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And here is Cantona and that’s three

04/04/2013

Norwich

Monday night games at Norwich don’t usually provide “favourite away match” material but the trip there on 5th April 1993 was something hair-raisingly, life-affirmingly, cockle-warmingly special. It’s one of my most vivid memories from watching United in the early 1990s and not just because of Norwich’s horrendous home kit. Of all the matches in that slow burning 1992-93 season this was the one where we genuinely started to believe that we might actually win the league. Many say it was Steve Bruce’s late winner against Sheffield Wednesday the following Saturday that was THE moment. Not for me. That Monday night at Carrow Road was when the alarm clock started ringing to signal our twenty six year title-less slumber was almost over. The following Saturday was us merely hitting the snooze button.

United went into the game lying in third place with the title reduced to a three horse race between Norwich, Aston Villa and ourselves. If we lost at Norwich then we’d be five points behind them with half a dozen games to go, another championship passing us by. Eric Cantona’s arrival in November had transformed the team but March had been a nervy month. A cracking win at Anfield had been followed by defeat at Boundary Park and consecutive draws against Villa, City and Arsenal. Where had that confidence of the winter months gone?

Of course, we’d visited Norfolk almost exactly a year before. We’d won 3-1 then and although it wasn’t entirely convincing we looked to be well on course for a first league title in 25 years. On the coach home afterwards the radio news reported that Labour were seven points ahead in the opinion polls with only a matter of days to go until the General Election. Everything looked rosy. Yet, it all unravelled in the space of a gut wrenching few weeks. That prematurely triumphal rally in Sheffield dented Labour’s chances and United’s title hopes disintegrated in the space of ten days in late April. By the end of the month we had another Tory government and Leeds as champions. I didn’t pick up a newspaper for weeks.

A year on and there was optimism in the air pre-match at Norwich that heralded the prospect of something special. United fans were in fine voice inside the ground with none of the day trippers that marred the final away game of the season at Selhurst Park. A Monday night trip to East Anglia tends to sort the wheat from the chaff. The game was billed as a tense title eliminator but for those magical first twenty minutes United were simply unstoppable, cutting the Norwich defence to ribbons seemingly at will. Giggsy put us one up after twelve minutes and a few minutes later Andrei Kanchelskis added a stunning second. Defence turned into attack in a mesmerising few seconds of one touch football, pace and movement as good as any goal scored under Alex Ferguson. When football historians of the next century consider the merits of Ferguson’s first title winning team that goal should be exhibit A. This was the pre-Keano blossoming of that vintage 1994 side.

We were still celebrating the second as Paul Ince rampaged through again, passed to Eric and it was three. Game over and mayhem amongst the travelling support. There’s a three minute clip on the internet showing the goals including Ian Darke’s commentary for the third, his voice betraying disbelief at what he was witnessing; “and here is Cantona…….and that’s three”. The Norwich keeper Bryan Gunn’s face after the third goal is a picture; caught between not knowing whether to appeal for offside, bollock his defenders or simply chuck his gloves away.

You know when people describe things as “breathtaking” and you wonder what they actually mean. That was it. When the third hit the back of the net I remember gasping for breath and momentarily composing myself whilst all around me everyone was going bananas.

Mark Robins got one back for Norwich in the second half but it barely mattered. It was a euphoric night. Bryan Robson came on with a few minutes left and we all bowed down in mock genuflection. We were in celebratory mood. No one was quite ready to sing “we’re gonna win the league” yet, certainly not after the previous season. But there was a confidence and swagger to United’s football that suggested that good times were just around the corner. And at last some reward for Robbo who, at times, had almost single-handedly carried us through the mostly lean years of the 1980s.

The following day’s match report in The Guardian described United’s football as “coruscating”. I had to look it up. It’s another word for sparkling. That’ll do for me. And as I floated into work Danny Baker on breakfast radio, ever the man to capture the mood of the terraces, described the match as like watching a top European side outplay an English side in European competition with crisp passing and movement.

What a night. In some ways it’s difficult to believe it was twenty years ago. In others it feels like a different era.

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