EXCLUSIVE: Stepney "Next Four Games So Important"
Legendary Manchester United goalkeeper Alex Stepney believes that the next four games, starting with Liverpool at Anfield in the Europa League on Thursday night, could define the club’s season.
Speaking exclusively to Retro United Alex, who made a staggering 539 appearances in goal for the club between 1966 and 1978 gives his view on United’s recent form: “They’ve been a bit up and down, we went on a bit of a run and I thought the Chelsea game was absolutely superb, we probably should have won that. It was a great goal by Lingard but then we fell short at Sunderland, we didn’t play well and that’s been the story of our season really.
“In the Midtjylland game Rashford got himself into the right place at the right time and that’s where you have to be sometimes to get those two goals. We won the home game quite comfortably in the end and that set us up for the Arsenal game. I know they came into the match on the back of a big defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League but we played the best football we’ve played all season in that game. It was open, with plenty of flair and I know it finished 3-2 but that’s the United way.
“That’s how we’ve won titles in the past, I know it was a bad mistake for Arsenal’s first goal when Welbeck headed the ball in and he didn’t even have to jump but we played exciting football, we played with wit and got crosses in. Now perhaps the manager has seen the light and that this is what it’s all about.
“Then we come down to earth with a big bump again, we scraped through against Watford and I thought that they were probably the better team. Against West Brom on Sunday Mata did the wrong thing, it’s a bookable offence to try and block a free kick and the other challenge he made is bookable nine times out of ten so there can be no argument there really. If we had eleven players on the pitch I think we would have won the game.
“That’s gone now but with West Ham doing well at the moment and City beating Villa it’s knocked us back to sixth place. We don’t play our next league game until we play City in the derby but before then we’ve got Liverpool in Europe and West Ham in the FA Cup. My opinion is, in the next two weeks or our next four games if we don’t win them then our season is over.”
Alex has been impressed with David De Gea’s form since last summer’s transfer saga with Real Madrid: “Since he came back about a month after the season had started after the shenanigans with Real Madrid he’s been brilliant. He never said anything in that period and left it to the clubs and agents to sort things out which was the right thing to do.
“His performances have been absolutely superb and if it wasn’t for him, because of the topsy-turvy way we’ve played this season we wouldn’t even be thinking about a possible fourth place finish.”
Ahead of Thursday’s Europa League game with Liverpool, Alex gives his opinion on the how the tie will go: “It’s not going to be easy, we didn’t play well there in the league but Wayne Rooney scored, obviously he’s not fit at the moment. Going back to my day, the great Sir Matt Busby used to say that in two legged affairs, if you draw the away game and win the home tie then you’re through but if you don’t win the home game you don’t deserve to go through.
“It’ll be interesting to see how Van Gaal puts his team out, they’re on a bit of a run, they got beat by City in a penalty shootout in the Capital One Cup final but they came back strongly and turned them over in the league. They’ve beaten City twice this year and we’ve beaten them twice in the league so hopefully that will help us. I would settle for a draw now, then it’s up to us to do our thing at home, we might have some more experienced players back by then as well.”
Alex has his own memories of playing against Liverpool and picks two games in particular that stand out: “The 1977 FA Cup final is definitely one because we were the underdogs that day and they were going for the treble. They’re great their supporters and they love their football but every time we play Liverpool I have to keep reminding them of what we did that day at Wembley.
“The other game is when we beat them 4-1 at Anfield when Wilf McGuinness was manager, Bobby Charlton scored and Ian Ure got one as well, I think that was the only goal he scored for United. To go to Anfield in those days and win 4-1 was phenomenal. George Best was the tormentor in that game as well.
“We always wanted to kick towards the Stretford End in the second half and they always wanted to shoot towards The Kop, when it was my turn to keep goal at that end they always gave you a rapturous applause as you were running towards the goal and as soon as you turned your back on them they booed you. You knew what you had to do though, you were playing against a fantastic team in those days and it was an honour to play there.”