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My Favourite Match – Liverpool 5 v 1 Middlesbrough 14/12/1996. Liverpool.

May 21, 2011 1 comment

By Jack Sumner

We go back 15 years and to Liverpool for the latest in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series. This game belonged to one man. A 21-year-old Robbie Fowler was just two goals shy of his century for Liverpool. ‘God’ went onto surpass the hundred mark in quite emphatic style. He got four as Liverpool pulverised Middlesbrough. You can follow Jack on Twitter @Sumna88 and read more from him and his team at Our Beautiful Game.

One of my earliest memories of a football match, the exact events of which I was recently reminded of after watching a programme entitled Liverpool’s 100 Greatest Premier League Games. It only made number 63 on the list, but for nostalgia and sentimental value it ranks as a good shout for one of my favourites!

I hadn’t expected to be going to Anfield that day. It was the Saturday following my eighth birthday, and after a morning spent playing football in the garden at a friend’s house, trying to re-create my favourite goals and celebrations – I think at the time Gazza’s against Scotland in Euro ’96 was my most prolific, but in that garden I scored hundreds of tap-ins before diving to the ground screaming ‘FOW-LER!’ – I got called inside to speak to someone on the phone. It was my dad asking me what I wanted to do that afternoon. Liverpool were at home to Middlesbrough in the late kick-off, so my plan would most likely have included watching Final Score before listening to the game on the radio. As it happened, my old man had arranged for me to go the game with my uncle.

Fowler is still adored by the Kop now

On the way there in the car, I remember that the talk was of Robbie Fowler needing just two more goals to reach a hundred for Liverpool. To my eight-year-old mind I don’t think it quite sunk in as to how significant that was. Fowler was already a hero at Liverpool by then, and he was my favourite player by a country mile, but looking back now it amazes me to think that he was only 21 at the time. It felt like ‘God’ had been around for years, and I guess really he had, having cemented his place in the first team at the age of 17. To score that many goals for a club at senior level, at that age, is some achievement. Consider that the sensational Lionel Messi scored his hundredth goal for Barcelona last year, at the grand old age of 22.

Sitting in the Kop end before any Liverpool game is special. I may be biased, but I honestly don’t believe there is an atmosphere anywhere that beats Anfield when they play ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ before kick-off. To hear that crackle over the PA system as everything goes quiet for a second, and then the song kicks in and thousands of fans hold their scarves aloft above their heads and sing along. Even watching it on television it’s spine-tingling, but being there is immense, and although that wasn’t the first game I ever went to, Liverpool at home to Middlesbrough in December 1996 is my most potent early memory of that experience.

What ensued, was not only a good day to be a Liverpool fan, but a great day to be a fan of Robbie Fowler. Middlesbrough took the kick-off and came right out-of-the-traps, ploughing bodies forward into the Liverpool half, but after winning possession on the edge of the 18-yard box Liverpool were abruptly able to turn defence into attack. A swift counter-attack spearheaded by Stan Collymore culminated with the ball falling to Fowler in front of goal, and with just 29 seconds on the clock, God stuck the ball in the back of the net for the 99th time in his professional career. Fowler ran for the corner flag, where he stopped and sarcastically checked his wrist in amazement at the time; Steve McManaman followed suit, the pair shrugged their shoulders and trudged back to the centre circle.

Collymore should have got on the score-sheet shortly thereafter, but events just seemed to conspire in Fowler’s favour. As Collymore’s effort ricocheted back off the inside of the post, Fowler found himself with the ball arriving at his feet again, only this time roughly six-yards out and staring down at an empty net. Despite losing his footing, Liverpool’s cult hero rolled the ball into the open goal with perhaps the easiest finish his fabled left-foot ever had to produce; an ironic way to score your 100th goal for the club, it was as though it was presented to him on a plate. The second goal preceded an equally memorable celebration, as Fowler lifted up his shirt to reveal a t-shirt with the words “Job’s A Good ‘Un” written in marker pen, then walking round the pitch in his typical joker fashion spending an entire minute showing the message to his team mates, something that in today’s game would probably warrant a booking. For the record books also, Fowler had achieved his century one game quicker than the club’s all time record goalscorer, Ian Rush.

Before half-time Liverpool grabbed a third. Collymore’s free-kick stung the hands of Boro’ keeper Gary Walsh, and the ball was headed in by Liverpool’s Norwegian full-back Stig Inge Bjornebye.

In the second-half Middlesbrough were to pull a goal back. That came on 75 minutes when Michael Thomas – who as anyone who has ever seen the film Fever Pitch will know, will go down in history for goals he scored against Liverpool – scored at the wrong end by turning in a Craig Hignett set piece. But this was Fowler’s day, and no ex-Arsenal legend was going to spoil it. Two minutes later he latched onto a ball from McManaman, and began a new century of goals by claiming his hat-trick, this one a composed strike to the right of the advancing Walsh.

