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FA Carling Premiership, 29/4/00
Manchester United
By Martin Blanc

It's my favourite film. It's a total epic, a voyage into a mad world in which nothing is as it seems, and then isn't what it doesn't seem either. On and on it goes, shifting tone without warning: from comedy to thriller to Pythonesque farce and back again, a kaleidoscopic spectacle with three consecutive endings. It wasn't what they meant on their feet in the Rookery, but this was an amazing game, a thing of beauty and mess bigger than life, a souvenir to tide us over during the next year, and oddly, you know - at least for me - just like watching "Brazil".

This - for those of you not there, you poor wanderers - was a heart-stopping game, not as visceral and energising as last week's pulsating kickaround, but liberating in a different way. It was helped no end by the remarkable even-handedness of the referee, something which shouldn't elicit comment but these days does, and which riled champions who arrogantly, complacently expect special treatment by right. So at least we were in with a shout, playing eleven against eleven. Just like at Anfield all those months ago, we could only beat the guys they put in front of us. Or so we thought for half a blissful hour.

The kick-off time may have had some effect on the mood. We were oddly becalmed by the a.m. start, which seemed to make it a one-off, a no-expectations carnival game, with none of the baggage of a weekend afternoon. Even the presence of the cameras didn't faze the boys, for a change. We watched Foley start the game in place of Smart, and expected the worst. But he ran and chased and had the first shot on target, and things looked, if not promising, then at least traditionally bearable, until the ritual moment when we'd fall one behind and start cracking apart. But against United's fourth-choice striker support of Greening and Wilson - so poor that they were doing a better job of squeezing Sheringham and Solskjaer out of the game than we were (why would anyone think we wanted or needed to sign Greening?) - there was nothing to worry about, since Alec Chamberlain had also rediscovered his shot-stopping prowess, against Butt. We were chasing down every ball, working for each other, and clicking. The difference between this week and last was tangible, and it wasn't just down to the hour: basically, last week mattered to both sides, mattered deeply, and today we were in some kind of hyper-real limbo, some place beyond pain.

Of course, so were United, and our splendid taunts of "What's it like to get a game?" looked like they were hitting home at the second-team figures going through the motions in the first half. We didn't set the world on fire, but we didn't let them near the lighter either. And thus it was in a zone usually only attainable through acupuncture, drugs or transcendental meditation that I believed for a split-second that Foley was not in fact useless, as I have always believed, but just incredibly unlucky. For it looked for all the world as if he'd glanced the goalbound header that Helguson merely poached from him and claimed, just as Dominic was about to stick a triumphant fist in the air himself. Then of course we realised that the lanky twat hadn't touched it, noticed simultaneously that the lanky twat himself had just realised the same thing, and that without Heidar, we'd've been nowhere near the temporary heaven we were entering.

And so began the second act of the epic. The first half coming to a close with the incredulous announcer unable to contain the smile in his voice as he intoned the score. The smugness of the Sky pundit, one faintly embittered T Francis I think, presumably putting it down to unrepresentative end-of-season quirkiness. Well, it couldn't last, could it? Not if the first-team, who were on the bench, came on. And sure enough, Yorke single-handedly provoked and harried us like even Giggs hadn't been able to manage previously.

Then the mad part. What it looked like from a distance was pretty much what it later looked like on TV. Hyde goes down, after a bit of contact with Butt. Hyde's snarling and walking away. Butt doesn't like it, gives it some to Hyde, who's clearly not been taking his chill-pills and starts pushing Butt's chest like a seven-year-old at breaktime. PC Palmer comes in, takes Butt away, pushes him into Smith, Sheringham - even more militaristic tendencies than Palmer (have you ever read an interview with Sheringham? It's terrifying, he still thinks Thatcher was a wonderful woman...) - sends Palmer back to the Yellows' melee. And we wait, for the obvious outcome. And then, well, then you just know what's coming.

Sure enough, Yorke stretched our back four like nothing else, his pinpoint shot evaded Alec, and we were looking at a 1-1 draw at best. If nothing else happened. Exit the Happy Zone. It was the first of four goals in fifteen minutes, miraculously not all of them United's. The same old faults gifting them their other two, though Giggs did time his run quite nicely...and the same old - or rather young - spirit and genius for fighting that we displayed. At the risk of repeating myself, last week's 3-2 defeat really showed what blooding the youth has done for them all, and could do for us next season, and Tommy Smith is the one, the pivot, the homegrown 5m kid, who could demolish the division with or without Gifton next season, be the next Phillips, be our ticket back up. He seems pretty well-schooled in GT's masterclass of level-headed priorities, and how much he's still got to learn, etc. So we can dare to hope with some degree of confidence that he'll stick around. And this was David Perpetuini's coming of age too. Finally, no more need for Clint Easton. Our midfield inspired one another, Helguson working back incredibly hard to support Cox and Robinson, Hyde's absence still quite telling. But ten against ten, what could we do about our defence? No, no, we're beyond pain today - let's get back to the mad parts.

Because we still haven't mentioned the other epic ingredient of the second half. At some weird point in my favourite film, just when everything is getting a bit nonsensical and insoluble, up pops a hitherto unsuspected Bobby De Niro to show the main guy the way. It's an implausible entrance, but it just about works. Well, just like that, during the interval poor Foley discovers once and for all that it's not his day and that he's merely been the unfunny warm-up guy for El Grande Kahuna - oh yes, Tommy "GoodFella" Mooney's reappearance was magnificent, and surreal. He started as he left off all those months ago, rustily fumbling a diamond of a volley chance six yards out. And his darting runs from and to nowhere were an echo of what we used to love before enduring this past winter's school of hard knocks while he was laid flat out on the treatment table. However, just as you're thinking it's a last hurrah for the guy, a fitting outing for a legend past his best, he produced a left-foot smash from the edge of the area that was absolutely headed for the top corner of the net, until Van der Gouw pawed it over the bar. Respect to Tommy. Welcome back. Not busy in August, are you?

The rest is just details - it was a season-high, the apex of our many 3-2 defeats. We were great, we were...worthy. One day we'll score twice and win a game again. Even against United. One day, we'll score more than twice. One day....

"Brazil, it's just like watching Brazil..." The words will ring in my ears until then.