Port Value, 1994

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“There was a full house of some 18,000 fans at Vale Park, which might not seem a huge crowd now but it felt massive to me at the time. My mum and dad were there to see me, so was my future wife Claire, and her parents and, yes, I was really nervous.” Paul Scholes

If we all have a grand High Noon moment in our lives, when you give a far reaching ultimatum which can go either of two ways - yours, or the rather uncomfortable ‘tits up’ - I very much doubt anybody would want to use it up in Burslem. Vale Park to be precise. For a League Cup 2nd Round tie where Alex Ferguson was suggesting he wouldn't even be playing a full strength side.

He rather under played the reaction to team selection decisions made back in 1994 when he said last week: “If you go back to when I started playing young players in the League Cup, a lot of people complained”. Rather. MPs wanting to make a name for themselves spoke in Parliament about it, in typical uproar fashion as they do about each passing fad that they can be recorded in Hansard about, and Port Vale fans, rather than hoping it would give them an edge, took the unusual step of complaining that they had paid money to see our big stars, rather than their own team they were meant to support. Then again, their lot were all coming out of the woodwork - ‘come to see United’ never more apt, so whatever surprise from us about why would you ever care or be bothered about who the opponents were selecting, yet again, in a prelude to events with the FA Cup a few years later, United were suddenly devaluing the competition. And action should be taken they demanded. A fine the best they could come up with as possible punishment.

That we won got forgotten in translation, and proudly giving Newcastle's first team squad a testing tie at theirs the next round, and nowadays of course I bet there are bores in the Potteries who have about turned and now proudly say they were there the night the likes of Paul Scholes, Gary Nev, Becks and Nicky Nicky Butt, Nicky, Nicky Butt began their journey. Joan Walley is still an MP there, her attention rather than moaning about what United were doing might have been better focussed on the future finances of the club in her constituency.

Fergie's thinking wasn't mad, and had method. The previous season in our return to top flight European competition, we'd reached the Final of the League Cup, losing out on our quest for a domestic Treble to Aston Villa, but in the process of selecting near full strength sides for each tie, and an eventual unappetising conclusion, we'd perhaps affected (well, that and our naive approach that season against Galatasaray, those ties of dodgy refs and Eric rows with coppers) our greater chances as in the run up and weeks to the ties against both the Turks and Honved, we'd wasted energy in League Cup ties (starting in the 2nd Round then, remember) against Stoke. Something had to give, and with the 19954/95 season now a six match group phase, ultimately disappointing in an educating group against Goteburg, Barcelona and Galatasaray, again, Fergie made his move. Drawn against Port Vale in the 2nd Round, to be played just a week after a 4-2 home win over Goteburg and a week before the return trip to Galatasaray, why risk the first team squad? Fergie explained his thinking in the excellent ‘A Year in the Life, The Manager's Diary’: 'We will play the young players. Because of European commitments we've got to use all our resources and, anyway, it is time players like Paul Scholes, Keith Gillespie, David Beckham and Gary Neville took the next step. We'll have a firm base. I shall play Denis Irwin, Roy Keane and David May at the back, and put Choccy up front so that there is someone with experience in there.” Gary Walsh, Butt and Simon Davies made up the rest of the starting XI, with Lee Sharpe, Kevin Pilkington and John O'Kane the subs.
“We've been talking about it for two years now and if they are not given a chance now it will be too late, they will go to other clubs who will get the benefit of the training they've had at United. I have no doubts about their ability or their temperament… Gary Neville's natural position is centre-half but unless he grows another 2 or 3 inches he is going to get beaten for height. Gary is playing at full back and is comfortable there. I've always believed in identifying a player's weakness and, if that weakness could deter him from being the top player in the team, working out where else he would fit in.”

