The passing of youth

As I watched England stroll to a victory over Wales, I gawped in awe at just how composed Jack Wilshere looked at the highest level. It hasn't been an isolated thought this season. From Arsenal's first game of the season away to Liverpool, via a Champions League double-header against Barcelona, and through to the present, the young midfielder has been a constant source of joy all year. So why then, as I basked in all this Wilshere-induced glory, did I have a niggling sense of annoyance planted in the back of my mind?

Well, for the first time ever watching a football match, I thought to myself: "he's younger than I am."

When we are young, the stars of the beautiful game tower over us. They are mystical beings. Masters of the most attractive craft. Throughout childhood, we see ourselves as invincible; the world as ageless. Only as our teenage years dwindle do we start to see choices arriving on the horizon. Yet even these decisions seem far  away; mere distractions that teachers and parents have conjured up to make us do a little extra school work. Rarely do the millions of children playing in parks on a Sunday morning possess the self-awareness to realise that their dreams of scoring the winning goal in a World Cup final are just a forlorn fantasy. Even the most devoted of young fans, when following the Under-17 or Under-20 World Cups, see those players as contemporaries: classmates if we'd gone to a different school. It's only when we see a new up-and-coming star that's younger than us - a Wilshere, a Josh McEachran, a Neymar - that the true physical evidence really confronts us: the dream in now over.

Life is defined by these moments. But because sports careers peak and troft at such a young age, often the dream of on-field glory is the one fans awake from first. Most other hopes have years of possibility left. We can still travel the world, write the next great novel, achieve fame and recognition in a host of other fields. But, after that moment as a sports fan, often for the first time in life, one dream is now permanently just a dream. Seeing these young players evokes a strange sadness, or perhaps regret, of chances gone and roads not taken.

Yet for all the sadness and regret, there is joy as well. For the passage of time allows us to form a perspective on history. When we are young, we know who the best players are (or at least who are favourties are) but rarely do we appreciate the intricate details that make them special. Our older friends and relatives can tell us that a player runs faster, passes better or tackles harder than anyone they've ever seen; we can nod, pretending to agree, but because at that age we have no experience, we can't truly appreciate that statement.

Once we have perspective though, once we see a legion of greats leave the game, we begin to acknowledge the beauty of true genius. In the halcyon days of youth everything is new: we can watch 50 different tricks and 50 different ways of scoring that we've never seen before. As we age though, novelty becomes less and less. When I hear Arsene Wenger say: "Jack is the best young player we've ever produced, " I understand how much that statement means. I've watched enough Arsenal youth products come through the ranks now to understand just how special Wilshere is.

There's a physical component to all this eulogising as well. Most of us, if we've ever played football, can recall a moment of personal brilliance: that last-minute winner against your local rivals, the penalty you scored that all your mates say is the best they've ever seen. Yet the moment when our body does what our mind conceives is fleeting. And so we wonder how anyone can score a goal like this or this or do this. Each year though, a flock of exciting, young players give these ideas substance. And isn't that the beauty of the game we love so much?

I may be sad that I will never run an England midfield single-handedly, but I'm still happy knowing that somewhere, someone can.



My Favourite Match: Brentford 2-0 Luton Town

If one man has the right to choose the definitive “Favourite Match” it’s author Tom Dickinson. For every time you’ve stood on a cold terrace in December, or damp stand in May, this man has done it thrice over. To find out how, or perhaps more likely why, visit www.92pies.co.uk  or www.twitter.com/92pies.  

Continuing our latest series then, Tom has chosen Brentford v Luton from 2009. Here’s why.

Looking at the favourite matches picked by the esteemed messrs Mott and Buckett it’s hard to argue with their choices.  Those Champions League ties involving United and Liverpool epitomise what makes football the most exciting spectator sport in the world.  Late drama, comebacks, cracking goals, world-class performers reaching career-highs and fans revelling in the glory.  Tremendous stuff!

Which makes it slightly contradictory that for my favourite game I’ve chosen a poor-quality and irrelevant League Two match between two teams I don’t care about.  But hear me out....

During the 2008/2009 season I had made a slightly odd life-choice to spend the year attempting to watch a game at all 92 English League clubs, writing about my experiences in my book ’92 Pies’ (PLUG ALERT – Out now!).
I had many trials and tribulations over the year, travelling as far as Plymouth and Carlisle in my dodgy old Peugeot 206.  It had been a wonderful yet testing experience watching that much, often shoddy, live football.  For months I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it, particularly after driving for over 4 hours to reach Crewe on a Tuesday evening in February only for the game to be called off at the last minute.  Devastating.

Anyway, the end of the season was nearly here, and it was at Brentford v Luton, my 91st match, when I realised for the first time that I was going to complete my challenge. 

Brentford had already won League Two with a game to spare, and would be presented with the trophy in front of their own fans today.   West London was braced for a day of glorious celebration.  The contrast couldn’t be any greater with Luton; relegated a few weeks earlier with their 30-point deduction proving too difficult to come back from.

It was a gorgeous sunny afternoon, the last day of the Football League calendar, top versus bottom, Champions v Relegated.    It was a match of zero-importance but maximum excitement.

Griffin Park is a beautiful old ground absolutely oozing character; popping up as if from nowhere in a nice residential area.  Indeed I had heard the legend of a pub on every corner of the stadium, so obviously it was my responsibility, nay, duty to check them all out. 

The atmosphere was building up tremendously; the crowd of red and white shirts was growing by the minute.  I don’t think I had ever seen a group of football fans more relaxed and content. 

I can honestly say that everything about watching the Bees was an absolute pleasure.  True, it was a very good day to see them, but out of the 92 grounds I went to that season I can’t think of a place with a more comfortable atmosphere than today’s at Griffin Park.  The mixture of the edgier earthier football fan with the families, lone football nerds and drunken neutrals (like me and my pal John) was seamless.  

Everything about the club was family friendly, but not in a sanitised 21st Century football club MK-Dons type of way.  There were even 1950s-style rattles going off throughout the match, the noise (perhaps just in my mind) resembling a bee.  More than 10,000 people were in today to see the 11th biggest club in London, a fantastic advertisement for the Football League. 

The game itself was extremely forgettable.  Half-time came and John and I realised that we hadn’t really been watching it; instead soaking up the atmosphere, the songs, and the funny company.  The substitutes were signing autographs and posing for photos when they were warming up.  It was a day for celebration.

