Moments transcend everything in sport and none more so than in football especially the good ones. Welcome to 'Throwback Thursday', where we take a look at a moment in time, and this week, we look at the 1998/99 Premier League season and a game that Manchester United fans won’t forget.
It’s the 29th of September 2001 and we’re seven, or eight, games into the 2001/02 season which means that this shouldn’t be anything special. Just another routine game taking place at White Hart Lane between Manchester United and Tottenham, expect this one is anything but. You can hear the buzz of something as the clock ticks down and we’re into the 86th minute of this game. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has the ball at his feet, is staring down a defender with Andy Cole and Rudd van Nistlerooy making runs into the box.
White Hart Lane is buzzing because of what has happened in this game and as United try to run down the clock, the commandments state that Solskjaer should run to the corner flag. There he should try to waste as much time as possible or he should stop, turn back and pass the ball. And yet, he doesn’t do that with him starring down Mauricio Taricco. The Spurs man has done decently all night but a quick change in direction from Solskjaer sees him beat the defender and down the wing he runs.
Both Cole and Nistlerooy have made great runs through the middle with the Dutchman the best possible option for the cross across the box. Tottenham did have three defenders, four if you count a retreating Taricco, to help them out so they didn’t look too concerned. But given the football that United were playing which meant that they diligently tracked both runs, leaving the Norwegian with no option but to thump the ball across goal. The crowd waits in anticipation and the buzz dissipates to give way to a pin drop silence.
Time has now slowed down as the ball flies through the air but before we dive into the climax and reach the end, let’s roll it back and figure out how we got here in the first place. Because as luck would have it, this wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen especially to Manchester United. Here they are the reigning Champions of England and yet somehow, they were struggling to beat Tottenham. But this was a Manchester United in trouble as they had lost Jaap Stam to Lazio in the summer window and thus had walked into White Hart Lane having conceded ten goals in their opening six games.
Not good, right? Especially when you consider that Blackburn Rovers and Fulham put four past them, Newcastle United did the same in one game and beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, which meant that as starts to a new campaign go, it wasn’t the greatest for the Red Devils. They would start the game against Tottenham with one clean sheet in their opening six games which came as a shock to many especially as the club ended their 2000/01 season with four clean sheets in their final six games.
But that was the impact Stam had on their back-line with Laurent Blanc, his replacement, still figuring out his feet after a move from Inter Milan. Either way, it meant that Tottenham fancied themselves against the struggling United back-line especially with Teddy Sheringham in their lineup. The former Red Devil signed for Spurs on a free-transfer alongside Sol Campbell’s replacement Dean Richards and a few other men.
It gave Glenn Hoddle and his side a chance to improve on their 12th place finish the year before although their start to the campaign wasn’t all that great. While United conceded 10 goals in six games, they had lost only one to Newcastle United but Tottenham had lost three in the lead up to the clash against Sir Alex and his boys. That included losses to Chelsea and Liverpool while both Aston Villa and Everton held them to draws although Richards’ arrival meant that he would make his debut against the Red Devils.
He’s the man they hoped would replace former club captain Sol Campbell after the Englishman’s audacious move to Arsenal that summer on a free-transfer. That alone stunned and shocked many within Tottenham’s ranks which further amped the pressure on Richards especially when handed his first real test as a man in Lillywhite. However, what they had on their side was history against Manchester United and especially at White Hart Lane.
Somehow, the ground in the build-up to the game had seen the Red Devils struggle to win with them winless in their last four games. That includes three losses and one draw with Spurs even beating United 3-1 on three separate occasions in both the league and the League Cup. Not good news for fans of the men in red especially with them losing to Deportivo La Coruna in the mid-week Champions League game.
It saw Sir Alex Ferguson opt to switch things around in order to rattle the squad with Ryan Giggs rested and Nicky Butt brought in to replace the suspended Roy Keane. Barring that, it was a full-strength side from Fergie with Spurs boss Glenn Hoddle doing the same. But United helped their cause by starting the game very well testing Spurs keeper Neil Sullivan on a few occasions inside the opening ten minutes.
But that was more or less it from them as Tottenham, and not the reigning Champions, dominated the game as a tenacious midfield proved to be a tough nut to break. That saw them open the scoring via debutant Dean Richards who marked his first appearance with a near post header. United’s defense problems would continue although the game, as it would seem, was far from over.
Ten minutes later and Tottenham had doubled their lead after an impressive move via Les Ferdinand after he turned Laurent Blanc, and suddenly Spurs were on the brink of a famous win. Not only that, United were stunned by the North Londoners’ physical and dominant presence on the field which forced Nicky Butt to be subbed off with an injury. Fergie’s response was to throw on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer five minutes before time and yet that wouldn’t prove to help them as the Red Devils conceded the third before half-time.
Which meant that as the teams walked into the break, White Hart Lane was elated and who could blame them? Here they were, up three-nothing to the Premier League champions and there seemed to be no end to the number of goals they could score. And yet, something changed during that half-time break because Manchester United walked out of the tunnel a different animal. Ferguson even threw on Mikael Silvestre to add a little pace and speed down the left-hand side with Denis Irwin replaced, and it worked wonders.
It gave them a better balance across the field and worked from the minute go with David Beckham setting Gary Neville free down the right and the full-back picked out Andy Cole perfectly. The striker fired the cross into the bottom corner and shocked White Hart Lane by scoring a mere minute into the second half but the best was yet to come as United kept causing problems.
The visitors had Tottenham pinned into their box as they laid a siege on Neil Sullivan’s goal. It would eventually see the second goal fly in, ten minutes later, via a-typical and yet majestic David Beckham corner. He planted the first one onto Blanc’s head only for Dean Richards to clear the ball for another corner and this time neither man, bar Richards, made a mistake. That was that though, for quite a bit as Spurs put up a decent defensive performance to help keep what was now a one-goal lead.
Yet, relentless as they were, the Red Devils kept attacking, kept winning 50/50s and more importantly kept Spurs pinned inside their own half. It saw Ronny Johnsen fire wide from a corner from one of the best chances of the game. But somehow, United kept pushing, kept pressing and kept forcing Tottenham into making mistakes as Solskjaer won the ball back in midfield with twenty minutes left. Three passes later and Rudd van Nistlerooy did what Rudd van Nistlerooy loves doing; scoring goals.
Somehow, against all odds, United were back in the game. Tottenham had given up a three-goal lead and under half an hour, the Red Devils were back in the game. But was it over, you ask? No, it most definitely wasn’t because this was the same Manchester United, bar with a few changes, that won a treble in Fergie time. Which meant that not even four minutes later and Juan Sebastien Veron had the ball in the net after a vicious shot across Sullivan’s goal.
Sir Alex Ferguson, after spending 71 minutes grumpy, was smiling and the away end of White Hart Lane was rocking in their seats. A sensational comeback and yet, the game was far from over because United had a lesson to teach. They kept playing, they pushing and then five minutes from time, Solskjaer has the ball 40 yards from goal and is starring down Mauricio Taricco. The full-back tries to nick the ball, the forward beats him for pace and now has two to aim at.
Spurs, in the seconds since, have recovered with four men inside the box to cover the two in Red despite both Cole and Nistlerooy making great runs. Tottenham did have three defenders, four if you count a retreating Taricco, to help them out so they didn’t look too concerned. But given the football that United were playing which meant that they diligently tracked both runs, leaving the Norwegian with no option but to thump the ball across goal.
But instead, the Norwegian has a look-up, a look around and then gently crosses the ball into the box, hoping for the best. The crowd waits in anticipation although many within already have an inkling of what is about to happen.
Welcome to a moment in Premier League history!!