Then with five minutes left, the result beyond doubt, and Fowler already taking home the match ball, the man with the legendary white nasal strip scored his fourth of the evening. Released by Collymore – who was fantastic on the night himself I must add, being involved in four of the goals – Fowler evaded two Boro defenders and after wrong-footing Walsh with a dummy, dinked the ball over the diving goalkeeper’s head.

Liverpool 5, Middlesbrough 1. Robbie Fowler 4. And he celebrated his fourth goal by taking a bow in front of the Kop.

Brilliant.

If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.

My Favourite Match – Manchester United 7 v 1 A.S. Roma 10/04/2007. Manchester.


By Ollie Jackson

There have been many magical European nights at Old Trafford but few compare with this one from back in 2007. A potent Manchester United decimated a shell shocked Roma on an evening when everything Rooney, Ronaldo et al tried seemed to end up in the back of the net. You can follow Ollie on Twitter @myfootballblog and read more from him and his team at Our Beautiful Game.

‘La Roma non si discute, si ama’. For those of you not familiar with the club from the Eternal City, AS Roma are a football team who pride themselves on adhering to the aforementioned expression, which when translated, reads as follows; Roma is not to be questioned, it is to be loved. Upon interpretation, this is a statement that is designed to ensure that even the most ardent of supporters do not lose faith in their beloved side. For Roma’s Italian supporters remaining devoted is an important quality to possess and no more so than on the 10th April 2007 when the then Roma manger, Luciano Spalletti and his side travelled to Old Trafford, buoyant after conquering the English giants just one week earlier at the Stadio Olympico, in their Champions League quarter final tie.

The highly charged first leg meeting between Roma and Manchester United was witnessed by a capacity crowd of 77,000, who saw their team put two past Sir Alex Ferguson’s men courtesy of Rodrigo Taddei and Mirko Vucinic. Wayne Rooney’s priceless away goal helped ensure the tie remained alive for the second leg which would not involve Paul Scholes after the accomplished midfielder saw red in Rome for two rash tackles.

Despite returning to Manchester defeated, United remained defiant that they could overturn the one goal deficit and secure a place in the Champions League Semi Final.

The Old Trafford scoreboard says it all

Frequent visitors to Old Trafford will know that on a European night under the floodlights, the atmosphere can be so intense, so exhilarating, so emotionally overwhelming that any sign of weakness from the traveling opponents, will be quickly exposed. The United faithful are capable of producing an atmosphere so intimidating that even the most hardened of professionals can quickly be engulfed by the unrepentant waves of vocal support that time and time again inspires the home side to victory.

Prior to the second leg tie on April the 10th 2007, Roma’s notorious supporters clashed with Manchester United fans outside of Old Trafford. It is fair to say that Roma’s fans are not the most popular amongst English supporters, just ask Arsenal, Liverpool and even Middlesborough fans who have all  been targeted by Roma’s Ultras, a well known group of fans intent on causing disruption be it through violence, racist propaganda or political ideologies.

Despite the rising animosity between Manchester United and AS Roma fans prior to kick off, the unrest only served to spur the home support on in a bid to extinguish any confidence that the Italian club might hold heading into the game.

As a devoted Manchester United season ticket holder, I travelled to the game with a great deal of anticipation, knowing that I along with 70,000 home supporters would be needed in order to inspire the team. So, with my scarf in hand I took my seat in the North Stand and unbeknown to me at that moment, I was about to witness one of the finest English displays in Europe.

Knowing that an early goal would unsettle Spaelletti’s side, United began with such intent that many were struggling to keep pace with the action. Much maligned midfielder Michael Carrick opened his Champions League account, scoring with a stunning effort after taking up possession following Cristiano Ronaldo’s infield pass. Upon scoring the first goal there was a real sense of belief amongst the capacity crowd that United would overcome the Italian side. So when Gabriel Heinze proceeded to slip the ball to the feet of Ryan Giggs who in turn produced a wonderfully lofted first time cross to Alan Smith who slotted in United’s second of the game, Old Trafford was in raptures, the sound of unparalleled joy echoed around the stadium. “Magical Manchester United” were the words used by ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley as Wayne Rooney made it 3-0 inside 20 minutes. Safe in the knowledge that his side were going to progress, Sir Alex Ferguson looked on as his side scored another four goals. Ronaldo followed Rooney’s effort with two goals either side of half time, the first of which was a sublime solo effort that beat the helpless Doni at his near post. His second of the game came courtesy of Ryan Giggs who played a magnificent ball that alluded the Roma defence and allowed Ronaldo to secure United’s fifth. Manchester United’s sixth goal was scored by Carrick who surpassed his earlier effort with a quite incredible strike from a distance.

