City v United, 1993... Sutton, Crook, Cantona, Giggs ... what if?
- Credit: Archant Library
There was a time when City and United were slugging it out together at the top of the Premier League ... Chris Lakey ponders what might have happened if things had turned out differently back in the day
It is the great unanswerable question: what if?
With the visit of Manchester United on Sunday it is perhaps apt to repeat it, given the events of 26 years ago.
It was the inaugural season of the Premier League, which revolutionised football and helped do the same for Manchester United.
But it was also a season when Norwich City were better than they had ever been.
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Under the guidance of manager Mike Walker, the Canaries were mixing it with the very best. They started the season as relegation fodder; they ended it as the surprise packages.
City were top or thereabouts for large parts of the season - shortly after Christmas they were eight points clear - but faltered in the final weeks and had to settle for third place, behind champions United and Aston Villa.
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United boasted the likes of Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel; Villa had Paul McGrath, Dean Saunders, Dwight Yorke and Dalian Atkinson.
The Canaries had Bryan Gunn, Ian Culverhouse, Chris Sutton, Mark Robins, Ruel Fox, Ian Crook - and more.
This was a season when City were thrashed 7-1 by Blackburn Rovers, which knocked them off their perch; when Gunn and his family suffered terrible personal tragedy with the loss of their young daughter, Francesca.
In November they won at Villa, in December they lost at home to Ipswich, but still they were ahead of the pack.
March brought another win over Villa, but it was in April when things changed.
So. What if?
What if United hadn't ruined it all?
When they headed to Carrow Road on Monday, April 5, City were second, two points behind leaders Aston Villa, who had won at Nottingham Forest the previous day, and two points ahead of United in third.
What if City v United had gone a different way?
What if City's defence hadn't been breached three times in eight first-half minutes?
What if the referee had awarded what Walker said were two definite penalties?
What if the first and third goals had been flagged as offside - in the days well before VAR there was a hint of doubt that, with just one immediate chance to make a decision about Giggs' and Cantona's goals, could have been different.
What if United had not suddenly shed the nerves that had been evident in previous games and suddenly turned into a brilliant snarling beast of a team?
Here's what Gary Pallister thought: "I remember watching all this happen in front of me and thinking, 'Wow, that's amazing'."
And Sir Alex: "Some of our football was breathtaking, unbelievable stuff."
And what if, five days later, Steve Bruce, the former Canaries skipper, hadn't powered in that famous late, late header to beat Sheffield Wednesday and send Fergie jumping for joy?
So, to get to the question in hand, what if....?
Had City managed to hold on and win the title, thus extending what was then a 26-year wait for United to claim it, would things have turned out differently for either club?
With Fergie's Fledgelings emerging in 1994, you would have to assume that United were already a force to be reckoned with, so from their side of the argument, the point is perhaps mute.
From Norwich's it is a little different.
How would they have fared in the Champions League (United went on to beat Honved but then lost to Galatasary). The Uefa Cup brought success as City got through two rounds but then succumbed to the mighty Inter Milan - temporary buzz, but huge for the club in their only ever European foray.
And how would they have coped with defending their title? They began the following season with pretty much the same squad but ended up slipping to 12th.
What if Ruel Fox hadn't left for Newcastle in February 1994?
And then, what if Chris Sutton hadn't gone to Blackburn for £5m at the end of that season as Robert Chase sold off his shiniest of family jewels?
Had City won the title in 1993, might he have stayed?
In the summer of 1995, the Premier League dream was over. Two years after that great campaign, City slipped out, unable to return until 2004 under Nigel Worthington.
By that time, the picture had changed: United were massive, a world power, a behemoth, gorging on the TV money that top-flight football brings.
It was a feast City missed out on - and everyone who went hungry with them has been playing catch-up ever since.