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Remembering West Ham: When Andy Cole threw the title away

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Come back in time to May 1995, to a game in East London with a title on the line.

Mark Metcalfe

Welcome to a new, occasional series in which tBB revisits a old match against whichever team Manchester United happen to be playing at the weekend. Today, West Ham, and one of the most frustrating games in modern United history ...

As befits a team that's won quite a few titles, Manchester United have had good times and bad when it comes to last day title deciders. For every 1998/99, when United came from behind to beat Tottenham, pip Arsenal to the title, and complete the first part of the Treble, there's a 2009/10, when United went into the final day needing not only to win, but for Chelsea to slip-up. Rather rudely, the Londoners instead put eight past Wigan. At least that meant nobody really got their hopes up.

Then there's two last-gasp doings over at the hands of Manchester City, in 1967/68 and 2011/12. If the latter is probably still too raw to dwell on at any length, then the former — both teams went into the final day level on points; City had the advantage on goal average; they beat Newcastle while United lost to Sunderland — is ever-so-slightly rescued by the fact that United, just a few days later, won the European Cup. Which rather stole the limelight.

And finally, of course, there's 1994/95. West Ham United and Blackburn Rovers. Andy Cole and Ludek Miklosko. Black shirts and blown chances.

1994-95_table_after_41_games_medium

Going into the final day, United were two points behind Blackburn but in much the better form. The gap between the top two had widened to six points after a disappointingly meek 2-0 defeat at Anfield in March, but United had gone unbeaten ever since, a 3-0 home win over Arsenal sparking a run of 17 points from a possible 21. Blackburn, top of the table since November, had lost twice in the same spell, first 3-2 at home to an unusually helpful Manchester City, then 2-0 away at ... oh, look, West Ham again.

Truly, the Hammers were the stars of the run-in. It had been a difficult season in East London. Harry Redknapp was in his first year as manager, and his team flirted heavily with relegation for most of the campaign. But their form picked up in March, and by the time United rolled up in May they were secure in mid-table with, apparently, nothing to play for.

Not that you'd have known it from the first half. United were not at their strongest: Eric Cantona was missing, having attempted to kick racism out of football in his own literal, inimitable fashion, while leading scorer Andrei Kanchelskis was sidelined with a hernia. Mystifyingly, Mark Hughes only made the bench, and perhaps the rejigged lineup explained the defending champion's listless start. West Ham, for their part, set about spoiling the party with gusto, buoyed by a home crowd who quite fancied a bit of champion-toppling.

United managed just two shots on goal in the opening half hour — a low, scuffed drive from Roy Keane and a blocked shot from Nicky Butt — before the hosts, having hit the bar a few minutes previously, took the lead on 31 minutes. Former City player Michael Hughes arrived in the box to volley a neat finish beyond Peter Schmeichel. With news having come through that Blackburn were leading at Anfield — "Walking in a Shearer wonderland" sang the japesters in the Upton Park crowd — United were suddenly five points off the title, and a late shot onto the post from Cole didn't disguise the fact that United had been poor.

The mind quails to imagine the heat of Alex Ferguson's half-time hairdryer. Off came Butt, on came Hughes, and so began United's siege of the West Ham goal. The equaliser arrived in fairly short order, a Gary Neville free-kick tucked away by an unmarked Brian McClair. And up at Anfield, Liverpool were doing their part, first equalising and then, thanks to a free kick from the son of West Ham's manager, took the lead. Looking back on that goal, Jamie Redknapp later recalled: "I've never heard the Kop so quiet after a Liverpool goal, it was eerie. Everybody thought my goal had just handed the title to Manchester United, and it didn't sit quite right with the fans."

It hadn't, of course. History remembers that Andy Cole missed 237 sitters, sealing his national reputation as a man who scored a lot but missed even more. A more generous interpretation comes from Daniel Harris, writing in the Guardian: "It is true that he should have found a way to score at least once, but at each chance was confronted by an inspired Miklosko, diving directly in front of the ball such that transporting it past him was tricky."

Watching the highlights back now, it's clear that Miklosko was having one of those games: the Championship Manager wonder-keeper, irritatingly IRL. His second half began with a flying save from a Lee Sharpe header and, leaving aside the goal for which he was badly let down by his defence, he was more or less flawless. And it wasn't just Cole that was missing where he might have done better: McClair swiped over a volley from six yards; Denis Irwin clipped a free-kick a few inches over the bar; Hughes drew another flying save from the superheated Czech.

As for those Cole chances, well, there's maybe two that fall under "should have scored" as opposed to "could". The first was a shot from the corner of the six-yard box after a cute through ball from Paul Scholes; the second a snatched shot from about ten yards after some minor penalty area pinball. In both cases, you'd have backed Cole to score; in both cases Miklosko is out and massive in double-quick time to smother the shot. After the second, Cole's face is that of a man who has realised that he's picked the worst possible day to have one of those days. A couple more goalmouth scrambles later, Blackburn were champions, United were disconsolate, and the West Ham fans were highly amused. Up in Liverpool, two sets of fans lifted their voices in song.

Anyway, you know what happened next. United sold all their best players over the summer, lost the opening game of the following season to Aston Villa, and everybody laughed at their youthful teamsheet. Then Eric Cantona came back, the kids turned out to be alright, and things just seemed to sort themselves out from there.

Manchester United: Peter Schmeichel; Denis Irwin, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Gary Neville; Lee Sharpe, Paul Ince, Roy Keane (Paul Scholes 77'), Nicky Butt (Mark Hughes 45'); Brian McClair, Andy Cole

Goals: McClair 52'

West Ham United: Ludek Miklosko; Steve Potts, Mark Rieper, Tim Breacker, Keith Rowland; Ian Bishop, Matty Holmes, Don Hutchison (Martin Allen 85'), John Moncur; Michael Hughes (Simon Webster 88'), Trevor Morley

Goals: Hughes 31'