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.
We left the last instalment with the season just past the halfway stage and my Toon side third in the Premier League, four points off reigning champions Blackburn.
Next up we have a home fixture against Brian Little’s Aston Villa, who have occupied a spot in the middle of the table without anyone really noticing. I used to have a fruit basket like that once.
Looking at the line-ups, it’s clear that Brian Little is not a patient man. There’ll be no messing around in the middle. He wants to get from one end to the other in the shortest time possible, much like my nan with the Toblerone at Christmas.
My plan is to overload them in midfield, get Gazza on the ball and dictate the play. And with 12 minutes on the clock, it works perfectly.
Martin Tyler can’t contain himself. And neither can I. It’s a win for simplicity. It just goes to show that you can take all the courses and do all the coaching badges you like, but sometimes all football boils down to is getting your best player on the ball and telling him to hit the big man.
Just past the hour mark the formula works again. Villa’s five defenders mysteriously leave Alan Shearer with the sort of open space a dog shit might enjoy on an otherwise crowded dance floor.
And as the clock winds down, our number nine gets number three for the day.
The final scoreline makes for sensational reading. Gascoigne and Shearer make the deadliest partnership in the North East since Malcolm MacDonald and pork chop sideburns.
The win puts us in fine spirits for what becomes one of the most crucial encounters of the season: a New Year’s Day visit from Manchester United. We’ve got a 5-point cushion on Alex Ferguson’s men who have been off the pace all season. As I close my eyes on the last day of 1995, I start to dream of a 5-0 win with David Ginola running Gary Neville ragged, Alan Shearer on song, and Philippe Albert pushing Martin Tyler’s vocal chords to their very limit. It sounds too good to be true – and I’m rudely awoken from my romantic vision by the phone.
It’s the Chairman, Sir John Hall. He was jetting off to France for New Year and promised to bring me back a present. I was hoping for a nice bit of Brie. Turns out he’s got bigger things in mind.
Only problem is that I’ve never heard of him. It’s the mid-nineties. You’ve got more chance of seeing Kabbadi on telly than French football.
Sir John insists that his scouts say this young lad’s the future of European football. A midfielder so good he’ll have his own role named after him. I like to think we’ve got that covered already. Everyone’s familiar with “The David Batty Position”: a horizontal, two-footed, knee-high tackle on an unsuspecting opponent. It’s part of English football heritage.
But David’s been struggling with injury lately, so it seems sensible to bring in some extra legs to a midfield that’s going to have to do some hard running in the latter stages of the title race.
Young Claude goes straight into the starting line-up for the United game. With Gascoigne, Asprilla and Shearer unfit, we’re left with Les Ferdinand and Mark Hateley as our striking options. Hateley’s not been on speaking terms with the ball for the majority of the season, so I decide to go against tradition and play one up front at home.
The players clearly sense my trepidation as they put in a timid first-half performance. Big Shaka makes two vital saves to keep us in it. I debate throwing Hateley on in the second half and getting the crowd going with a bit more attacking intent, but opt against it. On the hour mark, I know I’ve made a mistake.
It had to be him, didn’t it? With no other option, I decide to throw on the kitchen sink, which would possibly be a more agile option than Hateley, and send on the former England striker to do some damage. We go four-four-fucking-two and start getting it in the mixer.
Within minutes, we get the equaliser. David Ginola continues his fine form of late with a composed finish.
With the Gallowgate End roaring we’re all over them. I can hear Sir Alex’s bum squeaking from here. When a cross gets whipped into the box right onto Hateley’s head, time stands still.
For a moment I am stuck in a vortex of this ancient ground’s storied history. The year is 1957. I can hear the roar of the crowd as they greet the great Jackie Milburn for his final appearance in black and white. I turn to my right and hear the soft squelching of mud under the feet of a 1976 Malcolm Macdonald, scoring the goal that won him the English First Division’s golden boot. From behind me, I hear the whir of helicopter blades. It is 1984 and Kevin Keegan is being lifted from the St. James’ Park pitch after his testimonial, waving goodbye to his adoring Geordie public.
And now I’m here, on New Year’s Day 1996, watching another chapter of this great club’s history. A cross from Ginola. A leap from Hateley. His head glistening with sweat. His eyes fierce with determination. He rises like the Hateley of old, the man who scored that famous Milan winner in the San Siro, to propel the ball into… Peter Schmeichel’s hands.
Fuck. How has he missed that?
It was there. All there. Three points and a death knell to United’s title aspirations. In our palms. Instead, the ball is with Schmeichel, who flings it out to Giggs. Giggs looks up for a runner, and finds one. Oh no. Not him. Anyone but him…
The dressing room is a solemn place at the final whistle. Why him? Why us? What now?
These are the moments that test you as a manager. This was a game that we didn’t deserve to lose. I look at David Ginola, puffing on his pack of Gitanes after giving one of his best performances for the club. I look at David Batty and Claude Makelele, caked in mud, sweat and disbelief that their Herculean efforts haven’t been rewarded.
With the air thick with injustice, I need my words to cut through it and give the players some much-needed confidence. This is the now the most pivotal point of our season. What I say in these next few seconds will echo in eternity. I clear my throat and compose myself.
“Lads, don’t worry,” I say. “We’ve got Everton Saturday. And they’re shite.”
That’s the thing about football. There’s always another game. And four days later I patrol the touchline as my team sweeps away the memories of that Manchester United injustice with a dominant dismissal of Everton at Goodison Park.
We steamroll through Everton’s excuse for a midfield. Everton’s fabled Dogs of War have been replaced by a couple of Chihuahuas. Sending Vinny Samways and Anders Limpar to do battle with David Batty and Claude Makelele is like asking Basil Brush to armwrestle Godzilla. We maul them in a first-half performance that’s as good as anything in my time here.
I take the opportunity to rest players in the second half when Shaka Hislop, who’d spent the majority of the game taking a nap on the penalty spot doesn’t wake in time time stop a Kanchelskis cross-shot. It matters little. The points are in the bag.
The post-match ratings are a joy to behold. It’s Gheorge Hagi’s finest outing to date, whilst veterans Pearce and Beardsley roll back the years with virtuoso performances.
It’s the sort of performance that shuts up our critics who predicted a meltdown after that home defeat to United. Mind games? Stick ‘em up your bollocks. We’re top of the league and we’re still fighting for this title.
Written by Sid Lambert from A Funny Old Game
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