The players were showboating, getting around the beleaguered looking Luton back four with some head tennis.  “That’s why we’re champions! That’s why we’re champions!” sang the crowd, right on cue.   People were barely watching the game, but rather waiting for the glory of the final whistle.  There was an almighty cheer however when Brentford took the lead in the 73rd minute through their centre-back Karleigh Osborne. 

The terrace was completely rammed.  We were right next to the base of the floodlight, so we could actually sit on this big concrete base amongst the supporters packed around us and still see the action well.  Full-time was approaching, but there was one last bit of magic when in the 89th minute Adam Newton scored an absolute peach; a curling shot from outside the box.  It was the final nail in the coffin of Luton’s season of misery and Brentford’s season of joy.  

The ref had re-started the game, but as soon as the clock hit the 90th minute the fans began the pitch invasion.
It was fantastic! John and I sprinted onto the pitch with the other hundreds and hundreds of Brentford fans.  The feeling was one of slightly naughty childish glee, running around celebrating, but also one of tremendous football ecstasy (despite neither of us actually being Bees fans of course).  “Championeees championeeesss! Ole Ole Ole!”

Eventually a curved archway-shaped champions podium emerged, and as a suited gent from the FA handed over the League Two title to manager Andy Scott, the fireworks went off, and red and white streamers exploded into the air.

All the right boxes were being ticked now.  Shower of confetti? Check.  Players wearing silly red afro wigs? Check.  Champagne poured over the staff’s heads? Check.  Players walking around the pitch with their kids on their shoulders, mingling with the fans? Check.

John began chatting to a player who could have been the star man or could have been a reserve team member, as is our lack of knowledge of the Brentford team.  But it didn’t matter, for during this final pitch invasion, these men were stars. 

As the Luton fans were watching the celebrations come to an end, I caught the eyes of some looking forlorn and desperate at their last sight of the Football League.  The contrast of the two seasons, Brentford’s and Luton’s, show why football is the best sport in the world.  How can two such different emotions be caused by the same game?

With silver streamers in my hair and some stolen Griffin Park grass in my pocket I was in a state of slightly drunken wonder as we exited the ground and went into the fourth and final pub. 
On a personal note I had one game left to complete the 92 in one season, up at Bolton, my own club, a week later.  I suppose my car could have broken down on the way to the ground or I could have caught leprosy and been placed under house arrest, but failing either of these happening I was going to complete my challenge. 

So there you go.  I could have chosen the best win for my own team I have seen (Chelsea 1-2 Bolton or England 5-1 Germany), the best actual game I have ever seen (Huddersfield 3-4 Port Vale) or the best team performance I’ve ever seen (Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid) but no.  My favourite game is the happiest that football has ever made me feel, at a small ground in West London with a pub on every corner. 


My Favourite Match: Port Talbot Town 2-1 Swansea City

Mark Pitman is a Welsh football journalist, regularly contributring to several blogs and publications, including  In bed with Maradona and The Ball is Round, all of which can be found via his own website http://www.markpitman1.com/. 

Continuing our "My Favourite Match" series he details the 2007 FAW Premier  Cup tie between Port Talbot Town and Swansea City. Enjoy.

When people reflect on their favourite moments and matches in football, it is easy to base judgement primarily on the result before considering the full ninety-minutes or more that had taken place. For my favourite match however, the occasion and reflective glory starts nine days before as the scene slowly sets itself for one of the Welsh Premier League’s crowning moments and a match widely regarded as the best ever for South Wales side Port Talbot Town. Sadly the FAW Premier Cup competition is now defunct but there are stirrings within FAW headquarters that the lucrative tournament may soon make a return, if the powers that be need any further justification to bringing back the competition that mixed the best of the domestic top-flight against their Welsh compatriots in the English pyramid system, then they should read on and enjoy one of it’s most romantic tales to date.

Having disposed of league rivals Haverfordwest County and Rhyl in the two previous rounds, Port Talbot Town entered a quarter-final draw that also welcomed in the English pyramid trio of Swansea City, Cardiff City, Wrexham along Welsh Premier League champions The New Saints. The quartet would be away from home in the last four, and the draw handed Port Talbot Town a lucrative South Wales derby against League One side Swansea City. With strong support for the Swans in the South Wales town a bumper crowd was expected for the match that would take place on Tuesday, 9th January 2007. While realistically thinking only of the bumper attendance and significant prize money that the draw would offer Port Talbot Town, the club also remained quietly confident that Swansea’s FA Cup run and 3rd round tie at Premier League side Sheffield United the Saturday before would offer them half a chance of claiming a huge upset.

That thought carried more weight in one way and less in another as Swansea City went to Bramall Lane and convincingly took Neil Warnock’s side apart with a 3-0 victory in one of the cup upsets of the season. Alan Hansen and company offered nothing but praise for the performance of Kenny Jackett’s side on Match of the Day that evening and as the highlights rolled, Port Talbot Town began to fear what could happen on Tuesday night. Jackett also offered a sarcastic warning in an post-match interview – “As the dressing room reminded me, the big game is on Tuesday night - we've got Port Talbot away in the Welsh Cup.” The win guaranteed a bumper crowd for Port Talbot Town that Tuesday night, but as queues formed outside the ground, the weather decided that the fixture would not take place.

If there is one thing guaranteed with Port Talbot Town, it is that games will not be called off due to a waterlogged pitch. This night however, possibly the clubs biggest night ever, would prove to be the exception to the rule. With a heavy bed of sand and even heavier investment into the playing surface, the ground boasts incredible drainage, but the visit of Swansea City would prove to be one of the very few occasions when wet weather would dictate matters and the much-anticipated fixture would have to be re-arranged.

As desperately disappointing as it was unavoidable, the match was called off an hour before kick off as torrential rain and a forecast of more to come left both Jackett and Port Talbot Town boss Wayne Davies to concede that the match would have to wait another week. The crowd dispersed and an announcement soon followed that the match would now take place on the following Monday night. One week later the crowds again arrived, milling around the surrounding streets for parking spaces and forming long queues into each turnstile. A change in the weather meant that the fixture was not in doubt and a record crowd of 2,640 prepared to witness FAW Premier Cup history in the making.

Swansea City treated the competition with respect and named a strong squad with a smattering of youth as Jackett rested a handful of his FA Cup heroes but still rewarded the crowd by naming established stars such as goalkeeper Willy Gueret, defender Alan Tate and star striker Lee Trundle in the starting line-up, in addition to some of his League One regulars on the substitutes bench should things not turn out as expected. Port Talbot Town named a number of former Swans in their starting line-up including Matthew Rees, who scored Swansea’s first league goal under Kenny Jackett, leading out his side as captain. As the two sides took to the field, Port Talbot appeared to have already made as much from the match as they could with a record crowd, but there would be a lot more to come.

