Milestones on United's road to the brink
Sunday 04 May 1997
When Philippe Albert's lob into the Leazes End goal made it five past Schmeichel it was time for Newcastle and the nation to revel in the schadenfreude of the champions' downfall. It was Manchester United's heaviest defeat for 16 years and their first in a League match against Newcastle for nine years. The balance of Premiership power had shifted from Old Trafford to St James' Park. Or so it seemed. It was Newcastle's seventh successive league win and it put them three points clear of Arsenal. But they won just one of their next nine Premiership fixtures before Kevin Keegan first tendered his resignation, in the wake of a Boxing Day defeat at Blackburn. It was Alex Ferguson's most comprehensive defeat in 22 years of management. "Just another blip in the long history of Manchester United," he said as he left the St James' Park press room.
16 Nov: Man Utd 1 Arsenal 0
FERGUSON and his players found a way out of their predicament, with a little help from their friends - and their rivals. Ferguson pointed to the Old Trafford crowd as the key to what proved to be a pivotal result. "Sometimes you forget how young this side is," he said. "They would rather have encouragement than criticism and that was shown today. When you have 55,000 here cheering you on it makes all the difference." It was, however, a David Seaman blunder which handed United their victory. His fluffed clearance led to Nigel Winterburn bundling the ball into the Arsenal net. Minds were concentrated on Europe at the time - Juventus visited Old Trafford four days later - but it was a turning point on the home front. Seaman and Winterburn unwittingly launched Ferguson's side on an unbeaten run of 16 Premiership matches, 11 of which were victories.
26 Oct: Southampton 6 Man Utd 3
A FIVE-GOAL blip may have seemed simply a misfortune but a six- goal one, six days later, looked like carelessness. Alex Ferguson gave a wide berth to the Dell's press room as he beat a hasty retreat. His team, reduced to 10 men following Roy Keane's dismissal midway through the first-half, were torn to shreds by the craft of Eyal Berkovitch and the killer instinct of Egil Ostenstad. The anoraks were forced to reach beyond even the dog-eared Rothmans to find the last time United suffered two such League results in successive. It dated back to December 1963, in fact, to the two games which preceded George Best's debut: a 4-0 loss at Everton and a 6-1 defeat at Burnley. Andy Mitten, editor of the fanzine United We Stand, summed up the mood. "For once," he said, "I can empathise with friends who support Manchester City."
12 April: Blackburn 2 Man Utd 3
THE result was crucial, having slipped to defeat against Derby at Old Trafford the previous Saturday and having made a habit of domestic hiccups after European nights. United duly followed defeat in the Ruhr Valley with a victory in the Vale of the Ribble. "They were lucky weren't they ?" Tony Parkes, Blackburn's caretaker, said, with irony as heavy as his team's defeat ought to have been. "No," he added. "The scoreline flattered the match... At least we were beaten by the best team in England." With Andy Cole as sharp as he was in his old days, United were incisive from first to last whistle. Ferguson's attacking formation - with Cole alongside Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Eric Cantona and Paul Scholes at the apex of his midfield - proved a masterstroke. Cole scored the opener, set up the second for Scholes and served up the third for Cantona.
2 Nov: Man Utd 1 Chelsea 2
ANOTHER match day, another blip. But this time the nightmare was suffered, against a team listing Hitchcock at the top of their team-sheet, in the Theatre of Dreams. It was, in fact, United's second home defeat in four days and their fourth successive loss. It followed Fenerbahce's midweek win, United's first defeat at Old Trafford in 40 years of European competition. United's lack of penetration was highlighted by Mark Hughes' cut and thrust performance for Chelsea, who became the first visiting team to win at Old Trafford in 36 Premier League fixtures. United dropped to sixth in the table, eight points behind Newcastle. The silence which greeted the final whistle was not golden for Ferguson, five days away from the 10th anniversary of his arrival at Old Trafford. "We'll get out of this. No danger. I know what we've got to do. So do the players," he maintained.
19 April: Liverpool 1 Man Utd 3
STANDING in the press room that was once part of Anfield's celebrated boot room, Alex Ferguson knew his team had put the metaphorical boot into Liverpool's challenge. "It's a massive step for us," he said. "You've got to earn the right to be champions and I think we came to the right place to do that." At the right time, too, he might have added. Ferguson's hungry men devoured a Liverpool team when it came to this Saturday morning title crunch. By lunchtime United could taste the promise of a fourth championship in five seasons. It was not quite handed to them by David James, though the Liverpool goalkeeper gift-wrapped Andy Cole's clincher. He was not the only hesitant member of the home guard when Gary Pallister headed in two first-half corners with a forcefulness which hallmarked United's rollercoaster ride to the brink.
Compiled by Simon Turnbull
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