As the Premier league season draws to a close, TheMorty embarks on the penultimate chapter of his game and attempts to end nearly 50 years of hurt by lifting the FA Cup.
Imagine my delight at sitting on 71 points with three games to go – the exact number Newcastle managed in real life that season and 20 points more than my predecessor had managed the season before. With the league cup in one hand and the chance to lift the FA Cup in the other, it had been a fantastic season. 50 games played and 34 games won - a 68%-win rate nonetheless. I hadn’t managed to get near Arsenal at the top of the table, but they had been different class and they had the opportunity to clinch the title two games early with just a single point at home to Boro.
Arsene Wenger may have just stepped down from Arsenal this year after a calamitous season, but no-one could dispute his wizardry in 2002. He was a master of the dark arts, conjuring world class youngsters who continually set the Premier League alight. None more so than Patrick Vieira. The Frenchman was on his way to Ajax in 1996, when Arsene picked up the phone and persuaded the 17-year old to take a flight to London instead and join the Gunners in a bargain £3.5m deal. Vieira made the first of his 279 appearances against Middlesbrough so it was fitting that it would be that man who would score the goal to secure the title at Highbury.
With just two games to go, Arsenal had the chance to break a then Premier League record of 100 points – something only just managed for the first time in the competitions history by Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Despite the top position being decided, there was still a lot to play for. Southampton had already been relegated but there were two spots left for the drop and it would two from Derby, West Ham and Charlton. In the immortal words of the spice girls, two became one when a 0-2 Loss away at Everton sealed the Ram’s fate and resigned them to a season in the second tier of English football.
Championship manager often throws up a few LOLs and one thing that gave me a giggle was the sight that future Newcastle laughingstock and foul-mouthed haranguer Joe Kinnear had been given another job…
Poor lads, in the game they’d been beaten by Newcastle twice were languishing in the bottom half of the table and now they had this clown, who’s biggest achievement was winning the Daily Mirror Manager of the Year award in 1997.
All eyes were on the FA Cup final that I’d worked so hard to and as luck had it, I was given the chance for a final (Final) warm up.
Squad vs Blackburn (Away)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Duff, Risp, Yepes, Crainey, Dyer, Kerr, Bakircioglu, Shearer ©, Kallstrom, Madeira.
Subs: Given, Solano, Selakovic, Barsom (on 68), West (on 68).
Was that it? I was expecting a really tough ride. For Blackburn to come storming out of the blocks and make a statement. I expected them to attack hard and hit the wings and shell the Newcastle box with balls from Damien Duff’s mortar of a left foot. I expected Matt Jansen to terrorise my centre backs and to force Chiotis into a number of really difficult saves. Instead, we ran out comfortable winners.
Tó Madeira hit a goal either side of half time before Alan Shearer netted against his former club to make it 3-0. However, there was a bit of drama late on when Duff was clean through facing Chiotis 1-on-1 in the box and our ‘keeper brought him down. Giving away a penalty and taking an early bath for his troubles. I wasn’t concerned about conceding the penalty, nor was I concerned that I’d already made 3 substitutions and would have to place Kieron Dyer in goal. In fact, I didn’t even care that Tugay dispatched the penalty and my team was robbed of a clean sheet in the last minute. Despite not being concerned, I was still distraught. I was on the verge of an FA Cup final and my star goalkeeper looked like he would be suspended. Disaster.
Now, the best thing about the 01/02 season was that the dismissals worked very differently to how they do today. You wouldn’t be told when they player would be suspended and which games he would miss. Instead, the dismissal would go to an independent panel, you’d be given two weeks to submit an appeal and after that point – if you opted to appeal – the hearing could take another two weeks. Meaning effectively your player could get a red card and still play for an entire month before having to serve the suspension. I’d forgot about this, this was bloody brilliant! Playing Football Manager 2018 I’d lose a player immediately, but here a red card could be controlled. I was going to play this smart and submit an appeal… at the very worst, Chiotis would miss the start of next season. I didn’t care about next season, I cared about lifting that jug!
Beating Blackburn had secured my place in the top four and the Champions League next season… naturally the board were delighted…
Squad vs Derby (Home)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Duff, Risp, Yepes, West, Dyer, Kerr, Selakovic, Shearer ©, Kallstrom, Madeira.
Subs: Given, Gomez (on 68), Bakircioglu (on 68), Robert, Crainey (on 68).
I had one last game before the final and it was at against already relegated Derby County. I was worried about injuries but still decided to field a strong team. I didn’t want the lads to take their foot off the gas so close to the season ending showpiece.
The game was an absolute riot. Mark Kerr and Tó Madeira bagged a goal 4 minutes either side of half time. Midfielder Adam Murray was dismissed for the away side for a two-footed tackle with 15 minutes left, which gave both Shearer and substitute Gomez the space to add a third and fourth to our tally.