“Gary's younger brother Philip is a fabulous player too. He might play at Port Vale, but he is injured. He has been playing far too much football. It is 20th September today and he has already played 23 games this season. It's unbelievable. It's down to the number of games he plays with the England youth team. I'm bored out of my skull listening to the number of friendly games England have that he's got to play in - and the training programmes. It's crazy. The FA says schoolboys should play a maximum of 50 games per season, but I think it should be monitoring the number of games they play right up to their twenties…. and they are still playing the long ball. My scouts have come back and said that they have just wellied it up the pitch. England national teams! I think Terry Venables has a big job ahead of him sorting it out. But we are going to give Philip a good rest because he is going to be a really good player.”

Whilst we now know that the early rounds of the League Cup will be a right ragtag mix of youngsters and those needing a game from the fringes of the squad, and perhaps a little saddened that we don't see more of those wanting to be the next generation, back then this was all a surprise move. Those of us who don't follow Reserve and Academy games with anything but a nodding interest, knew that these young lads about to feature at Vale were heavily tipped for big things, so much so that many had gone to latter Youth Cup stages to see them in action. We weren't entirely disappointed then that the focus was to change for the League Cup, but I wouldn't say we were that bothered or excited about it. Now we'd won the competition, and started to dominate its own latter stages, we'd got a bit bored of it now there were bigger and better European competitions every season, so this was the kick up the arse that it needed; to allow Utd to utilise its games to check out those who might not feature in the other competitions. But at the time we were all very nonplussed by all the fuss either way.

That isn't to say we didn't want to be there this night. Having missed the League Cup ties in ‘83 and ‘86 (where there'd been a lot of trouble in town) this would be a new ground with United for me and the neurosis of missing a new ground to scratch off the list can make you act a bit unhinged. I worked at a University at the time - bland job, surroundings and management - and with new term/year in September/October being manic as loads of unwashed hairy people in their first years don't know what they are doing or where they are going, it was part of your contract that you couldn't take holidays during those two months just in case some twat in a beanie hat wearing an organic jumper needs your help. I wanted a half day, to have an afternoon of ale in Vale and enjoy that strange sensation of going to a new ground, and hoping you'd never have to go back.

“No. You are needed to instruct some wanker on how to read a sign” was the response, or something like that, as I weighed up my actions. Conform, and curse air all day as I knew I wouldn't be missed (as I'd made fucking off afternoons by counting clocks and doing nothing an artform all job anyway), or just fuck it off and face the consequences. I couldn't afford to lose the job. I already had baby IOUs which are now to this day (I still owe my brother for the Legia Warsaw trip money…) full grown adult debts nagging me day and night, but I couldn’t miss Port Vale away either.

So this was my moment. I'm sure people save it - High Noon - up for use years later when taking on real proper life dramas but I've always peaked too soon so I posted - by mail! - a letter to my boss saying if he looked for me the next afternoon I wouldn’t be there I was using my entitled holiday to sup some ale which would give me the shits in Burslem. But put nicer than that. First class too.

We arrived near the ground to be confronted by all the pubs near their very unbustling centre saying ‘no away fans’. Some had variations of this ‘No Man U’, and we decided to adopt a James Bond approach to overcome these stringent threats. Bouncer on door: ‘Are you Man U?’ (not quite the Yorkshire ‘Are you Man U, U?’). Us: ‘Nope’. We thought we'd be sussed, what with having only a thumb on each hand, but he ushered us through.

The ale was nice though, and we talked of the kids we'd see which we didn't know that much about, but pretended to know more as is the right of any good pub bore. There wasn't that much hostility even though the pub must know - they always do, or so you always think - and none of the locals we spoke to (who could speak) seemed remotely bothered about what United side was being put out, though some admitted they wanted to see Cantona. They all just wanted to beat us, the name, United. That's the point that those who don't get football always miss.

