Preview: Man Utd v Norwich

Dan Brigham asked sportswriter and Manchester United fan Rob Smyth to preview the game, but instead they talked about the ’92-93 season, Norwich’s defence changing the course of Premier League history, Roy Keane slagging us off, Eric Cantona stamping on John Polston, the decline of Wayne Rooney and how to beat Louis Van Gaal’s side

Dan: Let me take you back. April 5th, 1993. Norwich are second in the Premier League, two points behind Aston Villa and two ahead of Manchester United – tonight's visitors for the Monday night game. Win this, and Norwich go top. Good news: Mark Hughes is suspended. Bad news: Alex Ferguson starts with three wingers: Ryan Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe. Norwich couldn't cope with their pace and were 3-0 down in 20 minutes, with Kancheslskis' goal the blueprint of quick, one-touch attacking football that was to come over the next couple of decades under Ferguson.

Mark Robins pulled a goal back but it finished 3-1, and five days later former Norwich player Steve Bruce scored a winner in the seventh minute of stoppage time for United against Sheffield Wednesday and United went on to win the league for the first time in 26 years.

So: are Norwich responsible for Manchester United dominating the Premier League for the next 20 years?

Rob: Ha, well, we’ll never know what would have happened had United not won the league that year – I don’t think Alex Ferguson would have been sacked, because they had obviously improved so much, and there was no social media demanding that he be shot because they hadn’t won in five.

But we do sometimes forget the trepidation with which United fans approached that game – they hadn’t won in their last four league games and many people thought they were going to bottle it for the second year in a row. (Whether they actually bottled it in 1991-92 is another story, but that’s the perception.)

Hughes was suspended, a big thing in those days when there was no real squad rotation. Most people thought he would bring in Bryan Robson and play it safe, with three in central midfield. Instead he brought in Kanchelskis – who had been peripheral that season – and put Giggs up front. It was a masterstoke. The second goal is still one of the great counter-attacking goals by Alex Ferguson’s United, and his selection was exceptionally courageous in the circumstances. He became far more cautious tactically in the 2000s, but in the 1990s he almost always took the aggressive option, certainly in domestic football. I would certainly say this was one of the most important games of the Fergie years – the Sheffield Wednesday game is best remembered for obvious reasons, but in the counter-attacking, the speed, the swagger, the tactical courage under pressure and the sheer class of the attacking football, this was far more representative of Fergie’s first great United side. You could argue that this was the night they took a shortcut to greatness: over the next seven months they won 20 out of 22 league games.

So yes, in short, Norwich’s faulty offside trap changed football history.

Dan: What was particularly irritating was that Norwich's record over United in the 1980s had been really good, and I believe (I might even fact-check this at some point) that Norwich were Ferguson's bogey team by the time he retired. Yet they did the double over us that season, with Eric Cantona magnificent in a (lucky) 1-0 win at Old Trafford earlier in the season (Paul Ince wasn't so impressed by Cantona after the game though, saying "It’s all very well doing the flicks when you are winning, but when you are losing it’s more important to have someone to put their foot in." What a plonker).

Talking of Cantona, do you remember his stamp on John Polston's head the following season at Carrow Road? I was there for that game (think it was a Cup game), and Cantona did it off the ball and got away with it. It was caught on TV though – this was Man United, so obviously they were on TV in the Cup – and Fergie called Jimmy Hill a "pratt" for saying it was despicable...

Rob: Yeah, the FA Cup game at the end of January. You could make a good case for that being the start of Anyone But United culture: after that everyone really piled into United, especially during the mad March when Cantona was sent off twice in four days and Peter Schmeichel and Kanchelskis were sent off as well. It got to the point that Alan Mullery wore a Blackburn shirt on TV because they were United’s main challengers.

Everyone talks about the Polston thing – from memory it was more of a back flick to the head than a proper stamp, though it was still a red card – but earlier in the game he did an utterly ridiculous tackle on Jeremy Goss that would be a straight red and six months in the clink these days. I don’t remember it that well, the whole game, though in his book Keane says that Norwich started it. “What really bugged us was the thought that these guys were out to make a name for themselves by sorting us out. Why the fuck didn’t they put the effort in every week, then maybe they wouldn’t be playing for fucking Norwich or Swindon.”

