This feature is part of Virtuoso
The birth of the Premier League acted as a new beginning for Manchester United as Alex Ferguson’s fledgelings finally come of age, setting about crafting an era of domination that would rival and eventually surpass their rivals from down the East Lancs Road. The Old Trafford club won four titles in five years, the one anomaly coming in the 1994/95 season when, powered by the millions of local steel magnate Jack Walker, unfancied Blackburn Rovers prised the trophy away from Manchester for 12 months.
The goals of Andy Cole couldn’t put any daylight between the two sides, while his side were also not helped by the incident in January where fellow forward Eric Cantona kung-fu kicked an abusive fan at Selhurst Park and was subsequently banned for eight months. Blackburn themselves had plenty of firepower in their ranks with Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton forming a formidable partnership at Ewood Park; one of many deadly duos who have graced the Premier League.
With the title race coming down to the final game of the season it would be neither Cole, Shearer or Sutton who would prove the determining factor in who would take the trophy home. It would be a goalkeeper whose name is still sung by West Ham fans some 20 years on, who arrived at the Boleyn Ground as a virtual unknown five years earlier.
Luděk Mikloško was born in Prostejov, part of former Czechoslovakia, in 1961. A former locksmith, he began his career with RH Cheb before joining reigning Czech champions Banik Ostrava in 1982. It was the same year he made his international debut. Following eight years without a medal for Banicek and over 200 appearances, he caught the attention of West Ham who were looking to replace club legend Phil Parkes.
In the pre-internet days, players arriving from foreign shores often had an air of mystery surrounding them. The only time Mikloško had played on British soil was during an international with Wales in 1987 and he had a less than auspicious start with his new club, spilling the ball on his debut at Swindon. The six foot three inch glove-man soon put that behind him and formed part of a promotion winning side as the Hammers secured a runner-up spot to Newcastle United at the end of the 1992/93 season.
Standing in the way of Blackburn’s first title was the small matter of a trip to Anfield on the final day. The Red Devils needed to better their result against a West Ham side who were setting off for a two-week tour of Australia the following morning. Training was minimal that week, however Hammers stalwarts Martin Allen and Julian Dicks noticed that it was business as usual for Mikloško. Whilst there didn’t seem to be much riding on the game for the players, there was another opportunity for the home fans to direct some vitriol at former Hammers star Paul Ince.
The boos reverberated around the old stadium as Ince took his customary place at the back of the starting XI when they exited the tunnel. This was nothing new for the self-styled Guv’nor who had caused uproar after being pictured in a United shirt before the transfer had been made official.
Manchester United’s reputation was beginning to proceed them. They were developing a winning pedigree and had a huge target on their backs. The early exchanges were fairly nondescript, United pushed and probed, West Ham chased and harried, Matt Holmes slammed a curling left-footed volley against the bar for the hosts as the game sprung into life.
Sensing blood, the Hammers spread the ball wide to Holmes who sent a cross into the box where Michael Hughes met it on the volley to put West Ham 1-0 up on 31 minutes. United looked for a way back, a deflected Cole shot striking Mikloško’s post as the Hammers went into the break ahead. At Anfield, Shearer had given Blackburn the lead and United had it all.
Mikloško was called into action early in the second period, convincingly clawing away a Lee Sharpe header. The Czech goalkeeper was a mere bystander for the next chance however, a Gary Neville free-kick met the head of an unmarked Brian McClair who made no mistake from eight yards out. Mikloško was quick out of his goal to berate his defence. The game was now level and Liverpool were minutes away from equalising at Anfield.
It was all United now. The reigning champions saw McClair blaze over with the goal begging and Denis Irwin bent a free-kick over the bar. Sharpe was evading markers by switching wings, and his cross flicked on by Gary Pallister. Mark Hughes strained every sinew in his neck muscles to send a header back across Mikloško’s goal. The man known as Ludo stretched to save again.
Ferguson sent on Paul Scholes as he nervously checked his watch. The impact was almost instant. Scholes played in Cole but again Mikloško was there, rushing out to block the ball. Ever desperate, United launched balls forward. West Ham were equal to it all and Mikloško used his giant frame time and again to block and narrow angles. Inspired by this, his defence launched themselves in front of shots as they were pinned inside their 18-yard box. Meanwhile, Jamie Redknapp thundered in a 90th-minute winner for Liverpool at Anfield. For United, time had run out. Referee Alan Wilkie blew for full-time and the title headed to Blackburn.
A team supposedly with nothing to play for rose to the challenge that day. With every save from Mikloško, the defence grew in confidence and pride in avoiding defeat at all costs. The 1994/95 season was a temporary blip for Manchester United, using the disappointment to help them achieve the domestic double the following season.
Mikloško was West Ham custodian for a further three seasons, making 318 appearances, before ending his career with Queens Park Rangers. He returned in a coaching capacity for a short time before setting himself up as a representative for young players back in his native country. His efforts on that day, and every day thereafter, ensured he will forever be classed as a legend for the east London club.
By Matthew Evans @Matt_The_Met
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp