Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United famously fought back from 3-0 down to claim a stunning 5-3 Premier League victory against Glenn Hoddle’s Tottenham in September 2001
Manchester United travel to Tottenham on Saturday in what could be manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s final game in charge.
The Red Devils’ boss is under huge pressure to get a result in North London, something his predecessor Sir Alex Ferguson handled with ease.
Today, United are a shadow of their former selves. Solskjaer’s side are approaching five years without a trophy and haven’t lifted the Premier League since 2013.
They suffered a humiliating 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool last weekend, almost exactly a year after being trounced 6-1 by Spurs at Old Trafford.
United have plenty of superstars – such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba – but lack balance, cohesion, substance and the relentlessness needed to be champions.
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Solskjaer’s lack of success, tactical nous and weakness against the Premier League’s so-called “Big Six” means he’s likely to leave United sooner rather than later. It’s a desperate situation at Old Trafford.
Twenty years ago, though, United were the best team in England – and certainly didn’t fear the likes of Tottenham.
Under Ferguson, they had just won three consecutive Premier League titles and only Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal were capable of laying a glove on them.
The Scot’s squad included Paul Scholes, Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Andy Cole and even current United boss Solskjaer. It was as illustrious as they come.
In comparison, Tottenham were decent but not spectacular. Their squad boasted the likes of Les Ferdinand, Gus Poyet, Tim Sherwood and former United star Teddy Sheringham.
Under the management of club legend Glenn Hoddle, Spurs weren’t going to be winning the title any time soon but could pull off the odd shock – and nearly did in September 2001.
United travelled to White Hart Lane in decent form, losing just one of their first six Premier League games, and were expected to keep their good run going.
But they made a shocking start to the game when Tottenham defender Dean Richards scored a header on his debut to give the hosts a 15th-minute lead.
Ten minutes later, Ferdinand found himself in acres of space near Fabien Barthez’s goal and comfortably slotted the ball into the back of the net.
United were all over the place by this point and, not too dissimilar to what recently happened against Liverpool, they were 3-0 down before half-time.
Just before the whistle, Poyet delivered a cross for an unmarked Christian Ziege to head beyond Barthez. The visitors had capitulated.
Ferguson, however, wasn’t giving up without a fight. He knew he had 15 minutes to knock some sense into his squad and encourage them to play to their potential.
Cole recalled in 2019: “We came in at half-time and I remember the manager not saying a word for 15 minutes.
“Then, once the bell went, he said, ‘Okay, you’d better go out there and win the game.'”
But there was more to Ferguson’s charm than motivating his team. The Scot also loved getting under his opponents’ skin, making them feel the pressure.
Ferguson remembered in his autobiography: “Teddy was the Tottenham captain and, as the teams emerged back into the corridor, I saw Teddy stop and say, ‘Now, don’t let them get an early goal.'” The rest, as they say, is history.
United pulled a goal back just seconds after the restart. Gary Neville produced one of his trademark overlapping crosses for a diving Cole to reduce the deficit with his head.
Defender Laurent Blanc then scored his first Red Devils goal shortly before the hour mark and, at that stage, another classic Fergie comeback seemed inevitable.
United kept the pressure on the hosts and got their reward when Van Nistelrooy levelled the game. Tottenham’s lead had disappeared inside 27 minutes.
And they got their fourth goal less than 240 seconds later when Argentine midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron hammered his shot past Spurs’ stopper Neil Sullivan.
Manchester United via Getty Images)
Ferguson added: “You could see Spurs deflate while we puffed ourselves up… just incredible.”
United then finished the occasion three minutes from time. After some good work down the left, Solskjaer found Beckham in the middle and he clinically slotted the ball home.
Even by Ferguson’s standards this was a remarkable comeback. Cole added: “It’s one of my favourite games.
“People remember me for the goal in [the Premier League decider vs Spurs in] 1999 but the 5-3 was fantastic, to come back from 3-0 down.”
The press were in shock at full-time and were desperate to know the manager’s secret, yet he refused to give anything away.
Ferguson told reporters: “I’m not saying exactly what I said to them at half-time. Why am I always asked that?”
One person who knew exactly what the Scot said is Solskjaer – but he couldn’t generate the same response from his players against Liverpool last weekend.
As Ferguson watched United concede their fifth – just moments after the break – he must have been wondering what his ex-striker said to United’s current crop.
Perhaps only the really great managers can get a response like Ferguson used to, planting a deep-rooted, never say die attitude inside his most trusted lieutenants.
Very rarely did his team ever lose by five goals – and when they did, they rallied. When United conceded five against Newcastle in October 1996, they went on to win the title.
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The same happened three years later when they were trounced by Chelsea and it nearly happened after Manchester City won 6-1 at Old Trafford in October 2011.
Although the writing seems to be on the wall for Solskjaer, it’s not too late. His team needs to start showing some fight and togetherness, though, or else it will be.
Victory against Tottenham on Saturday would be the first, very small step in rebuilding trust. Defeat – and it’ll probably be the end for Ole and his wheel.
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