Not even a 69th minute goal from Roma talisman Daniele De Rossi could spare the Italians a humiliating night at the hands of the Red Devils. As if to add insult to injury, Patrice Evra, not known for his goal scoring prowess completed the rout and made it Manchester United 7-1 AS Roma.

On a night whereby Europe’s elite looked on in awe as Manchester United demolished any lingering integrity that the unpopular club once held, attention quickly turned to how in just 90 minutes Ferguson’s side had all but erased the reputation of Serie A. Despite failing to progress to the final after being defeated by AC Milan in the semi final, there was growing confidence around the club that United would soon add to the two European Cups previously acquired in 1968 and 1999. That expectation has been proven right as currently, United are in pole position to compete in their third Champions League final in just four years, after claiming the prestigious crown in 2008, one year on from their captivating performance against Roma at Old Trafford.

I leave you with this, and it is in reference to my opening sentence. ‘La Roma non si discute, si ama’ – On that memorable night in Manchester, United single handedly nullified any lasting significance behind Roma’s cherished motto. It is easy to love a football club, but it is nigh on impossible to not question the ability of your side after suffering a crushing defeat at the hands of one of the most successful domestic clubs to have ever of graced the European stage.

If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.

My Favourite Match – Netherlands 2 v 3 Czech Republic 19/06/04. Aveiro.

March 10, 2011 2 comments

By Tom Victor

This is the first international match in our series and what a corker it is. A fary cry from the tedious tripe which was all too prevalent in South Africa, this one is a thrilling end-to-end affair. Admire the moves, the goals and some world-class saves from a match which literally had everything. You can follow Tom on Twitter @tomvictor and read more of his work at his Footy Matters column.

I have maintained for some time that the bulk of the criticism levelled at the 2010 World Cup came from the fact that we were spoiled so much by the three major tournaments which preceded it. Euro 2008 had the thrilling semi-final between Germany and Turkey, while two years earlier Jose Pekerman’s Argentina gave a footballing lesson to Serbia and Montenegro in one of the best attacking displays in recent memory. And these competitions were by no means defined by those single matches alone: in Germany and just across the border in Austria and Switzerland we saw a month-long display of top quality football, dismissing the myths that international tournaments did not represent the highest stage for a whole host of players.

2006 and 2008 were brilliant, but you have to go back a little further to find my favourite match.

A truly great game should be played out at breakneck speed, involve two well-matched teams without the rivals cancelling each other out, have controversial talking points, not to mention plenty of goalmouth action of the highest quality. Czech Republic v Holland at Euro 2004 had all of this and more.

After one match in the group of death, the Czechs had edged past outsiders Latvia while a late Ruud van Nistelrooy equaliser helped rescue a point for Dick Advocaat’s side against a Germany side for whom that 1-1 draw would prove a high-point.

Karel Bruckner’s squad took on the mantle of dark horses despite most observers beyond the mainstream media recognising them as far more than that. Jan Koller had finished the season with his best ever Bundesliga tally of 16 goals, Karel Poborsky was enjoying a renaissance at Sparta Prague, and Pavel Nedved was playing some of the best football of his career. There was also an intriguing side-plot set to develop, with Petr Cech lining up against Arjen Robben. The duo were set to join Chelsea after the competition as a parting gift from Claudio Ranieri, and their performances here would give a taste of things to come for the future English champions.

Milan Baros smashes home the equaliser

The Dutch may have lost out to Bruckner’s men in qualification, earning the Czechs a modicum of revenge for their Euro 2000 defear but a 6-1 playoff victory over Scotland demonstrated that there were goals in this side. Ruud van Nistelrooy had found the net 30 times for Manchester United in the season prior, and he was flanked by Robben and Internazionale winger Andy van der Meyde in an exciting front three.

The Czechs will have been well aware of their opponents’ firepower, but could hardly have expected the Oranje to get off to as fast and clinical a start as they did. Koller and Marek Jankulovski had already had time to miss a couple of presentable chances before Robben’s 4th-minute free-kick was headed in at the back post by an unmarked Wilfried Bouma.

And almost before their shell-shocked opponenents had time to settle, a controversial second followed. Van Nistelrooy was clearly beyond the last Czech defender when Edgar Davids found Robben with a precision through-ball, but took full advantage of the newly-implemented ‘separate phases’ element to the offside rule and ambled forward to tuck home his team-mate’s low cross as static defenders looked on dumbfounded.

Many teams might have given up when trailing the Dutch by two goals not twenty minutes into the game, opting for damage-limitation ahead of a winnable third tie against an aging German side, but the Czechs were in the mood for no such thing. Indeed the sense of injustice brought on by van Nistelrooy’s goal – whether warranted or not – may have been just what they needed to wake from their slumber.