We headed in and whatever resistance Port Vale had offered in ‘86 seemed in decline as a hostile attack near the United entrance by the car park was soon repelled, the only Red casualty one who had fallen arse over tit trying to throw a punch. We had the section behind one goal and seats to its right. There were spaces in both; United then still not one that would sell out at every single game, whatever impressive followings, and not quite yet on the League Cup away days bandwagon it is now.
The atmosphere was good. United have always - though in decline at the moment - done irony well, and wind up opposing fans in the process. So if they were frothing about our team ahead of concern about theirs, why not laugh about it. Boyle did well to get a good few going about the age of the United team: ‘Back to school in the morning’, ‘Choccy is their teacher’. It helped make the night. After going behind to a Lee Glover header deflecting in a shot from the edge of the area, we settled soon into a stride, and we were in total control, off and on the pitch, vocally, verbally, and Fergie's gamble had paid off. Paul Scholes, a two goals debut. We took notice.
Scholes in a shirt that looked borrowed from his Dad, oversized, scored the equaliser with a lovely dink over their keeper and the second from a now all too rare header which in the build up had seen a two footed challenge from Nicky Butt which nowadays would be a straight red.

Fergie was happy. “John Rudge (Port Vale manager) told me that even his wife was one of the people who complained!” Rudge wasn't stupid though, he put in a £1m bid for both Beckham and Scholes. Fergie just laughed at him. “The youngsters' inexperience helped them in a way. They really didn't have a care, they just attacked. Their performance was totally lacking in care. There were suggestions that we would be reported for fielding a weak team, and the local Stoke MP had a moan about Port Vale supporters buying tickets under false pretences because they had expected to see Cantona and Giggs. But I think our fans wanted us to do what we did. They'd never seen some of the young players, even though there has been so much talk about them. It was important for the fans to see them, particularly in a situation that wasn't easy. I felt that it was important to play them all together, because there may come a time when I have to play two or three in a league game. There will be one or two of them knocking on the door fairly soon.

David Beckham had a good game. He's a big, gangly lad, and, it seems, a late developer, he's only just beginning to get his strength. We used to bring him to games in London - he was our mascot at West Ham when he was 12. We don't get many players from London because usually they don't want to leave, but David's family are daft about United. He is going to be a good player. He watches the senior players, he practises all the time, his quality in the use of the ball is fabulous, and he works all the time on his technique.”

We all know what happened next. The wider context I mean rather than the lesser talked of duller 2-0 win at home to Vale in the 2nd leg. This game became the blueprint for blooding youngsters in the competition, and though we remain concerned that ever since it's not been enough players making it, the conveyer belt works in pure theory in the amount that remain in the game, if at a lesser level. Reds will argue that Fergie's comments then about giving kids a go before they head off doesn't ring quite true with regard to one Paul Pogba.

Back then Paul Scholes was rewarded by being a sub in the league game at Ipswich (2-3) the following weekend. He came on, scored and went on to score 7 goals in 10 full appearances (and 15 as sub) that season. David Beckham played 10 times, Gary Nev 27, Phil Neville 3, and Nicky Butt 35 times. Fergie said earlier this season: “They created a great spirit here”. That spirit took us to great places, and can be argued is still here, probably why Fergie is so keen to keep Giggs and Scholes around, all these years on. Incredible. Sometimes you forget just how amazing both are.

And me? Well United wise whilst it was the start of something great with the kids, the season flatlined after Eric's kick out at Selhurst Park and a devastating last week where we failed to beat West Ham and lost the title to Blackburn, and an inevitable follow up defeat in the FA Cup Final to Everton, where Reds took out their frustrations in running battles with police under the stands at half-time in the old Wembley tiers.

The League Cup run ended at Newcastle (0-2). Fergie played more experienced players but when asking Eric if he wanted to play that night, was told: “I think Scholes deserves to play, they won the game at Port Vale, you should stay by them.” And that he did. Just the same as my boss (until I jacked it in the following year), who gave me a glare the next morning but never again mentioned our trip to Port Vale. He didn't even mark it off as my holiday. A wholly memorable, forgettable evening.

Insignificant to him, a benchmark for us.

from RedNews198

Pre-ordering is open for our next double issue of RedNews (276/277) out October 12th - supporting mags right now with no games to sell at is huge for us.

Pre-order Print at https://rednews.bigcartel.com/produc...e-october-2020

PDF Pre-order at https://rednews.bigcartel.com/produc...e-october-2020