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FA Carling Premiership, 29/4/00
Manchester United
No famous victory
By Ian Grant

Just the reserves, of course. No Cole, Scholes, Beckham, Keane or Stam, and Yorke sunning himself on the bench until half-time. Nothing to play for, the Championship and relegation issues resolved last week. A stroll in the April sunshine.

Except that this is Manchester United, and you're playing a brandname as much as a football team. A victory means something, regardless of who happens to be representing the multinational plc this week. They've made it that way, not us...but it's still brilliant, still a reminder of what English football will lose when the Champions League makes games like this a thing of the past.

It's not about good versus evil, it's about diversity. Manchester United are not hated for winning incessantly, they're hated because their relentless expansion threatens everything else. "When Saturday Comes" recently noted that a more appropriate moniker would be "Mankind United"...and it was only half joking.

When Alex Ferguson complains about fixture congestion, he's talking about us. But, if we've proved nothing else this season, it's that a cut in Premiership numbers - and, therefore, the exclusion of non-brandname clubs - will turn this country's top division into an entirely sterile, soulless place. It'll happen because United and their ilk (never forget their ilk, or last week's vile encounter with Arsenal will have taught us nothing) will not cease complaining until it does happen. And England will be a poorer place, a place with less modesty and less romance, a place with a national game that has no value beyond a share price. We'll know where to point the finger.

The Premiership needs us. It needs Wimbledon, Bradford, Charlton, Leicester, Southampton, and all the rest. Not everyone can survive, of course, but not all should perish just to suit United's European ambitions. If you're that bothered about the number of games you're playing, go lobby UEFA for a return to the old European Cup format.

Anyway, there was no famous victory here, although that's only because we threw it away. There was nothing in the result to inform the millions in the Far East that English football isn't only about one club. There was plenty of genuine disappointment afterwards as another missed opportunity sank in.

But, really, that's all. Compare this with the gutted, awful death throes of Wednesday and Wimbledon. We may only be playing for pride...but the point is that our pride is worth playing for.

So only the errors that cost us the game betrayed the reality, that this really wasn't a contest between equals. Forget the fact that United had left a lorryload of internationals at home - we've been swept aside by vastly inferior teams this season, and that's our real regret. The legacy of the campaign is going to be the burning desire to have another go. We should've beaten Manchester United on Saturday, and that's the greatest incentive for next season we could ask for.

When we're in this kind of mood, it takes a team of United's quality to stop us. We're a furious, ferocious opposition, immediately justifying our presence in the top flight. Until Micah Hyde's dismissal knocked us off-track, we appeared entirely capable of defending our first half lead until the very end. What we must do - and what we have not done this season - is to approach games in this way more often. Even as recently as two weeks ago, we were a pale imitation of ourselves in losing to Southampton.

Before kickoff, the Arsenal game was still being discussed - the anger at Rob Harris largely gone, replaced by memories of one of the finest, most dramatic games Vicarage Road has seen in the last decade. How many times did someone smile and say "Yeah, I'd settle for that again"...not necessarily meaning the scoreline, but just the level of intensity and commitment and pride and passion and we-may-be-relegated-but-we'll-be-back stubbornness? And what did we get?

Exactly that. As a game, it never reached quite the same levels of rocket-fuelled power. But the checklist of intensity and commitment and pride and passion and stubbornness was completed within the first fifteen minutes, and we built from there. After Butt had been played through and been denied by Alec Chamberlain's legs early on - the only non-routine save that the Watford keeper had to make in the first half - we brutally, decisively seized control.

Crucially, it was the midfield that started it. Steve Palmer was absolutely bloody astonishing and United found themselves completely crowded out by this seemingly clumsy, cumbersome figure, hacking away at the ball like he was trying to retrieve it from a thorny bush. He was everywhere and he would not be denied, and Micah Hyde was equally ubiquitous in receiving possession and starting attacks. From that, the rest came naturally.

It took a while to score, but not for the want of trying. After ten minutes, Van Der Gouw saved well from Dominic Foley, diving down to his left to parry a shot from the edge of the box, and Hyde's speculative attempt from distance almost immediately afterwards didn't carry enough power to beat the keeper. Heidar Helguson, playing on the right of the attack and so willing to work for the side that he might've been mistaken for a wing-back on occasions, drove a couple of yards wide from outside the area. Foley was again involved, controlling Cox's cross well but unable to direct the volley away from the keeper. Tommy Smith out-paced and out-muscled Berg to run onto Hyde's left wing pass, then cut inside and drove fiercely at the near post to test Van Der Gouw's positioning.

We weren't rampant. You're never rampant against Manchester United. We were fantastic, though. Some would argue that the players owe us something after such a disappointing season, some would argue that we've no right to expect such quality and intensity from a relegated side. Whatever, this was magnificent.

The goal was coming, even though we were watching Giggs tearing away on the break to whip in a cross that just evaded Wilson's lunge at the near post. If that was the positive side of the part-time Welshman, then the negative side was apparent just moments later in the form of an extended moan at the referee for failing to give a penalty for what appeared to be a perfectly clean, well-timed tackle by Palmer - Silvestre headed wide from the corner that resulted.

And then, just as it appeared that our performance had peaked, the goal did come. So simple too, just a free kick on the left from Hyde and a glancing header from Helguson and a one-nil lead over the Champions. Somehow, although the celebrations were jubilant, it didn't seem real at all. Helguson turned away and ran back to the halfway line and the game kicked off again - a lengthier pause, perhaps allowing time for an open-top bus tour of the town and champagne reception, would surely have allowed us to do the moment justice.