Of course the comeback was helped by a misplaced pass from Gio van Bronckhorst a couple of minutes later. That error let in Milan Baros, the archetype of a player who saves his best performances for the big occasions, burst forward before keeping his cool with Edwin van der Sar closing in to feed Koller, and the lumbering striker slotted home to halve the deficit.

Some stunning saves from van der Sar and Cech followed, as both defences appeared to sit back and admire their respective opponents’ attacking flair, the pick of them from the former Rennes number one to tip over Johnny Heitinga’s rising 30-yard effort. There was even time for Davids to smack a low shot against the inside of Cech’s left-hand post before the half was up.

After the break Cech kept his side in it once more, denying van Nistelrooy with his feet, while at the other end Nedved and Poborsky were plugging away with plenty of skill but little reward. Not long later it was van der Sar’s turn, preventing a near-certain equaliser from Vladimir Smicer with a fingertip save. The two goalkeepers were as flamboyant as they were busy, and it would clearly take something special to add to the three goals the game had brought so far.

That special moment arrived with 20 minutes left on the clock, and epitomised everything Bruckner’s Czech Republic side were about. Nedved cut inside from the left to swing in an inch-perfect cross, Koller played a cushioned chest-pass of which Ronaldinho would be proud. It fell perfectly for the advancing Baros and the Liverpool striker rifled a shot into the top corner with such ferocity that even a parked bus could not have stopped it.

Even with the score tantalisingly poised at 2-2, tension was never going to overcome these two attacking powerhouses. A game of chicken ensued, with neither side prepared to sit back and let the opposition come on to them, which of course was an absolute treat to everyone watching.

The pace was too much for Heitinga, who picked up his second yellow for a shove on Nedved as the winger burst forward, after which the Dutch threat was restricted somewhat and the Juve man came inches away from a winner when his 35-yard shot came back off the woodwork, but it took until the 88th minute for the dramatic winner which a game of this calibre richly deserved.

Van Bronckhorst surrendered possession in the Czech half, setting up a lightning break made even more remarkable by the energy-sapping 87 minutes which had come before it. Marek Heinz’s low shot towards the bottom corner was parried out as far as Poborsky, who proceeded to demonstrate the phenomenal calmness under pressure which saw him net the goal of the tournament at Euro 96 and a £4m move to Old Trafford that same summer.

With the winger five yards from goal and with a chance of glory, it would have been easy for Poborsky to close his eyes and hope his effort snuck past the advancing van der Sar. However, with the Dutch goalkeeper rising from sleeping lion to Schmeichel-esque star-jump in a split second, the veteran looked up and calmly squared the ball for Smicer to tap into the empty net.

The final whistle was greeted by tears of joy for the Czechs, dumbfounded shakes of the head from the Dutch, and a realisation from fans and neutrals alike that they had witnessed one of the greatest games in European Championship – if not football – history.

The statistics do not lie: 36 shots, 21 on target, and 90 minutes of end-to-end football. It was not just the excitement which makes this such a memorable game, but also the consistently-high level of football which has rarely been matched before or since.

If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.

 

My Favourite Match – Barcelona 5 v 0 Real Madrid 29/11/10. Barcelona.

March 5, 2011 2 comments

By Callum O”Toole

This one will probably be the most recent game featured in the series but it’s likely that it’ll be talked about for years and Callum was fortunate enough to be there. One of if not the greatest club side of all time were taking on a Real Madrid side swamped with talent. Featuring were a dozen World Cup winners , the winners of the previous two World Player of the Year awards and the world’s most expensive player. Then there was the added factor of one Jose Mourinho. But it was Barcelona who lived up to the hype. You can follow Callum on Twitter @cotoole17 and read more of his articles on Bleacher Report.

Drama or excellence? Sport throws up many questions like this, not least in its modern form where administrators and organisers frequently refer to matches as “entertainment”. Contrary to popular belief, sport is not a part of the entertainment industry. Sportsmen should not aspire to be entertainers, but to achieve the ultimate expression of their event – to be the incarnation of greatness for their sport. If this can be done in a dramatic fashion, like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal so often achieve, then it is an added bonus. Yet, often, to achieve so highly necessitates the suspension of drama, as opponents are swept aside in a predictable, almost inevitable fashion.

I was fortunate enough to have been present in the Nou Camp on Monday, 29th November 2010, when Barcelona gave, arguably, the most complete single performance in the history of football, in El Gran Clasico against their great rivals Real Madrid. While there have been more significant performances before,  notably Brazil in the 1970 World Cup Final and AC Milan in the 1994 Champions League final, these are set in the context of their achievements. Both these sides played brilliantly, and the performances were greater in that they won trophies as a result. But in terms of the highest expression of their sport, they fell just short. What Barcelona provided was a near flawless display of footballing prowess in the biggest club game in the world.

