A brilliant night for Stoke City could have been the downfall of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson – or at least he feared, perhaps with a bit of tongue in cheek.
Mark Stein-inspired Stoke, then in the second tier, beat Man Utd 2-1 in a thumping League Cup tie at the Victoria Ground back in 1993.
Ferguson’s side – complete with Mark Hughes, Roy Keane and Ryan Giggs – squeezed through in the second leg at Old Trafford, but the legendary boss was just pleased to keep a lid on what had happened in the first.
He had not just been outdone by his old pal Lou Macari – he had been out manoeuvred by the big clown-turned-kit man at Macari’s side.
It was Neil ‘Nello’ Baldwin who delivered the team talk – and Ferguson remembered as much when he watched the BBC’s Baldwin biopic, Marvellous, which he told Macari was ‘the best football film’ he had ever seen.
Macari has related the episode to Duck magazine, which is being delivered free in digital format to keep Stoke fans occupied and entertained during the UK lockdown. Editor Ant Bunn is planning to send copies out every three days or so if you send him your contact address.
It is a 5,000-word interview with Macari, who said: “(That cup tie against Man Utd) was absolutely my best night at Stoke. A cup tie against my old club. The Vic was heaving. Both clubs had just won league titles and were on highs. The best football manager in the world was sat in the next dugout to me.
“When I saw the teamsheet, I doubted our chances. Schmeichel the great Dane in goals, Bruce and Pallister at the back, Ince in midfield, Hughes up front… a tough team, and I knew it would be a battle but we did it and the place was rocking.
“I remember it got to about 88 minutes and we were 2-1 up, nearly there.
“I was thinking, ‘We are gonna do this now, just blow the bloody whistle ref, please!’
“But at the same time, I was mindful about Nello in the dugout behind me.
“As the world now knows, Neil Baldwin loves introducing himself to a celebrity and Fergie was a big one, so I was concerned that after the final whistle, he would jump all over Fergie, who would not be in the mood for it after a defeat – that man hated losing.
“You have to think ahead as a manger, so I was planning to keep my eye on him.
“But the whistle went and we were all celebrating, hugging. I went to shake Fergie’s hand and forgot about Nello.
“A minute later, to my horror, I saw him all over Fergie!
“Later on, I invited him into my office for a cup of tea and a sandwich. He burst in and asked ‘Who the f*****g hell was that big fella giving me grief on the track out there?’
“Apparently Nello had grabbed him and shouted, ‘Welcome to Stoke, Alex!’
“I explained Neil’s story and he begged me not to tell the press or word would get out that a circus clown had defeated him!
“He thought the whole thing was ridiculous, but he was laughing he even more when I told him that Nello had given the team talk before the game! He told me to “f*** off”, with a smile on his face!
“It was true – Nello said to the lads, ‘Just go out there and win.’
“And it worked.
“Fergie was dreading the headlines had it all got out!
“A while back I bumped into Sir Alex in the States. We were watching a United friendly. He saw me at one end of the restaurant I was in.
“He was heading for me at a good pace – and normally when Fergie targets you like that it means you are in big trouble, hide or get ready for the hairdryer!
“He ran over and just said, ‘Bloody brilliant, Lou! My wife made me watch it and I did – I’ve never seen a better football film in my life!’
“I soon told Nello what he’d said and it was the best compliment he’d ever received.”