Under the guidance of manager Wayne Davies, the home side were expectedly organised and cautious as Swansea City enjoyed long periods of possession in their own half. There were chances at both ends, although Port Talbot Town goalkeeper Kristian Rogers, a former Wrexham player and one-time Swansea City target, was the busier of the two. Matthew Rees came close for Port Talbot Town while former Swansea City striker Chad Bond, recently released from the Swans by Jackett, led the front-line alone but could not turn his half-chances into anything more as both sides went into half-time with the game level and goalless. A significant substitution at half-time by Swansea City showed that Wayne Davies was the happier of the two managers as Kenny Jackett brought on £300,000 signing Rory Fallon for young Joe Allen. Jackett appeared keen for the visitors to claim the victory inside ninety minutes with the introduction of the New Zealand International, but the dogged determination and exceptional stamina of Davies’s Welsh Premier League side would again prove frustrating for their high-profile opponents as the second half began.

After 58 minutes however, it seemed that Port Talbot’s battling performance would be in vain as youngster Kyle Graves scored from outside the area with a deflected shot that beat Rogers after playing a one-two with Lee Trundle. The relief was evident across the Swansea City fans, players and bench but the unfancied home side were not about to let their hard work be undone and continued to prove their worth as they pressured their opponents in midfield and substitute Martin Rose, replacing former Swan Bond on the hour mark, came close to scoring an equaliser. A fine save from Gueret followed and it seemed Swansea City would hold onto their lead.

That would all change on 74 minutes. A free-kick from Lee John in the middle of the pitch brought a well-guided header back across goal from influential midfielder Dean Johnston that would ask questions of Gueret and his fumbled attempt to catch the ball offered the challenging duo of Matthew Rees and Richard French the opportunity to score from close range. French was credited with the goal although Rees appeared to make just as much contact as the home faithful at the Burns Road End celebrated their equalising goal. The tide had turned and the match would move into extra-time. Swansea City had substantially strengthened their side with the arrivals of Adebayo Akinfenwa and Tom Butler, a two-goal hero in the win over Sheffield United, but it was Port Talbot Town who looked the fitter of the two sides in extra-time as they enjoyed more possession and even hit the top of the crossbar through midfielder Dane Williams early on in the additional thirty-minutes.

With their main three strikers in Akinfenwa, Fallon and Trundle now occupying the forward positions it was inevitable that Swansea would create chances in extra time, but for every attempt they created on goal, Port Talbot Town seemed to respond by creating two of their own. A strike into the corner of the net from outside the area by Richard French appeared to be heading for the back of the net before Gueret made another fine save, and the match was now just five minutes away from heading to penalties. With undoubted quality in the Swansea City forward line, a shoot-out did not seem the best option for Port Talbot Town, if they were to win they would have to score in open play. They did.

Enter Andrew Mumford. A 111th minute substitute for Dane Williams, Mumford was a familiar face to the Swansea City crowd as he had been named the clubs Player of the Year just a few seasons before. Released from the club by former manager Brian Flynn, Mumford was now back in his previous surroundings of the Welsh Premier League, but his performances had not even warranted him a starting place for what would be a very personal occasion for the midfielder. Within five minutes of his arrival however, Mumford had moved from squad player to the hero of the hour, as he scored an incredible winning goal against the club that had ended his Football League career.

Defender Craig Hanford is a talented player in his position and regarded for his tackling ability far more than for his creative ball-playing skills. On this night of all nights however, things would be very different, as Hanford picked up the ball outside the area before threading a perfect ball between to Swansea defenders and onto the run of Mumford. With the pass from Hanford matching his long strides into the area, Mumford hit the ball first time and into the same corner that French had seen his shot saved in minutes earlier. Gueret had saved the first effort, but he would not save this one. With four minutes left in extra-time, Port Talbot Town were ahead for the first time in the game.

Desperate defending followed for what seemed an age, but after just over 120 minutes of action referee Steve Hames brought the game to a close and with it signalled emotional celebrations from the players, management and supporters of Port Talbot Town. The side from the Welsh Premier League had beaten the FA Cup heroes of Swansea City. What was important about the victory however was the manner of it. As the game had progressed Port Talbot had become the better side, Port Talbot Town had deserved their victory. As the post-match interviews rolled, Wayne Davies echoed the above – “I think we were just a little bit too good for them”. He was right. There was also a memorable quote in the South Wales Evening Post newspaper the following week, as sports reporter Mark Orders stated in his review of the week - “A good week for Port Talbot Town – Imagine what they would do to Sheffield United.”

The opening line of this reflective blog stated the following – ‘When people reflect on their favourite moments and matches in football, it is easy to base judgement primarily on the result before considering the full ninety-minutes or more that had taken place’. On this occasion the result and performance were indeed matched by so much more, and that is why it was chosen. The drama started with Swansea City defeating Premier League Sheffield United in the FA Cup just a few days before the original fixture, this was then followed by the unheard of postponement due to a waterlogged pitch at Port Talbot Town. Roll forward a week and with a record crowd in attendance, one-time Swansea City Player of the Year Andrew Mumford scores the winning goal against the club that released him, after latching onto a previously unheard of perfect pass from Craig Hanford.

But there was something else, something far more poignant and significant than the story that unfolded on the field, as the match also marked the opening of the ‘Gerald McCreesh Stand’. With a safety certificate granted on the morning of the match, the 750-seater stand would be used for the first time and also filled to capacity for what would subsequently be a fitting occasion. Named in memory of the clubs late Vice-Chairman after his untimely passing, no better script could have been written, planned or played out than the two-hours of football that would mark the opening of the memorial to the outstanding contribution he made to the football club that he loved.

People remember certain games, people remember certain moments from games, others reminisce on football occasions and stories that take place outside of the ninety-minutes. From the build-up the week before to the emotion of the victory and the occasion, to the stories that evolved on the field to the fact that a record crowd were there to witness, the match did indeed have it all. Standing behind the goal and in the same corner as Andrew Mumford’s winning strike, the initial impact of the result over-shadowed the sub-plots and romance that would evolve form the victory, but it is the collective memory of the match and its accompanying stories that single it out from countless others.

If this article has excited you as much as it has us, check out the extended highlights of this fantastic game here.

Visit http://www.markpitman1.com/ for links to all blogs, news stories, features, reports and opinion as the big Welsh football news stories break. You can also follow Mark Pitman at www.facebook.com/1markpitman and www.twitter.com/markpitman1.