Prior to the game the excitement was tangible, and it was being billed as the greatest club game in history. Twelve world cup winners were to make an appearance as were the previous two winners of the Ballon d’Or (and the winner before that, Kaka, only missed out through injury). The clash between the two dominant sides in Spain often decides the title, so there was also a significant prize to be had. A tight, unpredictable affair was expected. What we got was a sumptuous showcase of footballing prowess from Barcelona, who demolished their rivals 5-0 in front of an ecstatic Camp Nou faithful.

Eric Abidal tells Cristiano Ronaldo the score

It was not just the margin of victory which shocked that night, but the way the Catalans set about their task. There have been big wins in El Clasico before – two seasons ago Barca scored six in the Bernabeu on their way to a 19th La Liga title, while Real had a 4-1 victory in the May 2008 fixture. What was striking was how Barcelona made their opponents submit to the inevitability of defeat by keeping possession and forcing Madrid to chase shadows.

Barcelona’s style is a subtle mix of fast-paced possession football when attacking, and a highly organised pressing game when without the ball. The two often complement each other beautifully, and they were used to devastating effect as Real were penned back in their own half for long periods. The Madrid attacking threat was virtually non-existent, with Cristiano Ronaldo starved of service and brilliantly shackled by Carles Puyol. Until his half-time substitution most in the stadium were unaware of Karim Benzema’s presence on the pitch.

Barcelona had the ball for more than two-thirds of the game. They weaved, they shimmied, they toyed. Xavi Hernandez was metronomic with his passing, Lionel Messi balletic with his runs and David Villa lethal in scoring a brace. But the game was about far more than mere individuals. Barcelona’s enchanting display was as close to perfection as team sport can be and it may influence the way the game is played in the future.

The performance, and the success of Barcelona and the Spanish national side in recent seasons, has shifted the balance of football heavily in favour of the technicians. For the last few seasons, many sides have attempted to compensate for a lack of skill and guile with physical power. But Barca’s dedication to their traditions has made other clubs take note of the benefits from youth development and attacking football.

Barcelona’s artistry and invention are means to an end. They are not the end in itself, just what the club regard as the most reliable and effective way of achieving victory. Without the success they would be dismissed as “lightweight” as their imitators at Arsenal so often are. Yet results like that against Madrid help to shape the views of a generation. No one watching could deny Barcelona’s prowess and dominance of the game, yet they also thrilled with their mesmeric patterns.

So, while it was not dramatic in the sense of being a one sided game, Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid was exciting nonetheless as it could, perhaps, have heralded a revolution in how the game is played for the next decade.

If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more. 

My Favourite Match – Rangers 4 v 2 Leeds United (on aggregate). 21/10/92. 04/11/92. Glasgow/Leeds.

March 3, 2011 1 comment

By Johnny Utah

Johnny’s favourite match is more of a favourite tie as it encompasses the two fixtures between Rangers and Leeds back in Europe in 1992. Cross border affairs have always been intriguing encounters and this one lived up to the hype. The gap may have closed considerably in recent years with the quality of the SPL deteiriorating but this fixture showed just how strong Rangers were at the time. They defeated Leeds twice and the two goals they scored at Elland Road were particularly impressive. You can follow Johnny on Twitter @JohnnyUtah100.

1992 was the year of the inaugural Champions League. The ban on English sides (bar Liverpool) from European competitions had only been lifted the previous year so when the English and Scottish champions were paired in the final knockout round, the excitement was palpable.

Leeds’ passage to this game had been controversial. Having lost the first leg to German champions VfB Stuttgart 3-0, they returned to Elland Road to win the second leg 4-1.However, with away goals deciding the victors, Leeds were out. There would be no English representative in the revamped, flagship, European competition.

As it transpired, Stuttgart were found to have fielded an ineligible player (a 4th foreigner) and UEFA, rather leniently, decided a play-off would be necessary to decide who progressed. Leeds duly, and rightly, won this 2-1.

The stage was set for a ‘Battle of Britain’.

The last winners of the old First Division, Leeds Utd, were a typically swaggering side with a blend of brute strength (Chapman, Whyte, Dorigo) and cunning guile (Strachan, McAllister, Speed & Cantona).

Rangers' attacking duo was too much for Leeds to handle

The winner, by decree of the tabloid press, would be crowned ‘Champions of Britain’. The fervour was stoked further by the amount of English players in the Rangers side (Hateley, Spackman, Steven & Gordon) and the Scottish central midfield duo (Strachan & McAllister) for Leeds. Forget qualification for the next round, there was something much bigger at stake here – national pride.

