The 1996-97 season kicked off with English football still basking in the hazy afterglow of Euro ‘96. The recommencing of domestic hostilities saw Manchester United, double-winning champions of the previous season, pick up where they had left off in May.
A 4-0 Charity Shield thrashing of Newcastle, the team considered their only serious title rivals (who had just broken the world transfer record on England hot-shot Alan Shearer) seemed to point to a trouble free retention of their crown. An opening day hammering of Wimbledon on the opening day – complete with THAT Beckham 50-yard lob – marked the start of an unbeaten run which showed little sign of abating.Then came the wobble. The first league encounter between the Red Devils and the Magpies, on October 20th, saw a Shearer-inspired Newcastle exact an expected revenge with a 5-0 battering of the champions. Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan, a season on from his “love it” rant at Sir Alex Ferguson, was ecstatic, declaring confidently: “it’ll be a long time before someone puts five past them again.” With lowly Southampton the opponents, the stage was set for a Manchester United backlash at the The Dell the following week.
Southampton however, had established themselves as something of a bogey side for the Old Trafford giants. They had defeated Ferguson’s men 3-1 in the previous season’s fixture, a result famously blamed on United’s grey away kit, which the Govan-born boss had claimed made it hard for his players to see each other on the field of play. Graeme Souness’ Saints were having a strange season themselves. Souness had taken a few gambles in the transfer market since replacing Dave Merrington in the hot seat at the start of the 1996-97 campaign. Little-known Israeli playmaker Eyal Berkovic arrived on loan from Maccabi Haifa, while October saw the £800,000 capture of Norwegian striker Egil Ostendstad. The two would combine on this day to tear the champions apart.Manchester United arrived at The Dell in an apparently far more visible blue and white striped number – these were the days when they seemingly had a new away strip every week – and made four changes from the team humiliated by Newcastle the previous week. Keane and Scholes returned in place of Ronny Johnsen and Karel Poborsky. The unavailability of Denis Irwin meant that Phil Neville came in at left back, and Jordi Cruyff was preferred to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to partner Eric Cantona in attack.
With a near-capacity crowd of 15,253 at the small but intimidating Dell roaring them on, Southampton attacked their illustrious opponents from the kick off, and were rewarded after just six minutes with the opening goal. A delightful back-heel from Berkovic found Ostenstad, and the Norwegian’s shot was parried by Schmeichel into the path of the little Israeli, who made no mistake from close range. The game’s turning point arrived in the 20th minute, when Roy Keane, booked for dissent in the wake of Southampton’s opener, was dismissed when a lunge on Claus Lundekvam earned him his second yellow card of the afternoon. Freedom from the United captain’s attentions allowed Matt Le Tissier’s sporadic genius the chance to come to the foreground, and on 35 minutes the Saints legend provided another moment for his own personal highlight reel, twisting past two defenders before delivering an exquisite chip, without even looking up, which looped over Schmeichel to send the South coast locals into delirium.
Just five minutes later in this breathless first half, the crowd was treated to the best and worst of the young David Beckham. A trademark free kick fired the Mancunians back into contention, but Beckham’s celebration, hitching up his shorts and baring his backside to the home fans, showed an immaturity which grimly foreshadowed his costly petulance at France ‘98. First half injury time saw Southampton redouble their lead, Ostenstad bungling his way past David May with far too much ease before making it three with a cool finish from a tight angle.
Manchester United emerged for the second-half looking like a team who meant business, having doubtless been subjected to a blast of the hairdryer at half-time. A rare May goal early on made it 3-2, and the hosts then managed to keep the increasingly dangerous champions at bay to set up a frankly insane final ten minutes. It was then that Berkovic met a half-cleared corner with an astonishing volley, struck with the outside of his right boot, which fairly rocketed past Schmeichel. The Dane had no chance with this one. The Red Devil’s defence went completely into meltdown next when Ostenstad, in the 85th minute, was given the freedom of The Dell to latch onto Berkovic’s through ball for goal number five. There was still time for Paul Scholes to grab a consolation before Ostenstad finished United off, completing his hat-trick with a shot that went in off Phil Neville. The dubious goals panel later credited the unfortunate Neville with the goal, but one suspects the Norwegian, with the match ball safely tucked away in his living room, was not overly concerned.
So what caused the seemingly invincible double winners to concede 11 goals in two weeks? It was probably the result of too many of their starts not performing. It’s safe to say that Schmeichel, Cantona and Gary Neville have all had better games than the one at the Dell. The presence of the name “May” in the United back four offers an indicator of the team’s defensive frailties at the time. The loss of Keane early in the game was another blow, and his departure saw the confidence visibly drain from the Red Devils. For all their dominance during the 1990s, without Keane and Ryan Giggs, who missed this game through injury, United simply were not the same team. Southampton, for their part, were magnificent on the day. Eyal Berkovic was a player who could drift in and out of games but for this writer, the Israeli was one of the most underrated flair players in Premier League history. On this day he was simply unplayable. Ostenstad might have scored a hat trick, but Berkovic, the man of the match by some distance, was involved in five of Southampton’s six goals that day.
Ultimately, the result had little bearing on the teams’ respective fortunes. Manchester United would go on to retain their Premier League crown that season while Southampton headed for their annual dice with the drop, only avoiding relegation on the final day. This nine-goal thriller however, was one of those marvellous anomalies that the Premier League sometimes throws up. Watching this game, you would have had genuinely no idea which team were the reigning champions. In a league which many have accused of being too predictable, this destruction derby at The Dell kept you constantly guessing.
Southampton 6-3 Manchester United :
Southampton: Berkovic 6, 83, Le Tissier 35, Ostendstad 45, 85, 90
Manchester United: Beckham 42, May 56, Scholes 89.