My Favourite Match: Southampton 4-3 Norwich

Next on our list of favourite matches, we're truly "keeping it in the family" as Rob Buckett, cousin of Sam, recalls Southampton v Norwich from the 2004-2005 season. It's better than it sounds, honest.

Inevitably seeing this game in the midst of all the other fantastic matches that will be on the blog, this gem will be under estimated. It shouldn't be. This particular season in the Premier League was arguably one of the most enthralling in terms of exciting games. Arsenal beat Everton 7-0 in typical Gunners fashion, also narrowly beating Spurs in the North London derby 5-4 at White Hart Lane. This particular weekend was to an extent somewhat overlooked as the Champion's League semi-final between Liverpool and Chelsea was to be played out the following week. But for fans of Southampton, Norwich, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham, only one thing mattered in the next few weeks. Getting points necessary for survival.

At the tender age of nine, I personally had never been more nervous about a football match (barring my first competitive game, a 10-1 loss to Faringdon U'10s). Neither had my Dad. The Saints had struggled all season only winning five games, compared to Norwich’s six. For the first time in my life, I was concerned for the fate of my beloved club. The amount of times my Dad and I shared words, even eye contact, were very few. Nerves seeping through, just like it does for any football fan in this situation.

Home games at St. Marys had been limited in excitement for us that season. Loosing against Mourinho’s frustratingly brilliant Chelsea, drawing to Palace, City and Arsenal brought little excitement, with the exception of David Prutton pushing over Alan Wiley in an act which can only be described as ‘Di Canioesque.’  However, seeing such players as Didier Drogba and Robin Van Persie was a treat compared to what we had been used too: Paul Telfer and Jason Dodd didn’t really compare but the mighty Saints had a decent little team, or so I thought. Kevin Phillips, Jamie Redknapp and most of all Peter Crouch. So against a Norwich team that were as poor, if not poorer than us, we expected a cracking game. And what a cracker it was.

The game started at a high tempo with Norwich taking the lead after three minutes through the on-loan David Bentley, moments later Saints hard man Matt Oakley equalised.

After a shaky start, the following fifteen minutes portrayed the Southampton fans faith in their team, chanting ringing around St. Marys. On the twentieth minute their support was duly rewarded when some good interplay between Kevin Phillips and Jamie Redknapp allowed Peter Crouch the opprtunity to volley home.  The support from the home crowd was visibly encouraging the Saints players to take control of the game, only for them to throw the lead away once again; Norwich playboy Darren Huckerby forcing Danny Higginbotham to put the ball into the back of his own net. Thirty-one minutes played, four goals scored, let's just all calm down. Veteran Graeme Le Saux disagreed with my sentiment minutes later, rifling an unstoppable volley into the roof off the Canaries net past Rob Green, I didn't take it personally. Pleased to have regained the lead, Saints fans headed in for their nerve replenishing pint, only for Leon McKenzie to draw his side level once again via a Dean Ashton cross. Three-three at half-time.

For the first time in my spectating career, my half-time tea and Kit-Kat, were unenjoyable ones. What was to follow could likely define Southampton’s fate in the Premier League and as the teams arrived for the second forty-five, I was more nervous than I'd been before kick off.

Moments back in to the game and tensions grew furthermore on the South coast as Antti Niemi pulled off two world class saves from the efforts of Dean Ashton and Simon Charlton. Groans rang round St. Marys as Henri Camara replaced Graeme Le Saux. A change of shape wasn't the issue; a poor season from the Senegalese striker had left fans acclaiming him with the pace of a cheetah, but the skill of a donkey.  Opportunities came and went for both sides, with neither willing to over commit. However, as the game drew to a close, just as nails were getting to an unbearable level on the finger, the aforementioned Camara rifled in a twenty-five yard strike that whistled into the bottom corner, sending his side four-three up with minutes left to play. Old 'Arry had pulled it out of the bag, and as Southampton saw the game out, the Mule had won it.

If a tear didn’t fall from the long suffering eyes of a Southampton fan on that day, they should be ashamed.

Since that very day, I’ve never been to a more exciting football match, which is probably understandable as I have seen Southampton through to now League One football. To be perfectly honest I wouldn’t have it any other way providing three quarters of the attendance at the Johnstone’s Paint trophy in which we won four-one makes me proud to be a Saint.

Perhaps also worth a mention would be the surprising two-nil win against Blackpool as recently as January this year, in which Ian Holloway labelled the Southampton fans for vocally questioning his club’s Premier League credentials. We may well see who is “having a laugh laughing” at the end of this season, when both clubs could once again face each other in the Championship.

I can concede the fact that the result didn’t provide a trophy, nor a penalty shootout and neither a place in the prestigious history books, but in the circumstances it left my Dad and I in ecstasy. For the first time we believed, believed that we would hold Premier league status for at least one more year.


Why do I dislike Barca so?

Last summer, two major transfers were played out like soap operas within the throngs of mass media. David Villa (signed) and Cesc Fabregas (who didn't) both pledged themselves to Barcelona, leaving Valencia and Arsenal looking like a man whose girlfriend had just been pinched by an entirely charming, beret-wearing poser, who also managed to do a really good job of assuring them they should be entirely flattered by all the attention. Barcelona are experts at this. The most widely fawned-over of all clubs, theirs is a velvet-gloved type of imperialism. It is time someone took a stand against all this, and showed the world what Barcelona really are: the world's most annoying club.

Mainly, it's to do with their swooning self-entitlement; not so much the idea, but the manner in which they paint themselves as 'mes que un club'. The fact is, all football teams are 'more than a club'. Oxford United do some cracking work in the community.

Even more annoying is Barcelona's unshakable conviction that they are intrinsically better. Never mind the fact that they are such tyrants in Spanish football that they negotiate their own television deals. They've even now neglected their one redeeming feature, and gone from Mother Theresa to Bono with the signing of a $400 million sponsorship deal with the nation of Qatar. No other football club anywhere insists with such needy, weepy fervour that you love it. This is an intense batting of eyelashes and I refuse to swoon.

Then there is Barcelona's cultural imperialism. This a more subtle form of home invasion, than say, a shirt-flogging friendly in the Far East. Instead, Barca style themselves as an elite product: the kind of brand-obsessed people who feel they are above buying brands. Barcelona are an iPad team, a Bang & Olufsen team; something undeniably good, but yet somehow tarnished by the accumulation of universal approval. With this in mind, it's easy to be annoyed by manager, Pep Guardiola. He's clearly bright, probably very nice, but he spoils this by looking like a smug advertising-type; the sort of person who owns a vintage, stylishly chipped wall-length mirror.

