics of Shaka Hislop, who spares our blushes with a series of point-blank saves. Miraculously, we make it back to the dressing room with our clean sheet still intact. But there’s no disguising the fact that it’s been a horrible display. We’ve had zero shots on target. Peter Schmeichel could have popped back home and watched the game on Ceefax to be quite honest.
Finally, on 64 minutes Shaka is beaten. This time there really is nothing he can do. Our marking is appalling. I’m no astronomer, but I’m pretty certain John Beresford is closer to the surface of the moon than he is to Eric Cantona when the ball comes into the box. It’s a desperate goal to concede.
Inexplicably, it shocks us into life. And out of the blue we get a totally undeserved equaliser. We work the ball out wide and inexplicably David Batty finds himself in space on the touchline. Quite what the bruising midfielder is doing there is anybody’s guess. Batty’s got roughly the same success rate with crosses as Dracula, perhaps that’s why the Reds’ defence leaves him unmarked. The Yorkshireman curls a pinpoint delivery onto Tino’s head and we’re level.
The strength of any manager is knowing when to make big decisions in big games. Having scored an unlikely equaliser, I toy with the idea of bringing on Big Dazza Peacock to shore up a defence that’s got more gaps than OJ Simpson’s alibi. As I hesitate, the game is lost.
It says something about our defence that we’ve made Gary Neville the match winner. I have to shoulder the blame here. In hindsight, taking a 3-man backline to Old Trafford was like building a new house on quicksand.
The good thing about being a Premier League manager in the 90’s is that the games come thick and fast. And just when you think you’ve made sense of the chaos, there’s always someone more batshit crazy than you around the corner.
Step forward Joe Royle. The Everton boss famously saved the Toffees from relegation with his notorious “Dogs of War” and a willingness to get it in the mixer. This season he’s doubled down on his direct tactics and unrolled the lesser-spotted 3-3-4 formation for his trip to St. James’ Park.
Well, at least we know what to expect: the most persistent aerial bombardment since the Luftwaffe wolfed down their Bratwurst by twilight and headed for Blighty.
I make a slight tactical adjustment to repel the incoming Blitzkrieg, reverting to four at the back. Stuart Pearce is knackered so Warren Barton and Darren Peacock slot into the back four. The early signs are good: we’re more secure defensively and we take an immediate stranglehold on the midfield. In fairness, we should expect to. Asking Vinny Samways to mix it with David Batty is like asking Bambi to two-foot Godzilla.
Our control doesn’t lead to a goal. And by half-time I’m a little worried. We should be at least two goals up. Alan Shearer looks laboured, like that £25 million quid transfer fee is hanging around his neck. Either that or he’s had his feet surgically replaced with paving stones in the warm-up.
Thankfully, within minute of the restart. He’s provider rather than scorer, but it’s good enough for me. Big Les hits a screamer and the famous Geordie roar booms around St James’ Park.
The rest of the game is fairly routine. But our inability to kill a team like this off – with a forward line of Shearer, Asprilla and Ferdinand is a worry. To their credit, Everton find a bit of a foothold in the game and nearly scrape an equaliser late on.
There’s polite applause afterwards even if this isn’t quite the balls-to-the-wall, buccaneering football I’d promised upon my arrival. Two wins from three is decent enough.
Next up it’s another imposing looking fixture with a trip to champions Blackburn Rovers. Despite losing Shearer, they’re top of the league with a 100% record. It’s a daunting task but if you’re going to win titles then you’re going to need to go to Ewood Park and get something.
Written by Sid Lambert from A Funny Old Game
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