Generally, those in the media were of the opinion that it would be a close tie but that Leeds’ superior abilities would see them through. However, they had not reckoned on a Rangers team that was playing at the peak of it’s powers and in Ally McCoist and Mark Hateley, they had a front two that was genuinely among the best in the world. Hard to believe, when you look at the dross served up in the SPL these days, but true.
Travelling fans were to be banned from the respective games in a bid to avoid the potential/inevitable hooliganism problem so when McAllister scored a raking, top-corner volley in the second minute of the 1st leg, Ibrox fell eerily silent. Those in the front row seats would probably have been able to hear the first part of McCoist’s fabled anecdote when MacAllister, allegedly, muttered “How about that for a wee strike then?” as he patted his Scotland team mate, McCoist, on the backside and trotted off to the halfway line.

The crowd were stunned into silence. An away goal had been conceded and it looked like another defeat to the Auld Enemy was coming. But Rangers ploughed on and ended up winning a scrappy game thanks to a physics defying OG by John Lukic and a typical poachers ‘sclaff’ from McCoist.

To turn the game around from the initial deficit was impressive but the away goal had galvanised Leeds and the English press. Plucky, lucky Rangers, minus any support, going to Elland Road and qualifying simply was not going to happen.

As is often the case, the merits of winning regularly, regardless of the standard of opposition, were underestimated by those commentating on the game. Rangers had dominated Scottish football for 5 years now and were not used to losing. The mentality of succeeding against the odds was ingrained into them by two typically hard Scots: initially Graeme Souness and then reinforced by Walter Smith.

The partisan nature of the Elland Road crowd was also something that was over-played. On your average trip to Pittodrie, Celtic Park, Tynecastle or Easter Road, the levels of vitriol spewed at Rangers betrayed the volume of the crowds. The Rangers players were well versed in being hated – indeed, you suspect that they thrived on it.
So, to Elland Road. The odds were stacked against Rangers but the feeling north of the border was that this team was being vastly underrated potentially to Leeds peril.

The game started at a predictably frantic pace and, after a few misplaced passes, the ball was in the hands of Rangers greatest ever keeper, Andy Goram.

Taking his customary three bounces of the ball first, he launched a kick over the Leeds midfield where it was flicked on by Durrant. Still, it wasn’t a great touch and Hateley gave chase towards the corner of the Leeds penalty area. The sensible thing to do would have been to take a touch and, using his fearsome strength, hold the ball up and wait for support.

‘Attila The Hun’ as he was affectionately known, had other ideas. As the ball bounced up he launched a ferocious left foot volley into the top corner of the net. There was simply nothing that Lukic could’ve done to stop it. Just like the first leg, the crowd fell silent. Their away goal advantage had evaporated within a minute of kick off and Leeds were 3-1 down overall.

What followed was not for the purist. This was a very British affair with plenty of endeavour but only a few sparks of creativity, mostly from the precocious Cantona. Rangers sat in and doggedly defended their lead.

Riding their luck and hemmed in for a fair percentage of the game, from nothing they scored my favourite Rangers goal of all time. Favourite game, favourite strike-force and favourite goal – the perfect triumvirate!

With Leeds playing passes around the edge of the Rangers box, John Brown nicked the ball off the toes of a Leeds player. He passed the ball to Hateley who dummied it and let it run to the halfway line where Durrant picked it up. Durrant then fed Hateley who had continued his run.

Similarly to the first goal, he took the ball to the lefthand side of the Leeds box. Again, it looked like he’d taken it too wide but he preceded to whip his left foot around the ball and sling in an inviting cross to the back post for the on-rushing Ally McCoist. Hateley couldn’t have known McCoist would be there though…surely. Could he?

Although not renowned for his heading ability, ‘Coisty threw himself at the cross and guided a lovely diving header into the opposite corner of the net. As he celebrated with gusto, falling to his knees awaiting the acclaim, Leeds and their fans realised that the tie was over. The counter attack wasn’t particularly swift (by today’s standards) but the simplicity, accuracy and clinical nature of it was astonishing and crushing for Leeds. Scotland had beaten England in their own backyard.

As the conclusion of McCoist’s story goes, on his way back to the Rangers half, he ran past Gary McAllister, patted him on the backside and said “How about that for a wee header then?” Leeds scored a consolation goal later on but their spirit was broken. Rangers won the tie and ended up unbeaten in their group, finishing second to eventual winners Marseille.

I doubt I’ll ever forget this game. It still gives me goosebumps and makes me yearn for those halcyon days once again.

If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more

My Favourite Match – Boston United 4 v 1 FC United of Manchester 17/04/10. Boston.

