After the high of winning in the League Cup Semi-Final, TheMorty is brought back down to Earth with a bang - facing off against England's toughest opponents in a tense battle for silverware
Performance-based incentives are the norm throughout life. It’s drilled into you since childhood. When you finished all your tea, you got a dessert. When you got a good report card at school, your parents bought you a toy. Tidy room? Go out and play… Extrinsic motivation is a big factor in life – and as a 30-something man who’d grown up on the parental reward scheme, I was no different. I’d just qualified for the League Cup Final in my first season as Newcastle United manager - I deserved a treat! So off I went shopping to spend my hard-earned cash, not on jewellery, cars or clothes. No, I was browsing for something much more valuable – I was in the market for a left back.
I’d been putting off the acquisition of a left-footed fullback for a while now, insisting I could get by playing square pegs in round holes. As much as the Speed/Bernard rotation was working, it wasn’t going to be good enough long term. Taribo West had been a fantastic signing, but he was making a habit of getting himself injured. I set out to find a long-term replacement that was under 21, had future potential but also hit the ground running and bolster my options.
My scouts came back with a couple of candidates close to home. Top of the pile was a player from across the tyne-wear divide, Julio Arca. A fantastic full-back that loved the North-East and after 150+ apps for Sunderland, would go on to play a similar amount of games for Middlesbrough and eventually find himself the captain of non-league northern outfit South Shields. His attacking and defensive stats were incredible and he fit the age requirement but sadly, there were two major obstacles standing in the way of his acquisition.
First, his nationality. My attacking options were already restricted thanks to the 3 non-EU player ruling, I had a Nigerian, an Egyptian and a Columbian making up three quarters of my defence – meaning poor old Costa Rican Ronald Gomez couldn’t even make the squad! Secondly, Sunderland would never sell in a million years.
Seldom does a player cross the rivalry-border. Sure, there’s been a few in the past, Paul Bracewell was went from Sunderland to Newcastle and back to Sunderland again and it was relatively low key, but when a bigger name makes the move like Jack Colback or Lee Clark, it stokes a fire that’s not easily extinguished. In the latter’s case, it had taken a club record fee to bring Clark to Wearside and after just two seasons he was dumped by the club - for the controversial act of appearing at Newcastle’s 1999 FA Cup final wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a mocked up Newcastle logo saying “SMB - Sad Mackem B*stards". It’s instances like this that instantly jack up the price of any player transferred between the clubs, so I’d be looking at a £15m+ price tag to sign Arca and, while he was good, he wasn't THAT good.
The second name in the frame was Stephen Crainey, a Celtic youth team player with blistering pace and equally high defensive stats. He was available for £2m, I thought that would be the best option so proceeded to close the deal. A nice little reward ahead of the League Cup Final. Although the confirmation of my opponents soon turned my mood…
Manchester United. Are you kidding me? The team standing in my way of silverware were the only team to beat me twice. The current league champions that had an £80m war chest in the summer, spending £30m on Veron from Lazio and nearly £20 on Dutch International Ruud van Nistelrooy from PSV. In fact, those two players alone cost more than my entire squad!
Before I could even start thinking about Manchester United, I had the distraction of 4 domestic games against Boro, Bolton, Derby and Leicester. I decided to use these match-ups as a vehicle for change, to try new things in a relaxed environment. They were all beatable opponents and it was a good chance to try out formations and tactics ahead of the biggest showdown of my short CM 01/02 managerial career.
The first of my experiments was a CM classic; man-marking the keeper.
Squad vs Boro (Away)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Duff, Risp, Yepes, Speed, Dyer, Kerr, Bakircioglu, Shearer ©, Gomez, Madeira.
Subs: Given, Barsom (on 88), Selakovic (on 74) Solano (on 88), Lee.
I brought in Ronald Gomez as a third striker to play alongside Shearer and Madeira and I set his individual status as Playmaker - meaning he’d get the ball more. I then proceeded to give him the defensive duty of man marking Mark Schwarzer - which meant he’d play very, very high up the pitch. The downside to this tactic is that you’ll see a lot of off-sides, but the plus is that he’ll get a truck load of chances.
The first half didn’t go quite as planned, with Mark Summerbell opening the scoring for the home side after just 17 minutes. However, we were soon level when Alan Shearer headed home in the 24th. It didn’t stop there for Shearer as he buried his (and our) second on the stroke of half time to send us in at the break with a slender advantage.
I was starting to doubt my tactics. Gomez was consistently offside and didn’t really seem to have many chances, but I was determined to give him 90mins and not panic by changing the tactics. My persistence paid off with the Costa Rican scoring a second-half brace, both 1-on-1s and neat finishes past the Aussie custodian.
4-1 flattered us and while Gomez had scored goals, I felt the number of off-sides caused by the individual tactic might cost us against better sides. That said, it was a successful experiment and we did get the win.
My next match welcomed Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers to Tyneside. Just before the game, we found out congratulations were in order. Kim Kallstrom had picked up the Young Player of the Month Award for February after some fantastic performances and important goals against Aston Villa, Everton and in the FA Cup against Leicester – although clearly the awards panel must have forgotten about his early bath in that one!
