Liverpool 0-1 Manchester United 11 May 1996
Liverpool Football Club are a special football club. They used to be undeniably one of the greatest clubs around and produced some of the greatest sides in English and European football history. The reason they are special these days, though, is because they are so spectacularly bad. In a good way. Brendan Rodgers is someone easy to mock, so let’s mock him. He looks absurd, he crucifies the English language and has a staggeringly high opinion of himself for someone who’s taken a mid-table side to mid-table, and indulged the whims of a racist striker with a victim complex.
Before then they had Rafael Benitez, the most overrated manager in history until Kenny Dalglish took over, who then became the most overrated manager in history who also indulged the whims of a racist striker with a victim complex.
But way before all that mulch of embarrassment, there was the loam of Roy Evans. A fundamentally decent man hampered by the fact he was Liverpool through-and-through, he oversaw a deeply funny moment. The suits. The suits. The suits, the suits. The suits, the suits, the suits. Turning up to your wedding day in a white suit would mark you out a stunningly arrogant fool, but imagine turning up to something as important as an FA Cup final in a white suit, and to be joined with all your teammates. This was an absence of self-awareness not seen on a scale since a Barcelona player last gave an interview about doping.
The FA Cup itself was no classic. It doesn’t matter. It matters because for all the white suits, for all the Liverpool-United aggro, it was settled by the closest thing to Jesus that actually did exist. It matters because it was United’s first ever double double. The ball came to him on the edge of the area, he arched and squashed all of his joints to volley the winner in the 80-something (you check if it matters to you) minute. Against Liverpool. Who were wearing those suits. In the FA Cup Final. Against Liverpool. Who were wearing those suits. Against Liverpool. White suits*.
*They took them off before the game itself but this is all but a technicality.
Having a word with an arsehole vs Crystal Palace 25 January 1995
There are some people who think this doesn’t count as a goal. There are some people who think that this is something that should not be celebrated. Essentially, there are two groups of people in the world: people willing to embrace the times that violence is not only acceptable, but necessary, and there are those who you should never buy a drink for, or engage in discussion with. Gandhi: what a cunt.
A great goal always features some, if not all of the following feelings. One, putting the world to rights with a sense of justice. The second, that it is unique, something you understand will never be repeated or intimidated, that you really are one of a select group people in a moment of time that can never be forgotten. Whether at a stadium or on television, there’s an ineffable and unspoken agreement that what has happened will not be footnote in history – history will be a footnote of the event itself. Lastly, that it makes you happy whenever you look back on it.
For all those reasons, this is a goal. The kung fu kick on a xenophobic arsehole, who had been goading him with the entitled sense of invulnerability rarely seen before commenters on the internet, is unique. No other player-crowd contretemps has stuck in the memory or defined a player. No other boot-chest synthesis brings back the Kennedy sensation of knowing exactly when you heard it. No other hero-villain face-off brings such glee to Manchester United fans. If a goal is a prerequisite to victory, then this moment would play a vital part in establishing a siege mentality, a (justified) Messiah complex and a legendary comeback that would be entwined in United’s history, and something that would inspire the team to never give up.
Sheffield United 2-0 Manchester United 9 January 1995
Sheffield United have been kind to Manchester United. Mainly, that is, because they gave them their greatest sending off of all time. A sending off that sums up Mark Hughes, the manager, perfectly. With the game waiting to be euthanised with the final whistle, but still a while away, Mark Hughes punted David Tuttle up the arse as the ball went out of play. It was full of pointless aggression – defining Mark Hughes the manager. But that was another match.
There’s more to Sheffield United than that. There’s the Eric Cantona chip. A year later, the same round, the same tie. Manchester United have, recently, disingenuously traded on the idea that they still play football with verve and style. They don’t, they’re just good at doing enough. They also trade on the idea that they play counter-attacking football. This is less unreasonable. You can see the current Manchester United – perhaps most accurately the 2006-2009 vintage – in this attack. From an opposition corner, United break. Bruce is lucky to find Cantona, who lays the ball to Hughes – not sent off for booting anyone up the arse in this game – who plays the ball to Ryan Giggs, on the left wing. Giggs sees that Cantona has advanced on the right hand side, and rolls the ball across to him, on the edge of the area. The goal is quite something – a precise and beautiful chip that was far too good for such limited opponents, yet still obviously good enough to test any of the best – but it’s the celebration that makes it.
He gradually realises what he’s just done, as if he is still processing his actions. It’s like he is catching up to find out what he’s done in an episode of rage – smashed a chair, smashed a player, smashed himself – and then finds out he’s scored an almost perfect goal. It looks in one sense arrogant, as other players come to him, and he doesn’t move a step. But in another way it looks like he’s actually made himself speechless and discombobulated, as if he was starting to realise his arrogance at other clubs was finally vindicated. He was as good as he said, and now he was at the right club to prove it.
Perhaps even more enjoyable is Alex Ferguson’s reaction. He’d managed greats, he’d won European trophies and Premier Leagues. You’d seen him smile before, but not quite like this. The joy of achievement is one thing, but in Ferguson’s face you can see the joy of incredulity in the face of unexpected, and yet instantly, retrospectively inevitable, excellence.
Manchester United 5-0 Sunderland 21 December 1996
The commentary says most of what you need. At a time of iffy form, having not scored in open play for three months, Cantona proves his class. Using Brian McClair as a way around Sunderland’s midfield, he shows that the Sheffield United chip was no fluke. Then there’s the celebration. A contrast from the static surprise and shock of his chip against Sheffield United, this is one of a man who didn’t doubt what he was capable of. But the goal is not most notable for its excellence, it’s for that on YouTube and in season reviews, it is melancholic excellence. It is the definition of beauty being seen in decay. It is comparable to a sharp, genuine memory of true love in the haze of Alzheimer’s. It is the moment when you wake up in the marital bed the day after losing a spouse, before the grief hits.
It might be that, having known he was capable of such greatness, yet able to produce it less frequently or without enjoying it as it evidently should be enjoyed, he realised the game was up in this very moment.
Liverpool 2-2 Manchester United 1 October 1995
It might have taken Jesus three days to rise again and Eric Cantona eight months, but there can be no doubt about who was really worth waiting for. Cantona had apparently expected the four month ban from United to assuage the FA after his escapades of breaking the fourth wall. The ban was then extended to eight months, and the sardines of the press followed the trawler. Ferguson was then forced to follow Cantona all the way to Paris to persuade him not to give up on England and United. The sense of injustice was palpable. All he’d done was kick a dickhead!
It was without doubt the right decision to return. Cantona came back to inspire the kids, showing them the dual requirements of passion and practice. Without Cantona there might not have been the treble. Without Cantona there might not have been the Manchester United of the third millennium. His presence cannot be overstated in importance. But, and this is as important, without Cantona and his comeback there would not have been this goal against Liverpool.
Vindication was his on the day he came back, but it didn’t stop there. Vindication would come again and again, confirmed with every goal and trophy of his time at Manchester United. But still further, with this goal and this comeback, vindication was secured with every single future Manchester United trophy and goal after he had left. Without him, it wouldn’t have been like this.