Part 4 - Fighting for a Final
After the excitement of Christmas, TheMorty was about to enter the most boring part of the season. Could he keep his head and reach their first League Cup Final since 1976?
2002 was a World Cup year and, with the finals in Japan & South Korea fast approaching, many European nations had decided to have a winter break in a bid to keep players fresh for the quadrennial summer showpiece. While the FA and the Premier League had opted out of this, I decided to impose my own hiatus from the game. It was starting to take over my life. I was finding myself scouting players at work, checking out their real-life history over the last 15 years and finding out how their careers had progressed. I met up with FBT for a beer and for almost a whole hour talked exclusively about my dismay that David Blunkett had blocked my work permit for Maxim Tsigalko. I needed my winter break, but more so, I needed my CM 01/02 break.
Alas, I took it. A whole week away from the game. The first few hours were easy, but after a couple days of the cold turkey treatment, I found myself craving a match. Seldom has there been a game that’s had this level of addictive-ness but I knew if I didn’t give myself a break soon, I’d become a danger to my saved game – I’d end up over thinking match-ups and over complicating tactics.
My FA Cup success against West Ham had been rewarded with a winnable 4th round game against Crewe (result!) and I also had the small matter of a League Cup Semi to prepare for. The road to Cardiff was long (316miles to be exact) and I felt the best way to prepare was to come back a week later, fresh and ready for an epic 2-legged battle. Standing in my way were Tottenham Hotspur.. Two very beatable opponents and the latter was a chance for a trip to Cardiff and be a game away from lifting the League Cup for the first time in Newcastle's illustrious history.
However, before I could get to my Part 4 showpiece and learn my cup final fate, I had the small matter of the Premier League to contend with. As the reigning Manager of the Month, I could imagine all eyes would be on my Newcastle United team. Especially Alex Ferguson’s, as his Red Devils team made their way to Tyneside looking to do the double over the Geordies and inflict my first defeat since November.
Squad vs Man Utd (Home)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Dyer, Said, Yepes, Bernard, Lee, Kerr, Bakircioglu, Shearer ©, Selakovic, Madeira.
Subs: Given, Barsom (on 83), Risp, Kallstrom (on 83), Queresma.
I approached the game cautiously - lining up with 2 Defensive Mids in Kerr and Lee, with Dyer moving over to Right Back in place of the injured Duff. Olivier Bernard came into the starting line-up in place of Gary Speed to add a little more pace to the left-hand side and try to stop the in-form David Beckham. That didn’t exactly go to plan… David ending the match the highest rated player on the pitch!
I know what you're thinking, how the hell was he the highest rated player and NOT get the Man of the Match award? Well, that's CM for you! Randomly, the game would glitch from time to time denied sarong wearing metrosexuals their star award. Instead, goal machine Ruud van Nistelrooy collected it for scoring a first half brace - despite having quite the modest 8-rated game. Alan Shearer did manage to pull one back late on, but it proved little more than a consolation as Manchester deservedly ran out 2-1 winners.
In previous games I’d been battered by the top sides, but there were positives to take from this encounter. I’d matched Man Utd in almost every category, they’d only been superior in tackles and headers. I decided to change my tactics and push tackling from “Normal” to “Hard” to see if it made a difference.
While defensively we'd been poor, our attack had been outstanding. Against one of the leagues best defences we'd had 9 shots on target - with 7 of those coming from Madeira. Despite not scoring, a leading Journalist asked me about our pal after the game – fishing for a comment on whether I’d describe him as a “goal machine”... Naturally, I obliged…
Manchester United had inflicted my first defeat in over 2 months and the title was out of reach. I was entering a very boring point of the season where most league games almost didn't matter. I needed to get back on the horse and bounce back in the best way possible to renew my love of the league and there was no better way to do that than with a convincing win against the Cottagers.
Squad vs Fulham (Home)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Dyer, Risp, Yepes, Speed, Selakovic, Kerr, Kallstrom, Shearer ©, Bakircioglu, Madeira.
Subs: Given, Quaresma (on 70), Solano (on 70), Barsom (on 70), Lee.
It didn’t look like it was going to be my day when former Mag Louis Saha struck 30 minutes into the game to break the deadlock. What is it about players scoring against their former clubs? It's almost an unwritten rule of the sport. Just as I started to regret coming back to this play-through, my luck shifted just moments later when Steed Malbranque pulled up injured and had to be replaced. Already missing one of their best players, Fulham soon lost two more. Madeira was through on goal and fouled by van der Sar. The referee pointed to the spot and gave Edwin his marching orders. The penalty decision was great, but the red card to the Dutch ‘keeper meant Fulham had to bring on a replacement and bizarrely it was Saha that made way for substitute Maik Taylor. So we already had a man advantage but Fulham had lost their best keeper, best striker and best midfielder in the space of 10 first half minutes, surely there was no stopping us from getting the three points now?