Above all, I dislike their tippy-tappy, non-contact style of play; deemed, like Barcelona themselves, as intrinsically 'good'. The popularity of this style owes a lot to the fact that it looks good on TV: a televisual style, suited to the armchair fan. It is so obviously and demonstrably high end. Ohh look - a backheel. This is good football, even if you know nothing about football. Accessibly high-spec, like a bottle £50 Sauvignon Blanc. Of course, it's nice to watch, but that doesn't mean it's 'better'.

Those who know me will see this as a complete contradiction; for when Arsenal take to the pitch, I always see myself drawn to them. "It's beautiful to watch", I'd say; "there's nothing like them in the Premier League". But really, it's the fact they've won nothing playing that type of football that draws me in. There's nothing more satisfying than seeing something beautiful smashed in to a thousand pieces.

And perhaps that's the point: Barcelona have won trophies. Barcelona are brilliant. And Barcelona know it.


My favourite match: Portugal 1-0 Netherlands

Third in our 'My favourite match' series sees Carlos Santos - Toronto FC fanatic and founder of the TFC Blog - eulogise over the 2006 World Cup, round of 16 match between Portugal and the Netherlands.

For me, this game was one of the more memorable from the 2006 World Cup. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect.  My niece’s birthday party brought together two sides of the family, fittingly Portuguese and Dutch. With a barbecue going strong and a bottomless cooler of beer, we all sat down to watch together.

One of the big stories prior to kick off was the dropping of Ruud Van Nistelrooy.  A decision Van Basten would come to regret.

Portugal started the game with a four-four-three formation, penalty kick maestro Ricardo, in goal. Ricardo Carvalho, Fernando Meira made up the center-back partnership, with Miguel and Nuno Valente as full backs. In Midfield, Costinha, Maniche and Deco, with Figo, Ronaldo and Pauleta in front.

Similarly, it looked like the Netherlands were to play in a four-four-three shape, with Van Der Sar in goal. Boulharouz, Mathijsen, Van Bronckhorst and Ooijer in defence, Cocu, Sneijder and Van Bommel in midfield. Robben, Van Perise and Kuyt up front.

A methodical start by both teams, seemed to cancel one another out. However, soon enough the tone was set as Van Bommel went in studs up against Cristiano Ronaldo’s thigh.  The injury sustained rendering him infective for the little time he spent on the field. This proved to be the first incident to raise the temperature as Ivanov, the Russian referee, chose to keep his card in his pocket.  

Eventually the game began to open up, Arjen Robben, the flying Dutchmen, continued to be stonewalled in the final third by Miguel’s fantastic defensive work, aided by the covering Carvalho. The intense Nuremberg heat taking its toll on both sets of players, some visibly dripping with sweat inside the opening exchanges. “POR-TU-GAL” ringing from the crowd as they urged the game on. Moments later, a rush of blood earned Maniche a booking for a vengeful tackle on Van Bommel, the original foul was by Boulahrouz, but anyone would do.  

As the camera panned to a great sea of Orange in the stands, Van Basten could be seen standing calm and cerebral in front of his dugout. Big Phil screaming with arms waving in signals toward his players.  I once read that big Phil provided each of his Brazil squad with a copy of ‘The Art of War’ in order to prepare mentally.  He’d clearly read it too.

Then on the 23rd minute, it happened, a piece of pure beauty and skill that would forever seal the memory of Maniche amongst fans worldwide.  Deco on the right provided a laser pass to Pauleta who with back to goal, quickly layed the ball to the on rushing Maniche, who after side stepping his defenders fired a ferocious effort past Van Der Sar. The stadium erupted as Maniche ran towards the fans, screaming and thumping his chest.  The Portugal fans were in ecstasy, pure nirvana.  This was not the first time Maniche had scored against the Netherlands and the announcer echoed “the Netherlands must be heartily sick of Maniche”. They were.

After the restart the Portuguese fans provided a symphony of song once again, driving the team forward to attack.  The Netherlands were temporarily deflated.  Both teams unwilling to give an inch, the tackles started flying and the yellow cards handed out.  Ronaldo unable to continue as a result of Van Bommel’s earlier challenge was subbed for Simao.  Fighting back the tears, he wondered if his World Cup was over.

Soon after, Van Persie began to show his skill, turning defenders into pretzels and crossing into the box with no-one to connect. At the third time, he must have been wondering what Van Nistelrooy was doing on the bench. He’d have hammered one home.

As the counter attacking football began to flow, with surging runs up field from both sides, discipline began to lapse. Some of the decisions by the referee seemed to be pure madness, Nuno Valente flew in to Arjen Robben, slamming his studs against his chest in the box. Goal Kick. Moments later the referee produced a second yellow card for Portuguese midfielder Costinha, heading into halftime with only ten men.

Now a man down big Phil started the second half by pulling off Pauleta and bringing in Petit, exchanging the forward for some midfield solidarity.  The Orange came out attacking and very nearly scored when Cocu blasted the ball from point blank range against the bar. As it bounced off the line and out, he couldn’t believe his luck. Once again, Ruud would have scored.

The Netherlands soon began focusing their play through the middle of the park, no doubt due to the half time talk from Van Basten, and it was starting to see some success as several opportunities arose. Rafael Van Der Vaart was introduced on the fifty-sixth minute, replacing Mathijsen, increasing the pressure on the Portuguese defence. However, playing with a man less, Portugal almost capitalised on more than one occasion, playing effectively on the counter attack.

Then on the fifty-eighth minutes, an altercation between Luis Figo and Van Bommel, saw the Real Madrid legend throw a head-butt, only to receive a yellow card.  Soon after Boulahrouz unwisely attempted some revenge, receiving his second bookable. The Orange swam the referee to no avail.  Both teams now playing with ten men, Van  Basten pulled off Van Bommel and introduced Heitinga, a midfielder for a defender.

Both teams continued to attack on the counter, fans chanting, fouls continued. In the seventy- third minute, tempers flared once again as Deco grabbed the ball to prevent a quick restart. Another yellow card saw the third sending off and Portugal down to nine men. As the Portuguese fans booed Ivanov, Big Phil seemed to be losing his marbles.

Moments later it looked like Kuyt would equalise, finding himself wide open in front of goal. Disappointingly he fired straight at Ricardo and the attack died out.  Where was Ruud?

Further substitutions saw the introduction of Tiago and Vennegoor of Hesselink replacing Figo and Cocu respectively. Chances shortly followed at both ends of the field, only for referee Ivanov to incredibly add six minutes of stoppage time. As the one man advantage encouraged Holland to press for the equalizer, any such hope was cut short as Giovanni Van Bronckhorst leveled the deficit with another booking. Nine men each, with two minutes to play.