February 26, 2011 Leave a comment

By Adam Shergold

The first two articles in this series featured Champions League ties but Adam’s opted for a game a lot closer to home. This game from last year was pivotal in Boston’s promotion back to the Conference North. Look out for the wonderful show of appreciation and respect between the two sets of fans after the final whistle. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamjshergold and read more from him at his excellent blog More in Hope than Expectation which describes the joy and anguish of following Boston United.

I fully expect my favourite match to look out of place on this page. There’s no delusions of grandeur here, no international superstars and it most definitely was not watched by millions. The attendance is only in four figures, the players involved all have tedious day jobs and the camera work in the video below is frankly awful. There was silverware at stake, yes, but it was arranged by Unibond, not UEFA.

It’s a selection which features my team, Boston United, at a crucial moment in last season’s (ultimately successful) promotion push. The team’s return to the Conference North, achieved through the play-offs, ran parallel to the last year of my undergraduate studies at York, so the joy of United’s success nicely counterbalanced the stress of finals.

I thought long and hard before choosing this particular game. My main criteria was that it must be a game I attended and there’s certainly been plenty to choose from, as I’ve followed the side home and away for quite a few years now. The 2-0 win at Hayes which secured promotion to the Football League in 2002 would have been the obvious choice. I was there, of course, but felt an imposter having not attended many matches that season.

The Boston players celebrate (thanks to David Shipman for the picture)

There were five years in the Football League, when grounds were visited which actually had proper stands, seats and people to sit in them, but away days typically ended in defeat and demoralisation. More recently, I’ve gained great satisfaction from seeing an 89th minute winner at Buxton, a surging comeback at Guiseley or a scrambled equaliser at Telford but they all somehow seemed run-of-the-mill. This needed to be a game which was at the same time crucial, dramatic and glorious.

Boston were stalking Guiseley at the top of the Unibond Northern Premier and this penultimate game of the season, at a sun-bathed York Street, was must-win. Losing was unthinkable if automatic promotion was to be gained on the final day away at Marine, and the lottery of the play-offs avoided. The fact this was our biggest game of the season – FC United enjoyed far-and-away the biggest crowds in the division, as well they might – only added to the spectacular sense of occasion.

And come they did. With their red and black flags, their green and gold protest scarves, their awesome repertoire of songs and their smoke flares. But the Boston public came too – 2,500 to be precise, by far the largest attendance since the dizzy heights of League Two. The hardcore in the Spayne Road terrace were bouncing. I was in amongst them. The scene was set.

FCUM were playing only for pride but hadn’t read the script. Just four minutes in, Jerome Wright lined up a 30-yard free-kick. The ground held its breath. Wright dispatched the set-piece into the top corner with the technique of a son of Sao Paulo, not Wythenshawe.

The next 60-odd minutes were a kind of purgatory. We were playing the creative, passing football (by non-league standards) but the chances, for some reason, just weren’t coming. The players seemed shell-shocked, suddenly paralysed by fear with the finish line in sight. The travelling support delighted in our stasis. We tried to lift the players but FCUM held firm – Mark Ayres and David Chadwick at the back might as well have been Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Our energy ebbed away, the ground fell silent but for the sounds of nails being chewed. Time ticked down.

In a flash, the sterling work of our management duo of Rob Scott and Paul Hurst was becoming worthless, the freezing nights of winter stood on terraces at places like Stocksbridge Park Steels, Ashton United and Kendal Town seemed pointless. All that time and money. 

But, suddenly, from the most unlikely source came salvation. Less than 20 minutes remained when Lee Canoville, our centre-back, ghosted to the edge of the penalty area as Jamie Yates flicked in a cross from the left. By his own admission, Canoville would clear the stand nine times out of ten but, with impeccable timing, he swivelled and lashed the ball into the net. And with his left foot. The relief which surged around the ground is indescribable.

Bodies recharged, United swarmed forward again and, seven minutes later, Anthony Church connected sweetly with Spencer Weir-Daley’s ball to find the roof of the net. The scenes of celebration at this invaluable goal will remain with me forever – I had the bruises on my hands for weeks afterwards from swinging on the rafters.

The noise was now deafening and as we finally found the courage to sing “We are going up,” Weir-Daley rolled in the third. Danny Davidson, who like Weir-Daley had been outstanding all season, added a fourth in stoppage time.

Hundreds spilled onto the pitch at the final whistle, the players were mobbed and there was a wonderful moment of mutual appreciation with the FCUM fans. Just two-and-a-half years after the club was rescued at the eleventh hour from extinction, this small, forgotten corner of Lincolnshire had experienced another finest hour.

P.S. Boston blew their chance at automatic promotion the following weekend. In a cruel but accurate reflection of the team’s last few years, they produced a flat, nervy performance in a 0-0 at Marine. It was another seven days before the champagne could be uncorked, with a 2-1 play-off final win at Bradford Park Avenue.  

