EX-PLAYER MANAGERS MAKE THE GAME FEEL GOOD AGAIN


17th May, 1997. The stands of the old Wembley are 82,000 strong to watch a controversially relegated Middlesborough take on Chelsea. It's FA Cup Final day. Of course it is. Ruud Gullit is in the dugout at Chelsea and he really needs a win. Chelsea have just finished sixth in the Prem. He'd marched into the club that year exploiting his connections like an underworld mafia boss. He'd signed Zola from Parma, Vialli from Juve, Frank Lebouef from Strasbourg and Di Matteo from Lazio. Gullit's wily mobsters, the lot of them.

Di Matteo was dribbling into the Middlesborough half like Super Mario on a fucking golden mushroom. You know, if Super Mario actually liked football rather than plumbing and wasn't bothered about rescuing Princess Peach anymore. That would be him. Don't care who Luigi is, but Bobby Di Matteo was Mario. He made Middlesborough's entire midfield look like they were running the wrong way down an escalator. And ten yards away from the goal he let rip. An absolute thunderthwack that nearly broke the crossbar in two. Gullit was taking the Cup home.


15th May, 2002. Twenty-two of the world’s most banging players were hanging out in Glasgow. Madrid and Leverkusen were proper going at eachother in the Champions League Final.  Sure, Madrid were favourites - they'd won it in two of the last four years - but Leverkusen were pretty decent too. They had Michael Ballack anchoring the midfield and a moody Berba hanging about upfront with his hands in his pockets. Raul stroked one in in the 8th minute. Levurkusen weren't having any of that though. Lucio nodded one in off a Bernd Schneider free kick and got the I LOVE JESUS undershirt out just like Kaka would. But yeah. That didn't last long, did it. Zidane went and did that goal. The one that no-one understands. The best goal in Champions League history.

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26th May 1999. Fergie's finest hour. After already winning the Prem and the FA cup, the United squad headed to Barça with the intention of cementing themselves as arguably the best side in English football history against a burly Bayern. Starting without the first-choice midfield two of Roy Keane and Scholesy, Nicky Butt and Becks formed a patchwork midfield two in Fergie's classic 4-4-2. Carsten Jancker tumbled to the ground to win a free kick on the edge of the box in the opening minutes. Basler shot, wrapped it round the wall and let it dribble past a frozen  Peter Schmeichel. Eighty-five minutes later in Catalonia and Bayern were still ahead. Big Teddy Sheringham and a baby-faced Solskjaer replacing Jesper Blomqvist and Andy Cole. We all know what happens next. Two of the of the most gamechanging football substitutions ever made. Sheringham equalises on 90+1 with a goal that was so Special Brew it nearly shouldn't have counted. And then the impossible happeed. “Beckham... into Sheringham... AND SOLKSJAER HAS WON IT.” A toe poke just decided the Champions League Final. A toe poke. The kind you'd score at lunchtime in year 6 with the sole of your shoe hanging off.  What a beautiful, beautiful mess.

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The heroes of all these stories have since been back in the dugouts of the very same clubs. Di Matteo did that madness in 2011, stealing the Champions League from Bayern Munich in their own back yard. He healed the wounds that Chelsea had suffered from since That Night In Moscow™ and won Chelsea their most prestigious trophy in history. Zidane replaced Rafa at Real Madrid and went on to win Los Blancos' first league title in half a decade - oh, won the Big Ears three years on the bounce, making him the first man to retain the trophy, let alone do the same thing twice. What an absolute madman. We don’t know yet Solskjaer will do at Old Trafford in the long run, but Manchester's eternal substitute is doing pretty well so far.

There's actually nothing nicer than club legends coming back home and making everything alright again. It might be rare for it to actually work, but when it does it's so fucking wholesome. Like the footballing equivalent of rolling around in a big haystack, yunno. It makes the game feel good again.

Title Image Credit: Oleg Dubyna, via Flickr

James Simpkins

*Once* saw the top of Fellaini's afro.