Shearer converted and we went in at half time 1-1. I gave the lads the obligatory pep-talk in my head and out we went for what proved to be a riot of a second half.
First Kerr bagged a screamer from distance before Kim Kallstrom slotted home from close range to make it 3-1. Bakircioglu made it 4 before Kerr sealed the win with aplomb, lobbing Taylor from the edge of the box. What a win.
I was starting to fall in love with this play-through again and while I was bored with the monotony of the Premier League games, i was given respite with the FA Cup. After the fantastic victory against West Ham in the third round, we were given a favourable draw against Crewe. They had a decent squad, peaking with wanted man and teen prodigy Dean Ashton up front, but I wanted to give myself a challenge and opted for a mix of youth and experience to give the senior lads a well-deserved rest.
Squad vs Crewe Alexandra (Home)
Starting 11: Pinheiro, Gavilan, O’Brien, Risp, Bernard, Robert, Solano, Quaresma, Lee ©, Ameobi, Barsom.
Subs: Paiva (on 77), Gomez, Kallstrom (on 64), Bellamy (on 77), Speed.
What did I do…!? 0-2 down within 30 minutes at St James’ Park to side two divisions below us! I had such an easy draw and I was on the verge of mucking it up. Ashton getting the first with his head on the 14-minute mark and then defender Jason Gavin getting the second 10 minutes later. I had to do something, so I went 4-4-2. We slowly started winning the possession and as Crewe sat off trying to defend their lead we started turning the screw. We pulled one back on the stroke of half-time, Barsom reducing the arrears just before the midway whistle. We weren't there yet though – there was still a long way to go.
We came close a few times but I had a genuine fear my 01/02 side would be the latest in a long line of Newcastle "giant killings", adding Crewe to the embarrassments at Hereford and Stevenage. 15 minutes to go and I’d made a couple of changes, Paiva, Bellamy and Kallstrom coming on to try and bolster the attack. 10 minutes to go and my blushes were spared. Not by a striker, but by an unlikely goal hero…
Last season, in 2001, Newcastle had been 0-1 down to bitter rivals Sunderland after a goal from French right back Patrice Carteron. There were only 12 minutes left of the game when none other than Andy O’Brien popped up with an equaliser to send the away crowd into madness at the Stadium of (P)light.
It spawned a chant still bellowed on the terraces to this day and I had the pleasure of repeating it not once, but TWICE as first O’Brien headed home a fantastic equaliser on the 80th minute and then scored AGAIN nodding in an incredible WINNER in the 90th.
“…Who put the ball in The Alex net? O’BRIEN, O’BRIEN”
I bloody love that man!
My gamble had paid off. Sure, my blood pressure was through the roof and I was a sweaty mess, but I was into the next round of the FA Cup! There’d been a couple of upsets in the round to thin out the competition - most notably Middlesbrough being dumped out 4-1 away to Barnsley. Our reward for the last minute win was a trip to Leicester, who had breezed past Grimsby 2-0.
With one cup out of the way, it was time to focus on another. Game 1 of the two legged tie against Spurs for a place in the League cup final. This was what I'd gotten back into the game for. I just couldn't wait...
Squad vs Spurs (Home)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Risp, Said, Yepes, Speed, Kerr, Bakircioglu, Shearer ©, Dyer, Kallstrom, Madeira.
Subs: Given, Barsom (on 82), Gomez (on 82), Solano (on 82), Lee.
I approached the game cautiously with a defence-minded 5-2-1-2 formation employing 3 centre-backs to try and stop the inform Sergei Rebrov, however, in reality the game was a bit of an anti-climax.
We eased to a 2-0 victory courtesy of a To Madeira strike and a Gus Poyet own goal. We dominated possession and we never looked like conceding. All a bit disappointing really…
As January ended, there was a nice surprise for my pal Mark Kerr, who walked away with the Young Player of the Month award. Hopefully this would prove the first of many pieces of silverware for the Scotsman…
Squad vs Everton (Away)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Risp, Said, Yepes, Speed, Dyer, Kerr, Kallstrom, Shearer ©, Bakircioglu, Madeira.
Subs: Given, Barsom (on 87), Gomez (on 87), Solano (on 82), Lee.
My defeat to Manchester United had seen them leapfrog me into 2nd and my side were down to 3rd in the table. After this Everton result, I was beginning to realise I wouldn’t catch them.