Kim made it two-in-two for Newcastle, after Mark Kerr had picked up the award for January.
Kallstrom’s reward for his personal accolade was a place on the bench as I tried yet again another tactic in preparation for Manchester United. This time it was a containment approach to the game, playing 2 defensive midfielders and just one striker. Goal-scoring Gomez retained his place in the side with Madeira making way for an extra midfielder.
Squad vs Bolton (Home)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Duff, Risp, Yepes, Speed, Dyer, Kerr, Bakircioglu, Shearer ©, Gomez, Selakovic.
Subs: Given, Barsom, Madeira (on 68), Kallstrom (on 68), Lee.
The defensive approach didn’t seem to make much difference to how we played, controlling possession quite comfortably. We scored two goals in the first half, with Selakovic and then Kerr finishing smart moves to make it 2-0 to the Toon.
We had most of the possession but only 2 shots on target in the entire game and when Per Frandsen pulled one back in the 80th minute, there were fears we might throw the lead away. Fortunately for us, it ended there and we held on for all three points.
My two defensive midfielders, Dyer and Kerr had played very well – one picking up a goal and the other the MoM award. However, I still wasn’t convinced about this approach. Just two shots on target in the entire match wouldn’t cut it against a side that scored goals for fun. My next match was against basement side Derby County and I had to attack.
Squad vs Derby (Away)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Duff, Risp, Yepes, Speed, Dyer, Kerr, Bakircioglu, Shearer ©, Gomez, Selakovic.
Subs: Given, Barsom, Madeira (on 45), Kallstrom (on 69), Lee.
This wasn’t just another nothing Premier League game, this was an FA Cup Quarter Final. While I wanted to experiment, nothing was more important than victory. I reverted to the classic 4-1-3-2 for this one, but with an extra instruction for the team to attack.
First Gomez opened the scoring after 5 minutes then Shearer doubled the lead 26’ into the game. It was a stroll in the park for Newcastle as County rarely got out of their own half. Substitute Kim Kallstrom marked his brief appearance with a goal late on to confirm Newcastle’s status in the Semi-Final of the competition.
Results elsewhere had been fantastic, Blackburn, Reading/Everton and Arsenal were the remaining teams… A game against Reading or Everton would be preferred, but obviously, lady luck was not my friend…
I mean come on. Seriously. There’s two sides to this, positively if we were to win the Semi then it’s a very good draw in the final but conversely if we were to lose the Semi it would almost certainly hand Arsenal a domestic double – something we did in 1998 when they beat NUFC in the same competition. The semi was a way off and with a bird in the hand, I shouldn’t be worrying about another in the bush. There was now just one game between me and the League Cup final – Leicester Away.
Championship Manager does often throw up a little bit of comedy, so imagine my amusement when I got the following notification:
Okay, So I was due to play Arsenal on that day anyway… okay… now I feel a little bit better 😊
Squad vs Leicester (Away)
Starting 11: Chiotis, Duff, Risp, Yepes, West, Dyer, Kerr, Quaresma, Shearer ©, Solano, Madeira.
Subs: Given, Barsom, Gomez, Kallstrom (on 55), Lee.
It was the final game before the League Cup Final and I had one last trick I wanted to test. I opted for the traditional Mike Bassett formation of 4-4-2 with attacking wingers and fullbacks. Bringing in Quaresma on the right and Solano on the left to drive up and down the wings.
I must admit, it did not go to plan. Matty Elliott AGAIN scoring against me, making it 2-in-2 against my team. We were 1-0 down for 80 minutes, until we scored from an unlikely source – Mike Duff grabbing a late equaliser to give us a share of the spoils.
My experiments had worked so far, giving us 7 points from a possible 9 and steering us into the Semi’s of yet another cup but, the time for experimenting was over. The main event was here.
As I prepared for the game, I had a notification that the transfer window was closing. It had been a relatively good window and while I hadn’t managed to shift all the deadwood from the previous regime, I had managed to recoup quite a lot of money…
My OUTs had seen 11 players depart for a combined total of £21m. Elena Marcelino and Christian Bassedas bringing in more than half of that amount with their slightly inflated transfer fees.
The INs had been equally impressive, 17 players joining for a total of £22.5m, defensive gladiator “Super” Mario Yepes being my most expensive signing and eclipsing the £3m I’d paid for Frederik Risp.
With a net spend of just £1.5m, I was delighted with my first transfer window in charge of the club and still had a significant amount in the kitty for a marquee summer signing.
THE LEAGUE CUP FINAL
Newcastle United vs Manchester United.
Sunday 31st March 2002.
It was time, my first cup final in charge of Newcastle United. 33 years of trophy-less hurt could all be ended on this day, if David could only beat Goliath.
