As a football fan, there are some matches you want forget about as soon as the final whistle goes; a scrappy win or a defeat of any sort the most obvious source of such desired amnesia. At the other extreme end are matches that will forever be etched in your memory due to the incredible turn of events that ensued. One such game was a visit to Tottenham by Man United early in the 2001-2002 season.
The date was 29th September 2001, the venue White Hart Lane, North London. Manchester United came into the match on the back of a poor away record that season, having registered no points on the board on their travels. Journeys to this part of London brought no joy for United having lost in each of their three previous visits to Spurs by the same 3-1 scoreline. As soon as the game got underway, a repeat of that scoreline seemed highly likely as Spurs sprinted off the blocks to establish a healthy lead over United.
Dean Richards opened the scoring after escaping the attentions of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, heading in a corner from the left boot of Christian Ziege at the near post. Soon Spurs were two up, a flowing move saw Les Ferdinand through one on one after a neat through ball by Uruguayan Gus Poyet. Ferdinand composed himself before firing in a crisp low shot past United keeper Fabien Barthez.
United were forced into a tactical change before halftime after Nicky Butt went off injured following a challenge by Mauricio Taricco. In came Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who played upfront with Van Nistelrooy and Andy Cole, with Beckham, Scholes and Veron completing the midfield three.
Just before the interval, Tottenham took advantage of the change in system by United, Christian Ziege scoring past the hapless Barthez to send the home fans into a frenzy. Steffen Freund fed Poyet down the right and his deep cross was met by the unmarked Ziege at the far post with a diving header.
Going into the break, United seemed dead and buried. Surely, there was no way out this hole. What Sir Alex said to his players only they will know but whatever he said transformed United. Less than a minute into the second half the fightback began as Beckham slipped the ball outside to an onrushing Neville and the right-back’s cross was headed in by Cole. Given United’s history of comebacks, the home fans must have feared for the worst when that first goal went in. Their worst fears would soon be confirmed.
Just before the hour mark Laurent Blanc rose to nod in a corner from Beckham and the sense of expectation from the away end was palpable. In the previous away match, United came from 3-1 at Newcastle to draw level at 3-3 before Newcastle scored the fourth and winning goal. There was no stopping the red juggernaut this time though and with 18 minutes to go, Silvestre’s centre found the obliging head of Ruud van Nistelrooy, completing a hatrick of headed goals by United and drawing level with Spurs.
There was going to be only one winner from that point, and four minutes later Paul Scholes and Solskjaer combined to send in man-of-the-match Veron for a low left footed finish and with three left Solskjaer dragged the ball across for Beckham to drive in the fifth.
The comeback kings had done it again. It would seem ridiculous to back a team for a comeback from three goals down but this was no ordinary team. The failure to accept anything but a win spurred United from the jaws of defeat to complete one of the greatest comebacks in premier league history. Years down the line, Sir Alex nominated this match as one of his all time favourites at the club and rightly so. United went on finish the season in third place in one of the few seasons to forget in the Fergie era. For those who witnessed this spectacle though, the memories won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Tottenham – Sullivan, Taricco, King, Perry, Richards, Ziege, Freund, Anderton (Rebrov 83), Poyet, Ferdinand, Sheringham – GOALS Richards 15, Ferdinand 25, Ziege 45.
Manchester United – Barthez, G. Neville, Blanc, Johnsen, Irwin (Silvestre 45), Beckham, Butt (Solskjaer 40), Scholes, Veron, Cole, van Nistelrooy – GOALS Cole 46, Blanc 58, van Nistelrooy 72, Veron 76, Beckham 87.