Four weeks in and I’m now starting not to miss live football quite so much. This weekly re-watch of a classic game began simply as a way to pass the time but is developing into something bordering on an obsession. This has been amplified by BBC, ITV and Sky cottoning on to people’s love of the past (or just needing to fill up their schedules), and showing hours of old games in full.
It’s not just old football matches either; the previous four days has seen Sky and TMS replaying in full the third test match of last summer’s Ashes in full. Whilst I’m not really a massive cricket fan, I did decide to forgo an afternoon lounging in the sun to watch Ben Stokes smack seven shades of shit out of the Aussies. Quite possibly the greatest one-man performance in a team game of all time?
After the Ipswich Town love-in we subjected him to last week, we allowed Chris, aka Celery Boy, the opportunity to pick the game. Without skipping a beat he selected the 1994 Coca Cola cup final, between his beloved Aston Villa and Manchester United. I’m not quite sad enough to remember the scores of the third most important domestic trophy from 25 years ago, but considering Chris’ enthusiasm I was confident we’d see a win from the boys in claret and blue. Nothing gives me more joy than watching Man United, and Sir Alex in particular, lose in a final, so I was quickly on board.
I was reasonably familiar with the majority of the United team and realised this would be the first time I’d be watching an Eric Cantona performance in full. Even when wearing a truly horrendous baggy yellow and green away kit, with the very early 90s pullstring collar, he managed to look infinitely cooler than anyone else on the pitch. He is the dictionary definition of the French exchange kid who would have a full beard at 14, smoke constantly, and have all the girls fall in love with him. The polar opposite of Steve Bruce.
Villa also had a number of household names in their side; Steve Staunton, Andy Townsend and Paul McGrath making up the strong Irish contingent, all who would appear at the World Cup finals a few months later. Their lineup also included Shaun Teale and Kevin Richardson sporting two of the greatest moustaches of all time. Cultivating luscious upper lip hair has gone out of fashion with the modern footballer, probably due to how quickly it can age someone; both Teale and Richardson were in their early 30s here but looked easily ten years older.
If that wasn’t enough, their kit was sponsored by Muller yoghurts. The majority of kits now display gambling websites or airlines from contentious Middle Eastern nations, so it was a nice touch to see a team at a final proudly sponsored by the creator of the crunch corner. Slightly less lucrative in terms of sponsorship funds, but also less morally corrupt.
It was my turn to let the side down, as kick off was delayed by a considerable amount of time due to the incredibly poor internet connection in my girlfriend’s flat. Clearly streaming a low-quality YouTube match on a laptop, being part of a Zoom chat on an iPad while she watched Netflix in the other room was causing it to have a meltdown, unused to such high traffic.
I had expected the game to be a turgid affair, with Villa playing defensive football throughout to counter the threat & speed of Andrei Kanchelskis and (an incredibly youthful) Ryan Giggs. Instead, they more than matched United, knocking it around with purpose and confidence, and were well worth the opening goal. Granted it was a terribly scuffed finish Dalian Atkinson, but it clearly completely dumfounded Les Sealey (deputising for the injured Peter Schmeichel that day) and slowly trickled over the line to give the Birmingham side the lead.
One aspect of watching these old games that we hadn’t considered before was getting a glimpse at old school advertising around the pitch. Many of the companies displayed in the pre-2000 games no longer exist, like Fujifilm, JVC or News of the World. In this particular game, hidden amongst the almost wall to wall Coca Cola adverts was one for a brand of condoms. Presumably, Villa shot-stopper Mark Bosnich was wearing more than one, considering how much he was keeping out during this game (sorry).
It was quite jarring to see the manager’s being interviewed at half time. Surely they’d rather be in the changing rooms, handing out precise tactical instructions or giving underperforming players a right kick up the arse. However, Ron Atkinson ( a truly awful man for reasons I won’t go into here) seemed perfectly at ease with it, almost like he’d been looking forward to gloating about well his side was doing.
A lovely additional detail provided by Chris was that he missed the second half at the time due to his participation in a Judo tournament. So we all were watching the second half with fresh eyes. The United comeback never really materialised, as it was Villa who struck again in the 76th minute through Dean Saunders. While his compatriot Mark Hughes pulled one back to set up a nervy last ten minutes, Villa were able to dig in and keep them from equalising. Instead, they broke forward and won a penalty, after Kanchelskis was sent off for handling it in the area. Saunders tucked the spot-kick away, and Atkinson’s men were champions.
Unfortunately United were able to recover from this loss, as they went on to win the league that season. And the following season, and the season after that. And another nine times before Ferguson was kind enough to retire and let someone else have a chance.
While I probably won’t remember watching this game in a few months time, it was a chance to take my mind off of everything for a couple of hours. And for as long as these strange times continue, these moments need to be cherished.