I was taking this seriously, so seriously that I went upstairs and got changed into my suit. Including my lucky black and white striped tie, fit for the occasion. I came down and played the national anthem as I put a hand on my heart and belted out the lyrics like Psycho Stuey Pearce at Euro ’96. The team news was in:
GK - Dionisis Chiotis
RB – Mike Duff LB – Taribo West
CB – Ibrahim Said
CB – Mario Yepes
DM – Kieron Dyer
CM – Mark Kerr
CM – Kim Kallstrom
CM – Stefan Selakovic
CF – Tó Madeira
CF – Alan Shearer ©
Shay Given (GK)
All my preparation for this game had been on trying new things, in the event that the game could change. I wanted to be prepared for every eventuality and have plans B, C and D in my back bag. I started with the 4-1-3-2 formation that had worked so well in the past, but with the added instruction of a defensive approach.
The game kicked off and within 8 minutes of play, it wasn’t the start I’d dreamed of….
GOAL! VAN NILSTELROOY SCORES!
Goddamn it. My head was in my hands as I’d seen this twice before. The Man Utd man was a thorn in our side again and proved himself just too good. We couldn’t get anywhere near him as he turned and shot low from inside the box to give his side the advantage in Cardiff. I was deflated as my whole game plan was out the window. What do I do now? Attack and risk conceding again? Go defensive and try and get to half-time just a goal down? Or do I keep things as they are and hope for the best? I opted for the latter, not panicking, making no changes and hoping we could claw it back. Soon, everything changed.
In the 34th minute Manchester United had a corner, David Beckham stepped up and drifted it in but Yepes was on hand to clear the ball. It landed at the feet of Shearer on the half-way line. Big Al, jinked past Ronny Johnsen when the Norwegian defender tripped him. Since he was the last defender, referee Paul Taylor had no choice but to send him off!
RED CARD – RONNY JOHNSEN!
I could just imagine it, Roy Keane going absolutely mad and screaming in the face of the official as Johnsen left the field in tears for an early bath. This was it, my lucky break. Dwight Yorke made way for Phil Neville as Alex Ferguson changed to a 4-4-1 formation and this was it, the cup final catalyst - no more Mr. Cautious.
I changed my focus to Attack.
GOAL! KALLSTROM SCORES!
44 minutes played and we were level. The balance had shifted and we had the ascendency. It was frustrating that the goal came just before half time, I didn’t want the half to end. We’d come close twice previously before Kallstrom finished a nice move, assisted by Madeira who’d pulled wide and crossed for the on-coming Swede to steer home from 12 yards.
I took the lads to one side and fired a cliché-laden speech their way. “This was it, it was our time, just one more goal standing in the way of greatness”. I mean despite this being just the ramblings of a gamer on his laptop, it was kind of true.... virtually at least. Newcastle hadn’t won a trophy in 33 years and had never won the League Cup trophy in their entire 100+ year history. We had a man advantage for 45 minutes… all we had to do is score.
The break had been welcome for Manchester United and, after taking the 15 minute break to regroup, they came out all guns blazing. Van Nistelrooy had two goals ruled out for offside… we were up against it. I don’t even know how this was happening, we had an extra man – how were under the cosh?
82 minutes were on the clock and I thought back to the warm-up games against Boro and Bolton. It was my plan B, C and D all combined. I had to roll the dice in a last-ditch effort to break the deadlock.
Madeira and Selakovic made way for Bakircioglu and Risp. Against Bolton I’d contained the ball successfully playing 4-2-2-1-1. I tried the same thing bringing on Risp at the back and pushing Said into defensive midfield to hold the ball. Up front, I left Shearer on his own and gave him the individual instruction of man marking Edwin van der Sar. It was a risky move, but with a strategically placed midfield behind him, the offsides might not be much of an issue and using someone as clinical as Alan, all he needed was one chance and I knew he’d score.
As the clock ticked toward extra time I could feel my tactics change was working, Manchester were losing the battle of the United’s as Newcastle turned the screw. The last 5-minute possession bar was all black, we were going at them and with just 3 minutes left – the game was won.
GOAL! SHEARER HAS SCORED !!!
Arise Sir Alan Shearer. The man to finally bring silverware back to St. James. 87 minutes of the game had been played when Kallstrom knocked the ball upfield to Bakircioglu. Kennedy pulled wide, beat Phil Neville and squared the ball across the box where Alan was on hand to smash the ball home from 6 yards. Right-hand raised (both Alan on the pitch and I in the lounge) racing away in jubilation.
The screen flashed
“THEY’VE DONE IT.”
“Newcastle United Have Won the League Cup.”
March had ended, we’d won our first piece of silverware and, no matter what would happen, the playthrough had been a success. However, I wasn’t done there. I wanted to end the season with as many points as possible but, more importantly, I wanted to win the FA Cup.
While I was happy with winning the League Cup, something didn’t sit right with me. I won because Man Utd got a red card. I felt like I still had something to prove and the FA Cup was my only chance to prove it.
Could I do it? Win Newcastle’s second trophy of the season and become the first manager in the history of the football club to do so? It was all down to one game and against one team, the league’s best. Arsenal…
...Toon in next week to find out