Oldham Athletic. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1
(after extra time; score at 90min 0-0)
JUST as the toll of Manchester United disappointment was about to strike two yesterday, Mark Hughes revived a season that was threatening to rip itself apart. The champions and favourites are still in the FA Cup. . .but only just.
With 50 seconds remaining of a semi-final that had risen above the mundane only in extra time, United were confronting a second defeat at Wembley in two weeks. The Coca-Cola Cup had been surrendered to Aston Villa a fortnight ago and Oldham were about to snatch the second jewel in what once had been talked of as a domestic triple crown. Then Hughes struck.
Nicky Butt passed to Brian McClair, who flicked the ball over his head more in hope than in expectation. Hughes, who was one of few United players to live up to their vaunted reputations, raced between Richard Jobson and Craig Fleming and volleyed the ball venomously past Jon Hallworth.
It was a goal notable for the Welshman's upper-body strength, which withstood a defender's determination to knock him off balance, but it was outstanding for its accuracy and power. The ball could not have passed more than two feet from Hallworth but the Oldham goalkeeper did not have a hope of stopping it.
'It was a stroke of genius,' Joe Royle, the Oldham manager, said. 'If it had been anyone else the ball would have ended up in the stands. Before that United had not looked as if they were going to score. They were not hurting us.'
The hurt Hughes averted in the red corner was immense. A defeat yesterday would have left United with only their championship to defend in a season that once promised much. Weighed down with another psychological blow, the advantage would have probably gone to Blackburn, who are second in the Premiership and closing.
Instead Alex Ferguson's team have a chance to revive their Double aspirations in a replay at Maine Road on Wednesday for which the suspended Roy Keane and Andrei Kanchelskis will be available. As an added bonus United will have Eric Cantona, who missed yesterday's match with a ban, for an extra match in the climax of the Premiership. That, piquantly enough, will be against his former club, Leeds.
It was hard not to feel sympathy for Oldham, who did not create as many chances as United but who had command of the midfield for long periods. They had nullified the industry of Paul Ince, whose booking will put him out of the Manchester derby, and the dribbling skill of Ryan Giggs to manageable proportions and had every reason to feel their labours justified their lead, taken after 16 minutes of extra time.
Rick Holden took a corner on the left which appeared to be heading for Peter Schmeichel's grasp. The United goalkeeper dropped the ball, however, and Neil Pointon turned and lashed the ball past three defenders on the goal-line. Schmeichel claimed he had been impeded but if he had the only culprit was his captain, Steve Bruce.
Four minutes later Graeme Sharp could have put the result beyond doubt. Nick Henry took a quick free-kick and the Oldham striker was unmarked at the near post, but his shot billowed into the side netting.
The conclusion was out of spirit with what had gone earlier and only one shot on target was recorded in the first half. Oldham did not adopt the
4-5-1 formation that has been the vogue against United but, frankly, they did not need to. Giggs was ineffective until he switched from the left to the right flank after an hour, while efforts to locate Dion Dublin's head were frustrated by the woeful inaccuracy of the men crossing the ball.
As a result Hughes was isolated and Oldham created the best chance of normal time. Bruce headed clear after 52 minutes but could reach only the edge of the penalty area and Sharp shot with his left foot. Schmeichel's task was made more difficult by the ball bouncing in front of his dive to the right-hand post but he used his left and upper arm to stop the effort.
In extra time United, whose best efforts hitherto had been long-range free-kicks from Denis Irwin and Giggs, almost took the lead when Hughes headed Irwin's cross. Hallworth was going the wrong way but clawed the ball over with his right hand. That appeared to be the turning point, but instead it belonged to Hughes.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Parker (Butt 108), Bruce, Pallister, Irwin; Sharpe, McClair, Ince, Giggs; Dublin (Robson 73); Hughes. Substitute not used: Sealey (gk).
Oldham Athletic (4-4-2): Hallworth; Makin, Jobson, Fleming, Pointon; Bernard, Milligan, Henry, Holden; Beckford, Sharp. Substitutes not used: Brennan, Ritchie, Gerrard (gk).
Referee: P Don (Hanworth Park, Middlesex).
Cantona wins Players' award, Rangers held, page 35
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