It all looked great when Alan Stubbs was sent off in the 7th minute for a reckless foul and Kim Kallstrom scored from the resulting free-kick. We had 82 minutes to play with a man advantage… easy, you’d think… right?
Nope. What was I saying earlier about players scoring against their former clubs? Big Duncan Ferguson popped up with a goal in the 50th minute to equalise and dash our hopes. There was a hint of offside, but I wasn’t going to argue with him. After all, this is a man that once came home to find two burglars in his home and battered them both. This was a man who spent 3 months in jail after headbutting a player on the pitch while playing for Rangers. I figured best let him have this one…
A disappointing draw and, sadly, one soon repeated…
Squad vs Aston Villa (Away)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Dyer, Said, Yepes, Bernard, Lee, Kerr, Selakovic, Shearer ©, Bakircioglu, Madeira.
Subs: Given, Kallstrom (on 83), Gomez, Risp (on 60), Quaresma.
My team was behind twice away from home and were lucky to rescue a draw after Villa had taken the lead through Bosko Balaban and again through Mustafa Hadji. They were playing us off the park and both Kallstrom and Kerr’s equalisers had come firmly against the run of play.
Any hope of catching Arsenal was well and truly over. Man Utd had pulled away and now it looked like I was in a race with Liverpool and Chelsea for third place. The Chairman’s goal of Champions League football was still alive but I had to step it up a gear and quickly…
I had a look at my squad to see what I could do. Who was under-performing in the first team and who are the in-form fresh faces I can I bring in from the stiffs to bolster the starting XI. As I checked out the form on my squad page, I noticed that Robert Lee was unhappy. He was out of contract in the summer and wanted a new deal. The problem I had was, his expectations for this deal were as a player/coach and his coaching stats were awful. Rob was a fantastic player and a wonderful servant to the club in his time at the Toon, but there’s a reason he didn’t get in to management and now presents podcasts - I wasn't about to change that trend!
As I looked at how he compared to some of my other coaches, it did highlight one thing to me; my coaching staff was thin. I now had a lot of youth players and while my coaches were decent there wasn’t enough of them to help this team reach it’s potential. I started looking around at possibilities to fill a position.
I wanted a former player with a recognisable name. Someone who had international experience with minimum stats as 15/20 for coaching youngsters. Two former players sprung to mind. One a Geordie, the other a legend...
"Pelanty" taker and mullet-man Chris Waddle had just announced his retirement from playing after an illustrious career ended down at non-league side Worksop Town. His non-playing stats looked decent so I decided to chance my arm and offer him a contract with his hometown club. The other coach I had my eye on was a bit more special... England luminary and current CM 01/02 Watford Coach Ray Wilkins.
Ray's stats were fantastic and he was interested to come. I was ready to make him part of the backroom staff but decided not to pursue his signature. Sadly, Ray passed away in real life during my playthrough. It’s always horrible when someone so influential in the sport passes. You feel like you’ve lost a chunk of your childhood – particularly when they’re an international great from your lifetime. Everyone talked about Ray as an incredible playmaker and he was probably the one player I could do with in my team - a prime Ray Wilkins would leave Mark Kerr firmly in the reserves. From what I read in his various tributes and obituaries, he was fantastic and wonderful man. After news of his Death broke, a few of my players (IRL) had some lovely things to say about him:
Alan Shearer: “He lived for and loved football. I was lucky enough to have worked with him and he was always a true gentleman. He will be sorely missed by so many.”
Robert Lee: “RIP Ray Wilkins, a true LEGEND!”
Craig Bellamy: “His view on the game was outstanding… football has lost a true football man”
Back in the game, I thought long and hard about offering him a contract offer. A big part of playing legacy Champ Man titles was bringing adoration or grudges from the game back out into the real world. I didn’t want that with Ray and decided to let him rest, stay at Watford and flourish in his career. His stats were far too good to remain a coach for long and I’d look forward to battling against him on the touchline soon. RIP Ray.
With My coaching situation almost resolved, it was time to turn my attention back to the Premier League and the visit of Southampton and I finally got that long awaited victory...
Squad vs Soton (Home)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Duff, Risp, Yepes, Speed, Kerr, Kallstrom, Dyer, Shearer ©, Bakircioglu, Madeira.
Subs: Given, Gomez, Solano, Barsom (on 85), Selakovic (on 85).
It was 1-1 with 6 minutes left to play when Alan Shearer netted against his former side. “Goal Machine” Madeira had given us the lead before substitute Adrian Cacares had brought the Saints level. Shearer’s blistering strike from range was just what the doctor ordered and stopped a rot which was threatening my chances of a European place…