Ahead of United’s first game of the Premier League season on Saturday. John O’Kane looks back at his involvement in the opening fixture of the 1995/96 season, a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, in an exclusive extract from his new book – Bursting the Bubble: Football, Autism and Me.
The summer of 1995 was a busy one at the club as Fergie sold Mark Hughes, Incey and Kanchelskis. There was uproar when they weren’t replaced but within the club there was a sense that the manager was clearing the way for some of the younger lads to progress. He saw the bigger picture and realised he had to trim the squad.
Sparky was one of my favourite players to watch in the way that he played every week. The way he held up the ball and how he’d battle with defenders, in a way I was jealous of the nastiness that he had because my own game lacked it. Incey was a typical cockney, with an air of arrogance about him but we always got on. He was brash and his car sported a number plate that read ‘Guvnor’ which wouldn’t have gone down well with the manager who probably saw Scholes and Butt coming through alongside Roy Keane and thought he had to go.
I remember watching Andrei’s ﬁrst game at Old Trafford against Notts County, we knew he was fast because we’d seen him in training but that night he was ridiculous and I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. He didn’t speak much English and had his own interpreter. That didn’t stop him being a bit of an extrovert who had a lot of conﬁdence in himself and he was an absolute madman when it came to drinking. I loved watching him play and he was a proper old-fashioned winger but Fergie knew that Becks was coming through so it was time for him to move on as well.
I was named on the bench for the opening day game against Aston Villa at Villa Park in a young squad that also contained the Nevilles, Butty, Scholesy and Becks. Eric was still banned at the time and there would have been a couple of injuries.
From a team point of view, it was a disaster because we were 3-0 down at half-time. In situations like that Fergie would have either gone ballistic or he could be very calm and just tell us to go out and win the second half. I came on for Gary Pallister after about an hour and Becks scored a late consolation from about 25 yards. It was his ﬁrst Premier League goal and I remember running over to celebrate with him.
It was a very sunny day and Villa Park was one of the best grounds I played at with a great atmosphere. They were blitzing us and I remember slide tackling Dwight Yorke as last man in defence when they broke away from one of our corners to save a goal. I had a really good game and enjoyed being on the pitch. I didn’t give the ball away but remember being told off afterwards for doing Cruyff turns and backheels. There was no pressure on me coming on though and I felt able to express myself. It was another game where I felt free and I didn’t get that with football a lot.
Obviously we were disappointed with the result and knew that Fergie wouldn’t be happy but secretly I came off buzzing. I knew I’d played well and the adrenaline or high I got from knowing that was the best feeling in the world. It’s difﬁcult to replicate again in life once you’ve ﬁnished playing. It’s indescribable and coming back on the coach that day I knew I hadn’t done my future ﬁrst team chances any harm. I know Becks would have been feeling the same way as well.
That game has now become more memorable for Alan Hansen’s ‘You can’t win anything with kids’ comment on Match of the Day that night. In fairness to him he’s a legend for what he did in the game and we were probably sat there after being battered 3-1 thinking he was right. I wouldn’t have taken too much notice anyway but the comment would have got the ﬁrst teamers’ and the manager’s backs up.
The reason that I didn’t play a part in making him eat his words by the end of the season by winning the double probably lies with my next ﬁrst team appearance a few weeks later. I made my European debut against Rotor Volgograd at Old Trafford and was subbed after just 26 minutes…
Bursting the Bubble: Football, Autism and Me is set to be released in September and is currently available to pre-order from Empire publications for £10. Link will be posted in the comments below.