As the final seconds of the game played out, players sent off for both teams could be seen sitting in the stands alongside one another in disbelief, in all sixteen bookings were given, a World Cup record. As the final whistle blew on one of the most dramatic games I have ever seen, Portugal progressed through to the next round where they would meet England once again.


My favourite match: Liverpool 3-3 A.C. Milan

Continuing our latest feature, Sam Buckett, co-founder and editor of Get the Mott and Buckett, recalls the greatest final of all time and his favourite ever match: the 2005 Champions League final, between Liverpool and A.C. Milan.
Born and raised in Oxfordshire, my love for Liverpool, whilst not geographically responsible, was inherent from the very beginning; full responsibility of which falls with my Dad. Although we don’t mention it now, he did once turn up to Rush Common Primary School circa. 1974 with a freshly knitted Leeds United bobble hat. However, soon after his persuasive elder brother introduced him to all conquering delights of LFC as European matches began to be televised more regularly. By the time he arrived at Fitzharrys Secondary both of the Buckett boys were firmly Red, and so have been every one since.
As the season of 2004-2005 kicked off, things were looking good. I’d finally become a teenager and Liverpool had finally replaced Houllier with the exciting Rafa Benitez. Within days, a boyhood hero, Michael Owen, was shipped out and two promising signings made in Alonso and Garcia. The season ahead promised to be a good one, and having passed through puberty some time before, my full hopes for the year were vested in football rather than just balls.
However, domestically, Liverpool were no more impressing than the season before, blowing hot and cold as Benitez instilled his first changes at the club. Eventually they would finish fifth, the first time since 1987 that Everton would finish higher.
But it was in Europe where the real excitement was, however similarly to the league, it didn’t start well. After a disappointing group stage, Liverpool found themself needing to beat Olympiacos in their final  game by two clear goals. As much as I want to detail the ins and outs, the two brilliant substitutions, the strike, the steward embracing Benitez, and a catchphrase which until recently Andy Gray was most famous for, I shan’t. Liverpool went through 3-1, and both my Gramps and I did a little bit of wee as they did so.
On that note, I’m going to jump to the final. Between here and there we saw off Bayer Leverkusen, Juve’ and of course, Chelsea. And by the way, it did cross the line.
For twenty-one days following the victory over Chelsea, all I could think was “25th May 2005”. I’d written it over all my school books. I couldn’t sleep. Finally, Liverpool were in a European Cup final in my lifetime. I couldn’t have been more excited.
As tradition ruled, European nights were and still are spent (when at home) round my grandparents’ house, where my Granddad, Dad and I take over the lounge, served by my Nan. Usually burger and chips are on the menu, but on this occasion I was too nervous, I’d settle for a roll at half time if things were looking good I decided.
Before the three of us had got comfortable there was already a shock, Harry Kewell was to start. In and out of the team with injuries, he’d failed to impress all season, but had somehow managed to convince Rafa to pick him ahead of Dietmar Haman, meaning Gerrard and Alonso would make up the central partnership with Riise and Luis Garcia either side. Most, including myself, had expected Hamann to start in the middle allowing Gerrard to play off the forward, Milan Baros.  The back four was as strong as possible, Finnan, Carragher and Hyypia with the weak link of Traore picked at left back. The decision to play John Arne Riise in front of him was made to give as much protection as possible to the Malian.  Jerzy Dudek was of course between the sticks.
Opposingly, Milan seemed to have no weak links, progressing top of a tough group (Barcelona, Shakhtar and Celtic), and coasting past Man Utd, Internazionale and PSV to reach the Ataturk Stadium, Istanbul. Their line up on the evening needed no introduction: Dida, Maldini, Nesta, Stam, Cafu, Seedorf, Pirlo, Gattusso, Kaka, Crespo and Shevchenko. You’d have struggled to find a better player in any of their eleven positions, particularly in the diamond formation which so suited their four midfielders.
As the teams emerged, the stadium was noticeably rocking. Of the 70,000 seats, Liverpool fans had managed to gain the overwhelming majority, walking, running, and in some cases climbing into the ground.  It was going to feel like a home game.  Gattuso though thought not, nonchalantly caressing the trophy on his way to the pitch.
As the home team, Liverpool kicked off. By now excitement had merged into terror, and the heart of a young Sam Buckett strained to believe it had started. This was it. This was really it. Within seconds the ball was pumped long as Liverpool tried to expose the ageing Milan fullbacks, not to be, at least not yet. A composed Milan start earned a free-kick left of Dudek’s box, conceded by the man they planned to target, Djimi Traore. Andre Pirlo presided over the dead ball as the Rossoneri set up their first attack within the opening minute. As the ball curled in front of Liverpool’s new zonal marking system, they failed to attack the ball and Milan captain, Paolo Maldini, met it with a sweet right foot volley. Less than a minute had been played, and in what seemed like slow motion, the ball cannoned off the ground and past the helpless palm of Dudek. Disaster.
Although it seems a strange thing to say, the goal almost settled my nerves. We liked to do things the hard way and surely now Milan would sit. They’re Italian after all. Well, apparently not. A mad twenty minutes passed, with chances for both sides. Both Riise and Hyypia came close for Liverpool, with Luis Garcis clearing a Hernan Crespo header off his own line. Harry Kewell was removed on the twenty-fourth minute, a thigh injury to the Aussie meant that Vladimir Smicer would get the chance to make his final appearance for the club.
If the first twenty-five minutes had been anything to go by, then there was sure to be more chances for both sides. And there was. Shevchenko had a goal disallowed for offside and squandered another opportunity moments later. At the other end, Liverpool had looked a lot less threatening, the biggest hope of an opportunity turned down by referee, Manuel Gonzalez, as Alessandro Nesta handled inside his own area.  Within seconds of the appeal, Kaka was carrying the ball deep into the Liverpool half, a cheeky chip on the inside of Traore left Shevchenko the easy task of squaring to strike partner Hernan Crespo, who duly delivered a second blow on the thirty-ninth minute.  If my nerves had been settled by the first goal, they’d been shattered by the second. Milan’s front three were overwhelming any defence Liverpool tried to stand up. The only hope now was to get to half time, regroup and try and find Robbie Fowler.
The thought of being two nil down at half time to a side with thirteen European Cup winners medals between them was a daunting one, and what happened next was devastating. As Kaka once again picked the ball up inside his own half, he played what I consider to be one of the greatest; if not the greatest pass I’ve ever seen, slicing the Liverpool back four open like a knife through butter. Once again Hernan Crespo finished the move with an equally delicious finish. “Game well and truly over” said Andy Gray.
As the half time whistle was blown, moments after the third goal, Milan had not only broken the hearts of millions of Liverpool fans worldwide, they’d proceeded from the very first minute to cut it into tiny pieces and embarrass us on the biggest stage in football . As the tears began to roll down my face, I’d seen enough. I even refused my Nan’s advances of a marmite roll. I couldn’t stomach it. As the fifteen minutes passed all I could hope for was perhaps a goal, a bit of respectability. Very little was said between the three of us, two cups of tea and one can of coke drank in an atmosphere which can only be compared to that of a wake. It felt like someone had died, at thirteen I’d have probably taken that over the impossible task ahead. At nineteen, I'd still take that now.