I think it’s fair to say most United fans didn’t look forward to playing Norwich around then. There were a lot of bogey teams in Fergie’s early years – United were shite – but Norwich were near the top of the list. They did the double in 1988-89 and 1989-90 and then knocked United, who were the holders, out of the FA Cup the following season. Some of those wins were absolute thrashings, certainly the 2-0 on live TV in 1990, when Fergie was so spooked by Norwich that he used Paul Ince as a sweeper.

By the time you were relegated United were generally beating you every time, though it was rarely comfortable. Fergie says very nice things about Norwich in his 1994-95 diary after a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. “They do come to Old Trafford and enjoy themselves ... It’s always good to play against them, always refreshing. They come and have a go, they’re not afraid to play ... I enjoyed the game to the point that, if they had equalised, I couldn’t have denied them deserving the draw.” Then of course you beat United again in 2005 and a couple of years ago. It got to the point where it was almost funny. Almost.

Dan: I never knew Ince was used as a sweeper. Extraordinary. There must be a Premier League XI of players used in ill-suited positions (Steven Gerrard as a defensive midfielder. Arf.)

The last time Norwich beat you was in the middle of an absurd 10-game unbeaten run under Chris Hughton in 2012-13. It was Alex Ferguson's last away defeat in the Premier League, and you played a really static 4-4-2 and created very little. It felt like the Norwich defence were standing around whistling and waiting for a United charge that never came. I'm still not quite sure how you won the league so convincingly that season.

Only two from your starting XI that day are likely to feature on Saturday – Michael Carrick and Chris Smalling – while you seem to be playing a flat 4-2-3-1ish rather than a flat 4-4-2. So, Rob, what on earth has gone wrong since that season? Did Fergie really leave the squad in decline, or have David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal failed to get the most out of the players? Or maybe you think things are on the right track? Or maybe you just don't care anymore?

Rob: It’s a very complicated case. Lotta ins, lotta outs. I do think that Fergie left a relatively poor squad and that, in terms of managing resources, he was never better than in the four years post-Ronaldo. United often looked dreadful in that time, yet they won two titles and missed out on the other two by a point and goal difference respectively. The greatest trick Fergie ever pulled was buying Robin van Persie. That won him the title, meant he went out as a winner, and also hid the poverty of the squad he was handing over, so that he could always say, “Well we won the title by 11 points in my last season, it can’t have been that bad.” Trouble is that Van Persie effectively retired with Fergie. If Moyes and especially Van Gaal’s teams had the 2012-13 Van Persie, they would be so much better. He was majestic from August to about February, by which time United were 12 points clear.

United are in a weird place now. I’m not sure Van Gaal is underachieving that much, even though he has made some pretty eccentric decisions. They can be extremely boring, though that is a different argument. There is a culture of entitlement in modern football that can’t be a good thing. I suspect there’s no way back from Van Gaal after the last 10 days – I don’t think he’ll go soon, but I think things have turned enough to ensure he won’t find a way back. It’s not like 1989-90 when, although Ferguson was rightly under immense pressure, there was far less noise because there was no internet. If that was now, Ferguson would have been sacked before he won a single trophy at United, never mind 30-odd.

Dan: Yeh, the Burnley and Hull boards should be commended for sticking with Sean Dyche and Steve Bruce last season despite facing relegation – and now both teams are very much in the Championship title race. Same goes for the Leicester board for sticking with Nigel Pearson last Christmas, despite them being bottom of the league and him coming across like a shotgun-wielding, sinister cartoon villain from a Guy Ritchie movie.

Talking of Leicester – tangent klaxon – that's a wonderful story, isn't it? It's like Norwich in ’92-93, but the difference is Leicester will have the resources to spend big in January and really go for it...

Rob: Yeah it’s been unbelievably refreshing. It still feels temporary, and I don’t think they’ll go as deep into the title race as Norwich did, but it’s been great. How good is Riyad Mahrez? That question could be rhetorical or interrogative. The problem is that he surely won’t be there next season. If even clubs the size of United and Liverpool have become feeder clubs for others, then Leicester don’t have much chance. I’d love to see that team stay together for a couple more years.