If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more.

My Favourite Match – Real Madrid 0 v 2 Ajax 22/11/95. Madrid.

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

By Mohamed Moallim
 
Mohamed has chosen a performance from one of the great Ajax teams for his favourite match. This dutch team possessed a wealth of talent which had grown up together in their famed academy. Their style gained many plaudits and this evening in Madrid was a perfect example of their attacking philosophy.
You can follow Mohamed on twitter @jouracule and read more from him at his blog La Croqueta.  
 
It was the 22nd November, 1995. Just a usual autumn day, nothing out of the ordinary, but on this day something remarkable was to happen, something that would be spoken of for years and generations to come. 
The remarkable event I speak of took place at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, home to Spanish giants Real Madrid; they were hosting a Champions’ League group game against the reigning champions AFC Ajax, who had won the competition months prior.
Again there was nothing strange about this but after the full time whistle everything changed. 
Compared to today, things were very different in the mid-90s European football wise. Unlike today, a side back then could realistically win the European Cup with a side assembled for less than £1m – but that side had to be very special, and this Ajax side was.

Ajax may have been ever more successful had it not been for Bosman

Much of it was made up of home grown players who are now household names such as: Danny Blind, Frank & Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Sar etc there were also players acquired from abroad like Jari Litmanen, Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu. 

Having the players was one thing, but they needed to be guided and the man in charge was Louis van Gaal. The side he ended up winning the European Cup with in the midst of Vienna was different to the one he inherited, it slowly matured but the signs were already there.
Van Gaal kept the Ajax philosophy and continued the 3-3-1-3 formation which served Johan Cruijff well during his spell as coach in the mid 80s (despite being the bitter of enemies there was this mutual understanding and if you want respect – both knew how to play good football).
As said in the Guardian’s Joy of Six ‘forgotten classics’: “With their exhilarating speed, fiendish imagination and exquisite technique, Van Gaal’s young Ajax side of the mid-90s were magnificent to watch.”
Going into the game, the Ajax players didn’t feel like they were underdogs, compared to now where the gulf between the two sides is vast and growing. In 1995 Ajax going to Madrid and expecting not to leave without anything wouldn’t have been scoffed at and called a ‘dream’. 
This game changed everything. Van Gaal’s Ajax side played the game the right way and their attacking approach has always been met with praise and adulation at home and abroad, but this game it seemed they went up a level or three. 
Their starting XI was as follows: Van der Sar; Reiziger, Bogarde, Blind, Musampa; Ronald de Boer, Davids, Litmanen; George, Kluivert, Overmars.
And this wasn’t against a bad Real Madrid side which included Luís Enrique, Michael Laudrup, Fernando Redondo, Raúl and Iván Zamorano to name but a few. Real went into the game on the back of a 1-0 win in the Madrid derby against Atlético de Madrid, a step in the right direction after a torrid start to their season. But this proved to be a false dawn as the Spanish titleholders simply had no answer to the pace and intelligence of Litmanen, George and Kluivert. 
The seamless dominance from the opposition began to tell as the rings of boos and whistles from the home crowd intensified every time Ajax kept going forward – but in no ways did this deter Van Gaal’s men. In the end it was a surprise that Ajax didn’t win by more than the two goals they scored (Litmanen and Kluivert the goal scorers both had goals disallowed and the woodwork was hit several times) such was the dominance that Ajax’s first goal came when they only had 2 up against 6 Real Madrid players.
Finidi George sliced the Madrid defence open with a slick through-ball that Litmanen latched on to before drilling under the keeper and in. Eight minutes later they were two up, Kluivert combining niftily with the outstanding Marc Overmars before nudging the ball into the net off the far post. 
Then Real Madrid coach Jorge Valdano (and now sporting director of the club) after the game commented: “Ajax aren’t just the team of the 90’s, they’re approaching football utopia.”
But what really was memorable that night was the ovation, a standing one, from the home crowd towards the Ajax players, what were boos turned to applause and the Ajax men soaked it in and rightly so, good football deserves such adulation even from the opposition. It was the closest Total Football was played since the days of Cruijff, Krol, Keizer, Neeskens et al.
“We were heavenly, world class,” said Frank de Boer, who watched the game and subsequent lap of honour from the sidelines because of injury. “This was Ajax at their best.”
An urban legend goes that this game has been used by Real Madrid youth team coaches to show their students on how the beautiful game should be played, a compliment of the highest order if true.
Ajax would go on to reach their second Champions League final where they would agonisingly lose to Juventus on penalties, that side would subsequently break up as the bosman ruling took full effect, the club has yet to rediscover the dizzy heights of the mid-90s but with a member of that side in charge now it may not be for long. 
If you would like to be involved in the ‘My Favourite Match’ series, read this post to find out more
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