Meanwhile in Istanbul, something special was happening. Nearly every report you read differs, but one thing is for certain, something happened in that Liverpool dressing room at half time, something that would go down in legend. One thing I’m sure about is that Steve Finnan, the Liverpool right-back was replaced by Dietmar Hamann. The Irishman was adjudged to be injured by the physio and unable to carry on, despite his protests. As he slumped into the shower, Didi was given his final instructions, and a new shape was to emerge for the second half. If they were to achieve the impossible, they’d need to go for it, forget throwing the sink, they’d literally have to remove all white goods.  Hamann was tasked with protecting the new back three, quelling Kaka’s creativity and allowing Gerrard and Alonso to go forward without inhibition. Milan inevitably believed they had it won.  As both teams appeared for the second fourty-five, the Liverpool anthem bellowed from around the stadium; surely more in pride than hope. It was at this moment that I was reminded by my Dad to not give up the faith, “when you walk through a storm” and all that.
As they kicked off, the new shape of the Liverpool side allowed a much freer, interlinking midfield to stretch the game as Milan sat on what would surely be more than enough to see them through. Liverpool continued to dominate as Alonso sent a thirty yard effort inches wide of the post, it wasn’t happening yet, but the belief that we could at least gain something from the match was starting to warm slightly. By now the more advanced role of Alonso was causing Milan problems, and as he played the ball wide to John Arne Riise, we had an extra man in the box. His cross was met by Steven Gerrard, and as if by sheer will, the captain forced his header into the far corner of the net, sending the Ataturk stadium, Merseyside and my Nan’s front room into raptures. As he ran back to his own half, waving hands aloft in encouragement to players and fans alike, Gerrard embodied the spirit of Liverpool.
What happened next, can only be described as impossible. Substitute Vladimir Smicer, the man making his final appearance for the club, received the ball thirty yards from goal. As the Czech pushed the ball in front of him, I knew he’d score. He hadn’t looked particularly lively; he hadn’t in fact looked that lively for the last few seasons, but as he unleashed a thunderbolt from twenty-five yards, I knew it was going in. I don’t know why, but before the ball had hit the back of the net I was celebrating. Three minutes before we we’re three goals behind, somehow we’d gone from wanting to save face to one goal behind. To say Milan looked shell-shocked is an understatement, the Italians were startled and showed little sign of regaining composure. And then, for some reason, unknown to all including himself, Jamie Carragher was unleashed in the Milan half. Perhaps he knew what was coming, his pass sent Gerrard into the box, only for Gennaro Gattuso to bring the skipper down. If I’d leapt with excitement at the first goal, I nearly put myself through the ceiling this time. Penalty. Disbelief set in, here was the chance to draw level after being three goals behind to arguably the best team in Europe. I couldn’t watch. As I peered from behind a cushion, I was pleased to see Gerrard give the ball to Alonso, the captain’s penalty activity of late had not been up to usual standards and the Spaniard had been ably replacing him for much of the season.  Seconds later I was regretting my decision as Dida provided a strong hand down to his right, the ensuing milliseconds seemed like decades as Alonso chased down the rebound, finishing high into the net at the second opportunity. Three-Three.  The commentator screamed “It’s wonderful, it’s marvellous”. It really was. As I flew around the front room, embracing any family member I could grab, I realised that I would never forget the last six minutes. The best three-hundred and sixty seconds of my life (don’t tell the missus).
To say the next thirty minutes were strange, is once again, an understatement. Both teams were in shock. Neither knew whether to press or to sit. Both had chances and both squandered the best of them.  As the final whistle blew, I still couldn’t quite believe that I wasn’t in the car on the way home.
So to extra time, both teams were visibly tired, leaving chances few and far between. Ragged shape on both accounts meant that at points Gerrard was playing as a right back, centre mid and playmaker, such is the man.  Pirlo and Tommason the only two players with any view on goal in the first fifteen.  As the clock ticked towards penalties Jamie Carragher made two important interceptions whilst visibly suffering from cramp, throwing himself on balls like a good soldier on a bomb. Then with seconds to go, a lofted ball into the Liverpool box was met by the head of Shevchenko, only for Polish keeper Dudek to push the chance away. As the Ukrainian’s momentum carried him forward the opportunity to place Milan’s name on the trophy presented itself as the rebound landed at his feet inches from goal. If the night hadn’t of been outrageous enough already, the save produced by Dudek was nothing short of world class. As he recovered, standing to his feet, he turned and nodded his head; “you might as well start engraving Liverpool on this trophy now” rang from the commentary box. Full time in extra time: penalties.
As the players regrouped, I was confident. Even more so when I saw Carra reminding Dudek of Grobbelaar’s exploits in ’84. Milan to take first, and substitute Serginho blasted horribly high. Advantage Liverpool, and in such situations who else could you call upon than Dietmar Hamann? The German had almost singlehandedly, without scoring albeit, turned around Liverpool’s game. He finished coolly as I knew he would. Next for Milan, Andrea Pirlo. Wobbling on the line, Dudek read the Italian’s stuttering run and dived to his right to push away a soft effort. At which point I was ordered to calm down. It’s not over yet.  It wasn’t, and as the Lord of Frogham Manor (Djibril Cisse) stood up, I understood my Dad’s cynicism. He needn’t have worried as the Frenchman sent Dida the wrong way, 2-0. Charismatic Dane, John Dahl Tomasson sent my heart racing once again as he scored for Milan at the third attempt, only for Riise to miss the following spot kick. Next up, Kaka, back then he didn’t miss from inside the box, and he made no mistakes smashing the ball past the keeper. Up rolled the Czech, as if he hadn’t done enough on his final appearance for the club, here was the opportunity to give his side the advantage going into the final two pens. Dida stayed put, and Vladi signed off with a strike into the bottom corner. One penalty left each, and if Shevchenko missed there would be no need for Gerrard to step up, the trophy would be in his hands.  As Shevchenko stepped forward, he looked shocked. How could this be happening? They were celebrating as champions at half time and now he needed to score from the spot to keep his side in with a chance. Dudek shifted on the line, diving to his right as the Ukrainian dispatched the spot kick. Time stopped, for me anyway, as the Pole left an outstretching left hand in its path. Saved.
Liverpool had produced the greatest come-back since Lazarus and won the European Cup. Finally, Steven Gerrard joined the likes of Emlyn Huges, Graeme Souness and Phil Thompson. Never had it been more deserved. As my Dad drove me home, scarf out of window, tooting supporters in the street, the tears that rolled down my face only a few hours ago couldn’t have been farther from my mind. What a bloody night.