The goals were flowing and we were in excellent form going into the biggest and most important game of the playthrough…. The FA CUP Final…
The FA CUP FINAL
Blackburn vs Newcastle
The Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Saturday 11th May, 2002
In May 2000 Wembley stadium played host to the last FA Cup final ever to be held at the Twin Towers, as the stadium closed 5 months later to be demolished to have a brand new £789m stadium built in its place. During the transition period, all major cup finals were shifted to the nearest national stadium – Cardiff. It wasn’t as iconic but it was a fantastic 74,500 all-seater stadium that hosted some fantastic contests. In the 7 years it was active, Newcastle made it there once – sadly to receive a 1-4 thrashing at the hands of Manchester United in 2005. The Newcastle manager that day was Graeme Souness – ironically the man now standing in my way of FA Cup glory. My Newcastle team had lifted a trophy in Cardiff already this season, but it was the league cup which isn’t classed as a “major” trophy. I was desperate to make sure that I ended the season with a medal around my neck.
Getting the tactics right on this one would be tough. I had a better squad than Blackburn but they had players that could hurt me and after a very good run of form I was concerned that this could be a banana-skin in waiting. Graeme Souness is a hated figure on Tyneside and I was fully expecting him to be a thorn in my side. I decided to go for it and not change a winning formation. Keeping it 4-1-3-2.
1 – Dionisis Chiotis
2 – Mike Duff
4 – Mark Kerr
5 – Ibrahim Said
8 – Kieron Dyer
9 – Alan Shearer ©
10 – Stefan Selakovic
13 – Stephen Crainey
14 – Tó Madeira
15 – Kennedy Bakircioglü
26 – Mario Yepes
Subs: 6 – Frederik Risp
7 – Nolberto Solano
12 – Shay Given
19 – Kim Kallström
29 – Rónald Gómez
While the formation was unchanged, the personnel needed a re-shuffle. Taribo West was left out of the squad in favour of Crainey, who had the pace to match tricky winger Damien Duff out wide. Selakovic came into the midfield with Bakircioglu and Kerr to create a formidable central trio.
As the ref blew his pea, Newcastle started brightly. First Madeira went close with a long-range effort and then Shearer had a strike whistle past the post. 25 minutes into the game and the Toon had attempted 5 shots with 3 being on target while Blackburn had mustered a single, paltry effort. Defensively we were sound, winning 50% of our tackles and not giving away a single foul. It was vintage stuff.
Shearer had a great shot tipped round the post and Mark Kerr thought he had scored, but with just the keeper to beat somehow the Scotsman managed to roll it wide. Half-Time arrived and it had been a well contested match, Newcastle had the better of the opportunities but the ball had spent an even amount of time across all thirds.
This was starting to worry me. I remembered back to Everton, Villa, Fulham and several matches in the first half of the season. I remembered chucking away a point at Arsenal and the time Darren Anderton scored a late equaliser at Leeds. I wasn’t exactly a stranger to being the better team and not coming out with the victory, but in a cup final of the magnitude of this – I was terrified of not making the pressure count. I opted not to roll the bones and keep things the same. Surely, we’d take a chance sooner rather than later… right?
50 minutes – Matt Jansen has a shot, it’s deflected wide. From the resulting corner David Dunn fires a volley wide.
57 minutes – Duff cuts inside and fires a shot at Chiotis who does well to palm it to safety.
71 minutes – Markus Bent plays a one-two with Craig Hignett before firing off a shot that hits the outside of the post and bounces wide.
This is not going to plan… I decided to go more defensive and weather the storm, dropping Madeira into midfield and allowing Kerr to make way for Kallstrom.
74 minutes – Markus Bent breaks the offside trap and again goes close, this time Chiotis is on hand to gather the ball.
77 minutes – Duff hits a dangerous cross into the area, but Said is on hand to clear.
YES! Finally, the deadlock is broken and its life-long Geordie Alan Shearer who has the goal. It wasn’t a peach of a strike but I didn’t care! A goal is a goal and this was perfect. The usually deadly Madiera hit a shot straight at Alan Kelly, but the stand in keeper could only parry back into the 6-yard box. Big Al reacted quickest past Henning Berg and tucked it home into an empty net. Finally we had the lead! That was it, on came Risp and we went 4 at the back. Madeira made way for Gomez to add a bit of energy upfield as we moved to a defensive 5-3-1-1 formation.
Blackburn were shot, their heads dropped and their confidence gone. They didn’t have the energy for another attack. There it was… the words every Champ Man player dreams of seeing flashing on the screen…
We’d done it. Ian McShane, Will Greenwood, that weird bloke from the League of Gentleman… your boys took one hell of a beating!
As the fans sang my name, I reflected on my time back in the game. With two cups and a Champions League spot in the bag, this had been a very successful season… I’d re-discovered my love for the Football Management genre and had a real blast over a few months re-playing a childhood fave and one of my top 5 games.
However, I still had one job left. Now I’d played the game I could finally review it! After all, Previous Weapon’s a review site – not a blog for the ramblings of a Geordie lunatic with too much time on his hands.
Toon in next week for the final, final conclusion of this wonderful classic – Championship Manager 2001/2002.