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.