Dan: Even if they somehow win the Premier League, or at the very least get Champions League football, Mahrez will be off. And N’Golo Kanté. While Jamie Vardy will be playing for a Steve Bruce team within three seasons. Mark my words.

Back to Van Gaal and a culture of entitlement. Aren’t United a big enough club, with enough money and resources, for their fans to rightly expect their team to entertain them?

Rob: Hmm, I don’t know. The idea of football fans having a right to the right style of play is dangerous, because it creates a culture in which unrealistic demands become the norm, and that’s why there’s such a ridiculous turnover of managers. I know Fergie was the exception, with a level of genius almost beyond comprehension, but if fans had got their way with him he’d have been sacked in 1989.

The other thing with the Van Gaal criticism is that the general tedium of the last four and especially the first four years under Ferguson has been airbrushed out of history. Apart from the winter of 2012, when United kept going behind and therefore had to chase games, it was frequently dull and sometimes cowardly: the performance at City in the 2011-12 title decider was offensively meek and inept. I suppose Van Gaal’s tiki-takanaccio has taken it to another level of boredom, but it would be interesting to see how the strategy would work if they had, say, Sergio Agüero up front rather than Wayne Rooney.

Dan: It feels like Van Gaal is trying to get United to be Spain at Euro 2012 (imagine Rooney in that team...). Tiki-takanaccio is boring for many – Boris Becker included – but, for Spain at the Euros, highly effective – even without an Agüero, or any striker for that matter. The difference is that Spain had reached a level of absurd technical brilliance, while Van Gaal's United, well, haven't.

Let's not forget, though, United have the best defensive record in the division this season (and only one conceded at home!), and are just six points off Leicester, so Van Gaal must be getting something right. What's the best way for Norwich to play against Van Gaal's United? Did Bournemouth get it right by using pace on the counter and keeping things very narrow, ceding the flanks to United?

Rob: Yes exactly, and the hipsters who went a big rubbery one over Spain now say United are boring. I know there are differences – Spain won 1-0, United draw 0-0 – but I still think there’s a contradiction there.

From what I’ve seen, definitely. United, particularly when Morgan Schneiderlin doesn’t play, can be harassed in midfield. They have a number of players who are very slow, both on the ball and over 10 yards, none more so than Rooney. United’s legend was built on wingplay but these days their wide players come inside as often as not, so you are pretty safe leaving space on the wings. The big thing is to make the sure the eye of the needle is closed, and also don’t play too high against Martial. I would definitely sit deep against United, home or away.

Dan: Gawd, it's so depressing about Rooney. He was so good for a three- or four-year period. Unlike with Michael Owen, whose decline could be blamed on serious injuries, you can't say the same for Rooney. I swear he used to be quick on the ball and quick in the mind, and his passing used to be incisive, but maybe it was all a dream. Don't get me wrong, I don't think he's as bad as plenty of United and neutral fans appear to think, but he wouldn't look out of place at a mid-table Premier League side. What on earth happened to him?

Anyway, let's wrap this up with a couple of questions...

Your favourite Norwich v United match, and your score prediction for Saturday?

Rob: There are so many reasons, but the most important are the miles on the clock – Rooney’s 30, but in real terms he’s nearer 35 – and his inability to look after himself properly. He is completely finished, sad to say.

Anyway, my favourite Norwich game is definitely the 3-1 in 1992-93. It sums up everything that was great about Fergie’s first great United side, and catalysed the best of all his title wins. And prediction for Saturday: 1-0 United.

Dan: Well, we’d happily have Rooney at Norwich. But then we’d also happily have Denis Law up-front now, so it’s not saying a lot.

I’m going for a 1-1 draw, and we’ll all leave mildly disappointed.

Rob Smyth is a freelance sportswriter and author, whose books include Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team, The Spirit of Cricket and Gentleman and Sledgers: A History of the Ashes in 100 Quotations. He is currently writing I’ll See You Out There – the story of the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal. You can follow him on Twitter at @robsmyth0