So we held on until the break. "Held on" is perhaps an inaccurate description, since United were stumbling and stuttering rather hopelessly and completely unable to avoid our relentless midfield ambushes. There were occasional glimpses of their true class, such as when Sheringham and Solskjaer exchanged touches on the left of the area...but, on that occasion, they chose to play the ball to Wilson, who ended his overlapping run by slashing wildly into the Vic Road End. Only Giggs offered a real threat, darting brilliantly through the centre of the defence but refusing to emulate last season's Villa Park masterpiece by scraping a tame shot at Chamberlain.

Even if you weren't fortunate enough to be there, you can imagine the smiles at half-time. And it just got better, the sight of Tommy Mooney emerging from the tunnel into the sunshine bringing more joy to Vicarage Road. He may be no more than half fit but this was still classic Mooney, and you know that his astonishing half-volley would've resulted in one of the wildest celebrations the stadium has ever seen if Van Der Gouw had not intervened.

The other arrival for the second half was Dwight Yorke, a statement of intent from wounded opponents. But, at least initially, the game went on as before. Indeed, there were chances to extend the lead - Hyde shot narrowly wide after Van Der Gouw had only punched a Palmer throw to the edge of the box, then Mooney mis-kicked when presented with a glorious opportunity and the keeper smothered Helguson's follow-up.

We were not merely countering everything that United were throwing at us, we were showing off our own qualities. We could not afford to relax and we did not relax for a second, working tirelessly to plug any leaks. Chamberlain saved comfortably from a curled Giggs free kick, and again from a Greening shot. Only once were we exposed, Giggs running onto a ball over the top - he probably would've scored if the chance had fallen to his left foot, but it didn't and he flashed a half-volley five yards wide.

So the two dismissals were a turning point, changing everything. No blame attached to the referee on this occasion - indeed, Stephen Lodge had a firm, decisive game that couldn't have contrasted more strongly with last week's officiating. The responsibility (or lack of it) lies with the two players, and GT's description of professional footballers acting like schoolkids is entirely accurate.

It started with Hyde pulling his 'now-you-see-it' drag-back trick on Butt, which presumably didn't go down too well. As Hyde headed down the line, he was felled by a Butt tackle that was more clumsy than malicious. They got up, exchanged words as they walked away, Butt shoved Hyde, Hyde shoved Butt and they ended up wrestling each other around before everyone else came steaming in. The only player to emerge with any credit was Steve Palmer, who saved both Butt and Sheringham from doing something they'd have later regretted (or been made to regret by the FA) and has a potential career as a UN peacekeeper waiting for him when he retires.

United could afford to lose a player, we couldn't. Hyde had been having a quite superb afternoon, Butt had been rank as old socks. Our carefully laid plans, which had been working so well until that point, were blown apart and we had no time for a re-think...although it does have to be said that GT's refusal to bring on Richard Johnson to give Palmer some assistance in midfield was puzzling. For now, there was still plenty left in the game - indeed, the dismissals only served to raise the temperature - but we'd look back later and see where it was lost.

Within five minutes, United were level. Many will blame Chamberlain for his poor, mis-hit clearance that gave Sheringham possession...but, really, there was still so much to do. When Yorke received the ball, he was well outside the box and being forced wide by defenders, and it appeared that the initial panic was probably misplaced. Yet he was somehow able to pick his spot from twenty-five yards - there was no more than a foot between the post and Chamberlain's hand, and that was exactly where the ball ended up. We've been punished for mistakes many times this season, but rarely with such precision.

We were losing control, fighting as hard as ever but without the organisation that had previously stifled United. The second goal should've come earlier than it did, as Solkjaer's pull-back was touched on by Sheringham and Yorke arrived to shoot against the bar just two minutes after he'd scored the equaliser. But it came soon enough anyway, Giggs running onto a delightful pass from Solksjaer and lobbing the ball over Chamberlain while everyone watched in silent dismay.

Against anyone else, United would've gone on the rampage. We're stronger. We might be bottom of the league and relegated, but we're stronger. The reaction of the Watford players, particularly the two Tommys, to going behind was perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the afternoon. Within a minute, a cross from the right was bouncing towards Mooney, and he was turning in typical fashion to belt it on the half-volley from twenty-five yards, and it was swerving and dipping and bombing into the roof of the net. What a goal and what a moment it would've been, except for Van Der Gouw's incredible save to punch it over the bar.

We'd barely come to terms with that disappointment when we did equalise. It was Mooney again, with a devastating long ball from the left wing into Smith's path. The young striker had already proved that he had the pace and now he proved that he had the composure too, taking the ball in his stride and finishing neatly past the advancing Van Der Gouw. We haven't scored many equalising goals this season, and to score one of such quality against Manchester United just demonstrates why we have such hope for the future.

From there, we should've held on, even if United dominated the closing stages. Chamberlain saved well at his near post from Giggs' driven shot after our defence had been momentarily mesmerised by his sharp interplay with Sheringham. A corner fell to Sheringham and his shot was brilliantly blocked by Robinson, the ball bouncing back to the striker for a diving header that fell safely into Chamberlain's hands. At the other end, Helguson sent a curler wide from distance.

The minutes ticked away. But this tale had one final twist. A long ball that Page, who'd been utterly magnificent, appeared to have under control...but his touch back towards Chamberlain wasn't strong enough and Cruyff stole in to scramble the winner. We didn't deserve to have to deal with another moment of heartbreak at the end of such a performance. Cruyff, supplied by Yorke, might've added a fourth two minutes later but scooped over from the edge of the box - really, that would've been too cruel.

Another fantastic match, another performance to be proud of, another disappointing result. If we'd won - and we should have won - it would've meant so much.

Whether the chant of "we'll be back as Champions" is merely wishful thinking or not, one thing's for sure. I want to be back in the Premiership. I want more of this.