My favourite match: Juventus 2-3 Manchester United

In the first of a new series, Alex Mott, co-founder and editor of Get the Mott and Buckett, looks back on his favourite game: the 1999 Champions League semi-final, second leg between Juventus and Manchester United.

I'd flirted with Chelsea and Newcastle in previous seasons - being seven at the time, I think I'm exempt from the inevitable criticism - but it was the Treble winning United side that ignited a fire inside me that has not since gone out. I was unsure about the game before them. It never really interested me. France '98 the previous summer, just seemed like an excuse for my dad not to take me to the park. I remember watching England vs Argentina, and not being that bothered by David Batty's missed penalty. So why Alex Ferguson's men struck such a chord with me, I do not know. Perhaps it was the unhinged intimidation of Peter Schmeichel. Perhaps it was the bombastic runs of Denis Irwin and Gary Neville. Perhaps even it was the immaculate flowing locks of David Beckham. All of these are possible, but it was more likely the partnership between Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole that cemented my love.

I'd love to say, as a child, Ronaldo or Batistuta were my heroes; that the mystique of football on the continent entranced me into playing. But that would be a lie. What made me want to play the game was the telepathic connection between two men; one from Nottingham, the other, Trinidad and Tobago. Two people who had never previously met, and yet managed to strike up the greatest goalscoring partnership British football had ever seen. This game, it transpired, would prove to be its crowning glory.

The first leg at Old Trafford had ended in a 1-1 draw. Ryan Giggs with a last minute goal for United, which, if truth be told, they barely deserved. A midfield triumvirate of Conte, Davids and Zidane completely out-manoeuvred United's British quartet; an away-goal was the least they merited. Advantage la vecchia signora.

The stage was set for the second-leg. United would have to score. Juve were going for their third consecutive Champions League final. And as luck would have it, they were the masters of the 1-0 win. It would be a cagey affair; typically Italian. Or so it was thought.

The atmosphere was electric, not only at the Stadio della Alpi but in the Mott household. As far as I was concerned, this was the most nervous I'd ever been. As the flares went off in Northern Italy, I prayed for a United goal. Six minutes in: disaster. As Zidane played a short corner, his teasing cross came all the way across the six-yard box and was met at the far-post by Pippo Inzaghi. 1-0 on the night; 2-1 on aggregate.

As if I wasn't inconsolable enough, five minutes later, Juve made it two. Conte on the far-hand touchline made a cutting ball into the box. Inzaghi had his back to goal. Jaap Stam marshalling him tightly. Then, something that hadn't happened all season: Stam was turned. With that extra half-yard of space, Inzaghi got his shot away. It looked tame, Schmeichel would save. But an inexplicable deflection took the ball over the giant Dane. 2-0 Juventus; 3-1 on aggregate. Just as I'd found my love for football, it seemed a tiny Italian would be the one to take it away. How could it be this cruel?

Game over. I was ready to give up. Thankfully for me, Roy Keane wasn't quite ready to abandon the cause. It may have been the Cole/Yorke combo who made me want to play, but it was this Roy Keane performance that showed me how. A mere mention of Keane and Turin to United fans would make them - those who are usually stoney-faced at a funeral - go misty-eyed. On 24 minutes, a Beckham corner was met at the front-post by the Irishman, and flcked past the flapping Angelo Peruzzi. Unbelievably, United were back in the game. From then on, Keane's hypnotic passing and tireless energy dragged the Red Devils up from the abyss. Juventus looked into his eyes and saw only an absolute certainty that United would go through. They would have been less scared if Pol Pot had of walked onto the pitch.

At 2-1, Keane was booked for a cynical foul on Conte. It meant he would be banned for the final. Such was the character of the man, this only spurred him on. 10 minutes later the strikers' telepathic connection come to the fore. Andy Cole on the right-hand side put in a pin-point cross towards Yorke. Mark Iuliano was caught flat-footed. The smiling Tobagan flung himself at the ball: 2-2. Astonishing.

Half-time came, and at the point where my dad would normally send me to bed, even he realised this was something special. I was allowed to watch the second half. Half-past-nine on a school night; I couldn't believe my luck.

The second half was a blur; a mixture of tiredness and nervousness. Fighting to keep my eyes open, Inzaghi had a goal ruled out correctly for offside. Moments later, Denis Irwin went on a mazy run down the left flank and caught Peruzzi unawares with a rasping shot. As the ball flew past the 'keeper, it looked for all the world as if the hideously underrated Irishman would score the goal to confirm United's passage to the final. It hit the post.

Six minutes to go, and United were going through on away-goals. It was a tightrope perilously close to snapping. Inzaghi was still being a thorn in Stam's side. Zidane was, as always, pulling strings. A Davids' shot was saved by Schmeichel. He pumped the ball forwards. Hanging forever in the air, Iuliano tried to clear first time. The ball rolled towards Dwight Yorke, 25 yards out. With one touch he took it towards the central-defensive pairing; with the other he skipped through them. Both players falling flat on their backs. Striding towards goal, Yorke took the ball round Peruzzi, only for the 'keeper to bring him to the ground. Penalty! No. The referee had played advantage, and the onrushing Andy Cole tapped the ball into the unguarded net. 2-3 United. 3-4 on aggregate. The English champions had made it to their first European Cup final for 31 years.

As Fergie sprinted along the touchline, I joined him in my living room.

I could have picked any number of games as my favourite of all-time: Hungary 6-3 England for its lasting impression on football in our country; AC Milan 4-0 Barcelona for it being the best performance in a European Cup final; Brazil 4-1 Italy for the same reasons, only on the international stage. But I didn't. I chose this match because, ultimately, it's the match that made me love football.